[Frontispiece: "Cautiously Cynthia stepped close and looked in . . . Sandy was painting at his easel"]
A SON OF THE HILLS
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
JOYCE OF THE NORTH WOODS,
JANET OF THE DUNES, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS : NEW YORK
Copyright, 1913, by
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
A Son of the Hills
Lost Hollow lies close at the foot of the mountain which gives it its name. The height of neither is great, geographically considered; the peak is perhaps eighteen hundred feet above sea level: The Hollow, a thousand, and from that down to The Forge there is a gradual descent by several trails and one road, a very deplorable one, known as The Appointed Way, but abbreviated into—The Way.
There are a few wretched cabins in Lost Hollow, detached and dreary; between The Hollow and The Forge are some farms showing more or less cultivation, and there is the Walden Place, known before the war—they still speak of that event among the southern hills as if Sheridan had ridden through in the morning and might be expected back at night—as the Great House.
Among the crevasses of the mountains there are Blind Tigers, or Speak Easies—as the stills are called—and, although there is little trading done with the whiskey outside the country side, there is much mischief achieved among the natives who have no pleasure of relaxation except such as is evolved from the delirium brought about by intoxication.
The time of this story is not to-day nor is it very many yesterdays ago; it was just before young Sandy Morley had his final "call" and obeyed it; just after the Cup-of-Cold-Water Lady came to Trouble Neck—three miles from The Hollow—and while she was still distrusted and feared.
Away back in the days of the Revolution the people of the hills were of the best. All of them who could serve their country then, did it nobly and well. Some of them signed the Declaration of Independence and then returned to their homes with the dignity and courage of men in whose veins flowed aristocratic blood as well as that of adventurous freemen. There they waited for the recognition they expected and deserved. But the new-born republic was too busy and breathless to seek them out or pause to listen to their voices, which were softer, less insistent than others nearer by. In those far past times the Morleys and the Hertfords were equals and the Walden Place deserved its name of the Great House. The Appointed Way was the Big Road, and was kept in good order by well-fed and contented slaves who had not then dreamed of freedom.
The final acceptance of the hill people's fate came like a deadening shock to the men and women of the Lost Mountain district—they were forgotten in the new dispensation; in the readjustment they were overlooked! The Hertfords left the hills with uplifted and indignant heads—they had the courage of their convictions and meant to take what little was left to them and demand recognition elsewhere—they had always been rovers. Besides, just at that time Lansing Hertford and Sandford Morley, sworn friends and close comrades, had had that secret misunderstanding that was only whispered about then, and it made it easier for Hertford to turn his back upon his home lands and leave them to the gradual decay to which they were already doomed. The Waldens had retained enough of this world's goods to enable them to descend the social scale slower than their neighbours. Inch by inch they debated the ground, and it was only after the Civil War that Fate gripped them noticeably. Up to that time they had been able to hide, from the none too discriminating natives, the true state of affairs.
The Morleys and the Tabers, the Townleys and the Moores, once they recognized the true significance of what had happened, made no struggle; uttered no defiance. They slunk farther back into the hills; they shrank from observation and depended more and more upon themselves. They intermarried and reaped the results with sullen indifference. Their hopes and longings sank into voiceless silence. Now and then Inheritance, in one form or another, flared forth, but before it could form itself into expression it was stilled and forbidden, by circumstances, to assert itself.
Sad, depressed Lost Hollow! Over it loomed darkly the mountain whose peak was so often shrouded in clouds. The people loved the hills and the shadows; they glided like wan ghosts up and down The Way or took to the more sheltered trails. When they were sober they were gentle, harmless folk, but when whiskey overpowered them the men became dully brutal, the women wretchedly slavish, and the children what one might expect such sad little creatures to become! Lacking in intellect, misshapen and timid, they rustled among the underbrush like frightened animals; peered forth like uncanny gnomes, and ate and slept how and as they could.
After the Civil War these people became "poor whites" and were ground between the nether millstone of their more prosperous neighbours and that of the blacks, until they sank to the lowest level. Their voices were hushed and forgotten; their former estate blotted out in their present degradation, and just then Sandy Morley and Cynthia Walden were born and some high and just God seemed to strengthen their childish voices; vouchsafe to them a vision and give their Inheritance charge over them.
Marriage form was not largely in vogue among the Lost Hollow people; it was too expensive and unnecessary. The rector of the small church at The Forge looked upon the hill people as altogether beyond and below the need of any attention of his, and was genuinely surprised and annoyed when one of them called upon him for service. He had not come to The Forge from an ardour to save souls; he had been placed there because he had not been wanted elsewhere, and he was rebellious and bitter. Occasionally he was summoned to the mountain fastnesses for a burial or wedding, but he showed his disapproval of such interferences with his dignified rights, and was not imposed upon often. But Martin Morley, Sandy's father, had married Sandy's mother. She was a Forge girl who believed in Martin and loved him, so he took her boldly to the parsonage, paid for the service the rector performed, and went his way.
There was one happy year following in the Morley cabin under Lost Mountain. Martin worked as he never had before; the hut was mended without and made homelike within. The little wife sang at her tasks and inspired Martin to a degree of fervour that brought him to the conclusion that he must get away! Get away from the poverty and squalor of The Hollow; get away farther than The Forge—far, far away!
"After the baby comes!" the little wife whispered, "we'll take it to a better, sunnier place and—give it a chance!"
The baby came on a bad, stormy night. Sandford Morley they called him. The Forge doctor, travelling up The Way, stopped at the Morley cabin for a bite of supper and found how things were. Sally Taber was in command, and Martin, frightened and awed, crouched by the chimney corner in the living-room, while his girl-wife (she was much younger than he) made her desperate fight.
"There's only a broken head or two up at Teale's Blind Tiger," the doctor said grimly; "they can wait, I reckon, while I steer this youngster into port." The doctor had come from the coast on account of his lungs and his speech still held the flavour of the sea.
Sandy Morley made a difficult mooring with more vigour and determination than one would have expected, but the cost was great. All night the battle waged. The doctor, with coat off and haggard face, fought with the little mother inch by inch, but at sunrise, just two hours after Sandy lustily announced his arrival, she let go the hand of her husband who knelt by her hard, narrow bed, and whispered in the dialect of her hills, "Youcum!"—which meant that Morley must come to her some where, some how, some time, for she no longer could bide with him.
After that Martin stayed on in the cabin with the baby. One woman after another lent her aid in an hour of need, but on the whole Sandy and his father made it out together as best they could. The little, clinging fingers held Martin back for a time—the boy had his mother's fine, clear eyes and when he looked at Martin something commanded the man to stand firm. In those days Martin found comfort in religion and became a power at the camp meetings; his prayers were renowned far and near, but the evil clutched him in an unguarded hour and one bleak, dreary springtime he met the Woman Mary and—let go! That was when Sandy was seven. He brought Mary to the cabin and almost shamefacedly explained, to the wondering boy, his act.
"Son, she's come to take care of us—mind your ways, lad."
Sandy gave Mary's handsome smiling face one quick look, then fled down the hill, across the bottom pasture and Branch, up on the farther side to the woods—his sanctury and haven, and there, lifting his eyes and little clenched fists, he moaned over and over:
"Curse her! curse her! I hate her!"
He had never hated before; never cursed, but at that moment he cursed that which he hated.
It was early spring then, and under the tall, dark trees the dogwood bushes were in full bloom. Sandy was touched, always, by beauty, and in his excited state he thought in that desperate hour that the dogwood blossoms were like stars under a stormy cloud. Heaven seemed reaching down to him, and closing him in—his thoughts were tinged by Martin's religious outbursts and the native superstition of the hills. It was then and there that the child first knew he must go away! The call was distinct and compelling—he must go away! And from that hour he made preparation. At first the effort was small and pitiful. He began to gather whatever Nature provided freely, and turn it into money. With shrewd perception he realized he must overcome his deadly shyness and carry his wares farther than The Hollow if he wished to achieve that upon which he was bent. The Hollow people were poor; The Forge people would give food and clothing for berries and sassafras roots; but Sandy demanded money or that which could be exchanged for money, and so he travelled far with his basket of fragrant berries or shining nuts and in time he found himself at the Waldens' back door facing a tall black woman, in turban and kerchief, with the child Cynthia beside her.
"Do you-all want to buy eight quarts of wild strawberries?" he asked in that low fine voice of his.
"Buy?" demanded Lily Ivy scornfully. "Miss Cyn, honey, go fotch Miss Ann and tell her one ob dem Morleys is here axing us-all to buy his berries, and him in shreds and tatters!"
Presently Cynthia returned with her aunt. Miss Walden was then sixty, but she looked seventy-five at least; she was a stern, detached woman who dealt with things individually and as she could—she never sought to comprehend that which was not writ large and clear. She was not a dull nor an ignorant woman, but she had been carried on the sluggish current of life with small effort or resistance. She did her task and made no demands.
"So you're Morley's boy?" she asked curiously; she had still the interest of the great lady for her dependents. The Morleys had become long since "poor whites," but Ann Walden knew their traditions. The family had slunk into hiding ever since Martin had taken the Woman Mary into his cabin, and Miss Walden was surprised and aroused to find one of them coming to the surface at her back door with so unusual a request as Cynthia had repeated.
"Yes, ma'am;" Sandy replied, his strange eyes fixed upon the calm old face.
"And what do you want?"
"I want to sell eight quarts of strawberries, ma'am. They are five cents a quart; that's what they are giving down to The Forge."
"Then why don't you take them to The Forge?"
"The heat, ma'am, will wilt them. They are right fresh now—I thought I'd give you-all the first chance."
"And you want money for the berries—and you in rags and starved, I warrant?"
Ann Walden grew more interested.
"Would you—take eggs for them?" she asked; "eggs are bringing twenty cents a dozen now."
"How do I know you are honest? How do I know the basket isn't stuffed with leaves in the bottom? What's your name?"
"Sandy, ma'am. And please, ma'am, you can measure the berries."
"Ivy, bring the quart measure, and the earthen bowl."
When the implements were brought, Miss Walden took things in her own hands, while Ivy, with the disdain of the old family black servant for the poor white, stood by like an avenging Fate. The child Cynthia was all a-tremble. She was young, lovely, and vital. Youth took up arms for youth, and watched the outcome with jealous and anxious eyes.
"One, two, three——" the rich, fragrant fruit fell into the bowl with luscious, soft thuds; the red juice oozed out like fresh blood.
"Five, six, seven—eight, and——"
"A lot left over, Aunt Ann, counting dents in the measure and all."
It was Cynthia who spoke, and her big, gray eyes were dancing in triumph.
"More'n eight quarts, Aunt Ann."
"Umph!" ejaculated Ivy.
"Give the boy two dozen eggs and three over," commanded Miss Walden. "Take them to Tod Greeley at the post office and tell him they are Walden eggs."
After Sandy had departed Ivy aired her views.
"I reckon we-all better make jam of dem berries right soon. I clar I allers 'spect to find a yaller streak in dem Morleys."
Cynthia was leaning against the kitchen table, her eyes shining and her breath coming a bit quickly.
"Perhaps," she said, with the slow smile which curled the corners of her mouth so deliciously, "perhaps the yellow streak in Sandy Morley is—gold!"
That was the beginning of Sandy's first great inspiration. Again and again he went to the Walden place with his wares and exchanged them for things that could be readily turned into money. Then Cynthia, from out her own generous loveliness, offered to pass over the instruction Ann Walden imparted to her, to the boy; he had before that told her of his ambition and determination to go away, and her vivid imagination was stirred.
"It's not only money," Cynthia had astutely warned him—"not only money you must have, Sandy, but learning; no one can take that away from you!"
With a fine air of the benefactress, Cynthia Walden took Sandy Morley's dense ignorance in charge. It was quite in keeping with the girl's idea of things as they ought to be, that she should thus illumine and guide the boy's path.
She was charmingly firm but delightfully playful. She was a hard mistress but a lovely child, and the youth that was starving in her met Sandy on a level, untouched by conventions or traditions. Presently a palpitating sense of power and possession came to her. The creature who was at first but the recipient of her charity and nobility displayed traits that compelled respect and admiration. Sandy easily outstripped her after a time. His questions put her on her mettle. He never overstepped the bounds that she in her pretty childish fancy set, but he reached across them with pleading adoration and hungry mind. He seemed to urge her to get for him what he could not get for himself. And so, with the freedom of knowledge, Sandy, still keeping to his place, began to assume proportions and importance quite thrilling. Then it was that Cynthia Walden, with keenness and foresight, made her claims upon the boy.
With a pretty show of condescending kindness she clutched him to her with invisible ties. For her he must do thus and so! He must become a great—oh! a very great—man and give her all the credit! If he went away—when he went away—he must never, never, never forget her or what she had done for him! In short, he must be her abject slave and pay homage to her all the days of his life!
Sandy was quite willing to comply with all these demands; they were made in a spirit so sweet and winsome, and they were so obviously simple and just, that he rose to the call with grateful response, but with that strange something in reserve that Cynthia could not then understand or classify. It was as though Sandy had said to her: "Your slave? Yes, but no fetters or chains, thank you!"
Soon after Mary came to live in the Morley cabin Sandy was relegated to an old outhouse for sleeping quarters. The child had been horribly frightened at first, but, as the quarrels and disturbances grew in power between Martin and the woman, he was grateful for the quiet and detachment of his bed-chamber. A child was born to Mary and Martin during the year following the change in the family, but Sandy looked upon his half-sister with little interest. That the boy was not driven entirely from the home place was due to the fact that through him came the only money available. Martin exchanged his spasmodic labour for clothing or food, but Sandy brought cash. Mary thought he gave her all, and because of that he was tolerated.
Sandy did not, however, give the woman all, or even half, of what he earned. He gave her one third; the rest was placed in a tin box and hidden under a rock in the woods beyond the Branch. The boy never counted the money, he could not put himself to that test of discouragement or elation. The time was not yet, and it was significant of him that he plodded along, doing the best that was in him, until the call came; the last final call to leave all and go forth.
Once, during the years between seven and fourteen, Sandy had had an awakening and a warning. Then it was that his half-sister, Molly, became a distinct and potent factor in his life; one with which he must reckon. Going to the rock on a certain evening to bury his share of the day's profit he wearily raised the stone, deposited the money and turned to go home, when he encountered Molly peering at him with elfish and menacing eyes from behind a bush.
"What you doing there, yo' Sandy?" she asked half coaxingly, half threateningly.
"I seen you—a-hiding something. I'm going to look!" She made a movement forward.
"Hyar! you Molly!" Sandy clung to her. "If you raise that stone 'twill be the last of you. I've got a horned toad there and—a poison sarpint."
"Then I'll—I'll tell Dad." Molly shrank back, though not wholly convinced. It was time for compromise, and Sandy, with a sickening fear, recognized it and blindly fell upon the one thing that could have swayed the girl.
"I'm a-training and taming them," he lied desperately, "and when they are ready we-all can make money out of them, but if you tell—Dad will kill 'em! I tell you, Molly, if you don't say a single thing I'll—I'll give you a cent every week. A cent to buy candy with!"
The promise was given, and from that day Sandy paid his blood money, hoping that greed would hold the child to her bargain, but with always a feeling of insecurity. He changed his box to another rock, but a certain uncanniness about Molly gained a power over him and he never felt safe.
Things went rapidly from bad to worse in the Morley cabin. Martin forgot his prayers and ambitions; he grew subservient to Mary and never strove against her, even when her wrath and temper were directed toward him and Sandy. Discredited and disliked by his neighbours, flouted by the woman who had used him for her own gain, the man became a detestable and pitiable creature. Sandy endured the blows and ratings that became his portion, in the family disturbances, with proud silence. He was making ready and until the hour of his departure came he must bear his part.
It was during the probation and preparatory period that Marcia Lowe, the Cup-of-Cold-Water Lady, came up The Way one golden afternoon and stopped her horse before the post office, General Store and County Club of The Hollow, and, leaning out from the ramshackle buggy, gave a rather high, nasal call to whoever might be within.
Tod Greeley, the postmaster, was sitting on his cracker box contemplatively eying the rusty stove enthroned upon its sawdust platform, in the middle of the store. Every man in The Hollow had his own particular chair or box when the circle, known as the County Club, formed for recreation or business. No one presumed to occupy another's place: Tod Greeley's pedestal was a cracker box and its sides were well battered from the blows his heels gave it when emotions ran high or his sentiments differed from his neighbour's. Greeley was not a Hollow man; he had been selected by Providence, as he himself would have said, to perform a service for his country: namely, that of postmaster, storekeeper, and arbiter of things in general. He was a tall, lean man of forty, good looking, indolent, and with some force of character which was mainly evinced by his power of keeping his temper when he was facing a critical situation. While not of The Hollow, he was still with The Hollow on principle.
When Marcia Lowe paused before the store and emitted her call, which flavoured of friendliness and the North, Greeley was vacantly looking into space, hugging his bony knees, and listening to an indignant fly buzzing on the dirty glass of the back window, protesting against any exit being barred to its egress.
It was three o'clock of a late July day and, while the sun was hot, the breeze gave promise of a cool night.
Just at first Greeley thought the fly had adopted a more militant tone.
Greeley pulled himself together, mentally and physically, and stalked to the porch; there he encountered the very frank, smiling face of a rather attractive youngish woman who greeted him cordially with a high-pitched but sweet:
"Good evening, ma'am," Tod returned.
"I just came up from The Forge; your roads are really scandalous, but the scenery is beautiful. I want to see if there is any place near here where I can get board? I've come to stay for a while, anyway; probably for years, at least."
The young person seemed so eager to share her confidence that Greeley was on his guard at once. He did not approve of the stills back among the hills, but he did not feel called upon to assist any government spy in her work, no matter how attractive and subtle the spy was.
It was two years now since a certain consumptive-looking young man had caused the upheaval of a private enterprise back of The Hollow and made so much unpleasantness, but Norman Teale had served his term in prison and had got on his feet once more, and Greeley had a momentary touch of sympathy for the Speak-Easy magnates as he glanced up at this new style of spy.
"Nobody stays on in The Hollow lest he has to," he said cautiously, "and as for boarding-places, there never was such a thing here, I reckon. I certainly don't expect they would take any one in at the Walden place, not if they-all was starving. Miss Ann Walden is quality from way back. The Morleys couldn't entertain, and what's true of the Morleys is true of all the others."
"Couldn't you folks take me?"
At this Greeley collapsed on the one chair of the porch, and actually gasped.
"I ain't got what you might call folks," he managed to say, "unless you call a brace of dogs, folks."
"Oh! I beg your pardon." Miss Lowe flushed and gave a nervous laugh. "You see I just must manage to find a home here, and—and I've heard so much of Southern chivalry and hospitality I rather hoped some one would take me in until I could look around. The place at The Forge, where I've been for two nights is—impossible, and the darkies have their hands stretched out for tips until I feel like a palmist, and a bankrupt one at that!"
A merry laugh rang out and in spite of himself and his grave doubts Greeley relaxed.
"If you don't mind doing for yourself," he ventured, "there's a cabin over to Trouble Neck that you might get."
"Do for myself?" Miss Lowe cried energetically. "I'd just favour that plan, I can tell you! I could get all the furniture I need at The Forge, I am sure. The name of the place isn't exactly cheering, but then I've waded through trouble and got on top all my life long. Who owns the cabin over at Trouble Neck?"
Property rights in and around The Hollow were rarely discussed; it was a delicate question, but what was not actually held down by another generally was conceded to a certain Smith Crothers and to his credit Tod Greeley now put the Trouble Neck cabin.
"Oh! He's the man who owns the factory a few miles from The Forge? I drove past it yesterday at noon time. I thought it was an orphan asylum at first. I never saw such babies put to work before. It's monstrous and the law ought to shut down on your Smith Crothers!"
At this Greeley had a distinct sensation of pain in the region known as the pit of his stomach. That Smith Crothers should fall under any law had never been dreamed of by mortal man or woman in Greeley's presence before. The right of free whiskey was one thing; the right of a man to utilize the children of the district was another!
"He ain't my Smith Crothers!" Greeley inanely returned, feeling in a dazed way that he did not want to put in any claim for Crothers with those apparently innocent eyes upon him.
"Well, I'll try to buy the Trouble Neck place from Smith Crothers at once. You see I've been very sick; they said I'd lost my health, but I know I've only misplaced it."
Again the cheerful laugh set Greeley's nerves tingling.
"They-all say that when they-all come up here."
Greeley felt in honour bound to give the young woman a hint as to his reading of her and her mission.
"It's a good spot, then, for weak lungs?"
"None better," Tod nodded sagely, "but they don't last long."
"What? The weak lungs? That's splendid! And now would you mind giving my horse a drink? Isn't it funny what nice horses they manage to evolve in the South on food that would end a cart-horse's existence up North? But such vehicles! Do look at this buggy! And no springs to mention. My! but my back will ache to-morrow."
By this time Greeley had procured a pail of water and was courteously holding it to the nose of the very grateful horse.
"I wonder," Miss Lowe casually remarked, as she let the reins fall in lap and looked about, "if you happen to have known a Theodore Starr who once lived here?"
"I've heard of him," Tod returned; "I ain't a Hollow man. I only came here on business six years ago, but the memory of Starr sort of clings like it was a good thing to keep alive."
"How beautifully you put it!"
Greeley was thinking how well the government had stocked this dangerous spy with facts, and so he did not observe the tears in her eyes.
"There was a little church he built himself—is it still standing? You may not have heard, but he had a very simple little religion quite his own. He thought the people up here were more in need of help than foreign folks, but no regular sect would—would handle him. So he came up a road he used to call The Appointed Way and just settled down and learned to love all—the people and the work!"
Greeley was so utterly amazed that the hands which held the pail shook with excitement.
"That road what you came up is called The Way—short for Appointed Way. Yon is the little church."
Marcia Lowe raised up and through the thicket behind her she saw the deserted structure, which still bore the outlines of a church.
"Why, it's all boarded up!" she exclaimed. "Who owns it now?"
The exacting nature of the stranger's questions was unsettling to Greeley. She seemed determined to tag and classify all the real estate in the county.
"No one ain't damaged the building," he said drawlingly; "some of the folks think it is han'ted. I reckon Smith Crothers owns it."
"That man owns too much!" Marcia Lowe gave again her penetrating laugh. "And I should think the place would be haunted. Just think of boarding Uncle Theodore up! He who loved sunshine and air and sweetness so much!"
At this Greeley dropped the pail to the ground, and the indignant horse reared angrily. This was carrying things too far, and the man's eyes flashed.
"Uncle?" he gasped sternly.
"Yes, Uncle Theodore Starr. He was my mother's brother. I have no one to keep me away now—and I loved him so when I was a little child. They say I am much like him—but then you never saw him. Lately I've been real homesick for him. He seemed to be calling me from the hills. I'm going to get your Smith Crothers to let me open up the little church. I want the sunshine to get in and—and Uncle Theodore to—get out! I'm going to find where they buried him, and make that a beautiful place too. You see I've a good deal to do up here! Besides," and now the cheerful face beamed radiantly on the gaping postmaster, "I'm like Uncle Starr in more ways than one. He learned to mend men's souls and I have learned to mend their bodies—it's much the same, you know—when you love it. I'm—well, I'm an M. D., a medical doctor—Doctor Marcia Lowe!"
At this Greeley dropped on the bottom step of the porch, wiped the perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand, and emitted one word.
"Gawd!" He was not a profane man, but the audacity of this stranger who was about to settle down among them for purposes best known to herself, and them who sent her, quite overcame him. Marcia Lowe gave a hearty laugh and gathered the reins.
"I suppose you never heard of such a thing up here?" she asked amusedly, "but they are getting commoner down where I hail from. It's all very foolish—the restrictions about a woman, you know. She can nurse a body up to the doors of death, but it's taken a good while to bring people around to seeing that she can mend a body as well, just as well as a man. You will let me stay among you anyway, I am sure. I do not want to physic you. It is so much more interesting to live close and help along. Good-bye, Mr. Greeley—you see your name is over the door! I am, do not forget"—the woman's eyes twinkled mischievously—"Doctor Marcia Lowe of Torrance, Mass. Good-bye! You have been very kind and helpful. I feel that you and I will be good friends. Get-up, pony!"
She flapped the reins in the most unprofessional manner, and the horse turned to The Appointed Way with briskness that bespoke his impatience and a desire for more familiar scenes.
With curious eyes Greeley watched the ramshackle buggy bounce up and down over the rutty road; he saw the small, slight figure bob about uncomfortably on the uneven seat, and when the conveyance was lost behind the trees he went inside with a sure sense that something was going to happen in The Hollow.
Once again within his own domain he sought his cracker box as if it were his sanctuary. The fly was still protesting against the dirty window, and the stillness, except for the buzzing, was unbroken.
Presently, from out the nowhere apparently, old Andrew Townley came in and shuffled across the floor to the armchair by the stove. Then Mason Hope appeared, hands in pockets and lank hair falling on his shoulders. Norman Teale came next, with Tansey Moore in tow.
"Howdy, Tod?" was the universal greeting as the County Club took its place. The chair of Smith Crothers, and two or three overturned potato baskets—seats of the junior members of the club—were empty. It was beneath the dignity of any man present to question what had just occurred, but every son of them had witnessed it and in due time would touch upon the subject.
The stove, summer and winter, focussed their wandering eyes and acted as a stimulus to their dormant faculties. From long practice and inheritance every man could aim and hit the sawdust under the stove when he expectorated. Even old Andrew Townley had never been known to fail.
"There be some right good horses down to The Forge," Tansey Moore ventured after a while.
"It's a blamed risky thing, though," said Mason Hope, "to let a—lady drive 'em. I've allus noticed that a woman is more sot on gittin' where she wants to git—than to considering how to git there. It's mighty risky to trust horseflesh to a female. They seem to reckon all horses is machines."
"I've seen men as didn't know a hoss from a steam engine," Norman Teale broke in, glancing sharply at Moore. "Times is when a hoss has to be sacrificed to man—but I reckon The Forge folks was taking some risks when they-all hired out a team to a stranger."
"That stranger," said Greeley, hitting the nail on the head with a violence that brought his audience to an upright position, "ain't nothing short of, to my mind, than"—he glanced at Teale—"well, she ain't, and that's my opinion! She comes loaded with facts up to her teeth. Knows all the names, and says she's going to settle down over to Trouble Neck and—live along with us-all quite a spell. Weak lungs and all, but she's a right new brand."
"Hell!" ejaculated Teale, springing to his feet. "If the government has got so low that it has to trifle with ladies—it's in a bad way. I reckon I better git a-moving. Any mail, Tod? I take it right friendly that you give me this hint. A lady may be hard to handle in some ways, but we-all can at least know where she is—that's something."
After the departure of Teale the club fell into moody gloom. It was always upsetting to have outside interference with their affairs. Even if Teale wasn't arrested the whiskey would be limited for a time, and that was a drawback to manly rights.
Andrew Townley fell into an audible doze; he was the oldest inhabitant and a respected citizen. He was given to periods of senile dementia preceded or followed by flashes of almost superhuman intelligence. There were times when, arousing suddenly from sleep, he would bring some startling memory with him that would electrify his hearers. He was an institution and a relic—every one revered him and looked to his simple comfort. Suddenly now, as the dense silence enveloped the club, old Andrew awoke and remarked vividly:
"I was a-dreaming of Theodore Starr!"
"Now what in thunder!" cried Tod Greeley, who had purposely refrained from mentioning some part of his late visitor's conversation,—"what made you think of—Theodore Starr?"
"I reckon," whined the trembling old voice, "that it was 'long o' Liza Hope. I was a-passing by and I heard her calling on God-a'mighty to stand by her in her hour. Theodore Starr was mighty pitiful of women in their hours."
Mason Hope felt called upon, at this, to explain and apologize. He did so with the patient air of one detached and disdainful.
"Liza do make a powerful scene when she is called to pass through her trial. This is her ninth, and I done urged her to act sensible, but when I saw how it was going with her, I just left her to reason it out along her own lines. Sally Taber is sitting 'long of her ready to help when the time comes. I done all I could." Tansey Moore nodded significantly. He had an unreasonable wife of his own, and he had no sympathy with women in their "hours."
"Theodore Starr, he done say," Townley was becoming lachrymose, "that women got mighty nigh to God when they reached up to Him in their trial and offered life for a life. He done say if God didn't forgive a woman every earthly thing for such suffering, he was no good God. He done say that to me onct."
"That be plain blasphemy," Tansey Moore remarked. "I reckon he was a right poor parson. The religion he doctored with was all soothin' syrup and mighty diluted at that, where women was concerned. I never trusted that Yankee."
"The women, children, and old folks counted some on him in his day." Greeley was getting interested in this heretofore myth. Moore nodded his head suspiciously.
"They sho' did, and a mess they made of it. Did you ever hear 'bout his mix-up with the Walden girls?"
Greeley never had and, as the last Walden "girl" was a woman of sixty and over, he looked puzzled.
"Miss Ann, her as is now, was considerable older than Theodore Starr, but she shined up to him and let him lead her about considerable—some said him and her was—engaged to marry. Then there was the Walden girl as isn't now, her they called Queenie. She was a right pert little thing what growed into a woman like a Jonas gourd, sudden and startling! That was the summer that young Lansing Hertford came back to the old home place of his forebears to look about—there was a general mess of things up to Stoneledge those days, and all I know is that Starr he went up into the hills to nurse a fever plague and there he died. Lansing Hertford went off like a shot—but them Hertfords allus lit out like they was chased—never could stand loneliness and lack of luxury. Queenie, she done died the winter following that summer; died of lung trouble off to some hospital way off somewhere, and Miss Ann she settled down—an old woman from that time on! You can't get her to speak Starr's name. You never could. Us-all tried. When things got too hard for Miss Ann she done adopt little Miss Cyn—that chile has considerable brightened up Miss Ann, but Lord! she never was the same after that summer, and I hold, and allus shall, that Starr wasn't what we-all thought him at first. A man don't go dying off in the hills for folks what hadn't any call upon him, lest he has a reason for doing so."
Moore loved to talk. Some one always has to be the orator of a club, and Tansey, self-elected, filled this position in the circle around the old stove. Greeley was bored. Past history did not concern him and Moore's opinions he ignored. He had not been listening closely, for his thoughts would, in spite of him, follow the ramshackle buggy down The Way.
"She had a right pleasant look and manner," he pondered. "I reckon she'll get some fun out of her job, no matter what that job is."
It was something of a jog to The Hollow people to find Miss Lowe actually settled at Trouble Neck. They had looked upon the possibility of her coming as an evil which threatened but might be averted. She had come, however; had actually bought the cabin from Smith Crothers, and fitted it up in a manner never known to cabin folks before.
Through all the pleasant summer days the broad door of the little house stood invitingly open and flowers had grown up as if by magic in the tiny front yard. A few choice hens and roosters strutted around the rear of the cabin quite at home, and a bright yellow cat purred and dozed on the tiny porch by day and slept in the lean-to bedroom by night.
"She takes a mighty heap of trouble to hide her tracks," Norman Teale confided to Tansey Moore; "but spy is writ large and plain all over her. I put it to you, Moore, would any one that didn't have to, come to Trouble Neck?"
Tansey thought not, decidedly.
"And did you ever hear on a woman doctor?"
Again Tansey shook his head.
"That woman's bent on mischief," Teale went on. "I got chivalry and I've got honour for womanhood in my nater when womanhood keeps to its place, but I tell you, Moore, right here and now, if that young person from Trouble Neck comes loitering 'round my business, I'm going to treat her like what I would a man. No better; no worse."
Moore considered this a very broad and charitable way of looking upon what was, at best, a doubtful business.
But Marcia Lowe did not seek Teale out, and if his affairs interested her, she hid her sentiments in a charming manner. Her aim, apparently, was to reach the women and children. To her door she won Sandy Morley with the lure of money for his wares. The second time Sandy called he told her of his ambitions and she fired him to greater effort by telling him of her home state, Massachusetts.
"Why, Sandy," she explained, "when you are ready, do go there. In exchange for certain work they will make it possible for you to get an education. I know plenty of boys who have worked their way through college with less than you have to offer. Get a little more money and learning, and then go direct to Massachusetts!"
Sandy's breath came quick and fast. Work was part of his daily life, but that it and education could be combined he had not considered. From that time on his aim became localized and vital.
"Perhaps I can help you a bit?" Miss Lowe had suggested. She was often so lonely that the idea of having this bright, interesting boy with her at times was delightful.
"I'll—I'll bring all your vegetables to you if you will," Sandy panted. "I'll dig your garden and weed it. I'll——"
"Stop! stop! Sandy." Miss Lowe laughed, delighted. "If you offer so much in Massachusetts they will give you two educations. They're terribly honest folks and cannot abide being under obligations."
So Sandy came; did certain chores and was given glimpses of fields of learning that filled him at first with alternate despair and exultation. He confided his new opportunity to Cynthia Walden and to his amazement that young woman greeted his success with anything but joy.
"I thought you'd be right glad," said Sandy, somewhat dashed. "I thought you wanted me to learn and get on."
"So I do," Cynthia admitted, "but I wanted to do it all for you, until you went away."
"What's the difference?" argued poor Sandy.
It was middle August before Marcia Lowe took her courage in her hands and went to see Miss Ann Walden. With city ways still asserting themselves now and again in her thought, she had waited for Miss Walden to call, but, apparently, no such intention was in the mind of the mistress of Stoneledge.
"Perhaps after a bit she will write and invite me up there," Marcia Lowe then pondered. But no invitation came, and finally the little doctor's temper rose.
"Very well," she concluded, "I'll go to her and have it out. I'm not a bit afraid, and, besides, Uncle Theodore's business is too important to delay any longer. She doesn't know, but she must know."
So upon a fine afternoon Marcia Lowe set forth. Grim determination made her face stern, and she looked older than she really was. When she passed the Morleys' cabin she smiled up at Mary, who was standing near by, but the amiable mistress ran in and slammed the door upon the passerby. A little farther on she came to Andrew Townley's home and she paused there to speak to the old man sunning himself by the doorway.
"You certainly do favour your uncle, Miss Marching," Andrew mumbled; he had heard the stranger's claim of relationship and trustingly accepted it; but her name was too much for him.
"Since you come I git to thinking more and more of Parson Starr. He was the pleasantest thing that ever happened to us-all."
"Oh! thank you, Mr. Townley!"
So lonely and homesick was the little doctor that any word of friendliness and good-will drew the tears to her eyes. They talked a little more of Theodore Starr and then the walk to Stoneledge was continued.
Marcia Lowe had never seen any of the family except from a distance, and she dreaded, more than she cared to own, the meeting now. Still she had come to set right, as far as in her lay, a bitter wrong and injustice, and she was not one to spare herself.
Her advance had been watched ever since she left Andrew Townley's cabin, but in reply to her timid knock on the front door, Lily Ivy responded with such an air of polite surprise that no one could have suspected her of deceit.
"Certainly, ma'am, Miss Ann is to home. She am receiving in the libr'y. Rest your umbril' on the table, ma'am, and take a char. I'll go and 'nounce you to Miss Ann."
Left alone, Marcia did not know whether she wanted to laugh or cry. The brave attempt at grand manner in the half-ruined house was pitiful as well as amusing.
"This way, ma'am. My mistress done say she'll receive you in the libr'y."
And there, in solemn state, sat the mistress of the Great House. She, too, had had time to prepare for the meeting, and she was sitting gauntly by the west window awaiting her guest.
"It was right kind of you to overlook my neglect," Miss Walden began, pointing to a low chair near her own, "but I never leave home and I am an old woman."
The soft drawl did not utterly hide the tone of reflection on the caller's audacity in presuming to enter a home where she was not wanted.
The window was almost covered by a honeysuckle vine and a tall yellow rose bush; the afternoon breeze came into the room heavy with the rare, spicy fragrance, and after a moment's resentment at the measured welcome, Marcia said cheerfully:
"You see—I had to come, Miss Walden. I've only waited until I could become less a shock to you. You believe I am Theodore Starr's niece, do you not? I know there are all sorts of silly ideas floating around concerning me, but I need not prove my identity to you, need I?"
The winning charm of the plain little visitor only served to brace Miss Walden to greater sternness.
"I have no doubt about you. You are very like your uncle, Theodore Starr."
"Then let me tell you what I must, quickly. It is very hard for me to say; the hardest thing I ever had to do—but I must do it!"
Ann Walden sank back in her stiff armchair.
"Go on," she said, and her eyes fastened themselves on the visitor. She wanted to look away, but she could not. She was more alive and alert than she had been in many a year—but the reawakening was painful.
"I only knew—the truth after mother died. I found a letter among her things. Why she acted as she did I can never know, for she was a good woman, Miss Walden, and a just one in everything else. You may not understand; we New Englanders are said to love money, but we must have it clean. I am sure mother meant nothing dishonest—we had our own little income from my father and—the other was not used to any extent—I have made it all up."
"I—do not understand you!"
This was partly true, but the suffering woman knew enough to guide her and put her on the defence.
"There was a will made before my uncle came here—in that he left everything to mother and me in case of his death, but the letter changed all that—he wanted you to have the money!"
"Your mother was quite right!" the sternness was over-powering now; "the will was the only thing to carry out. I could not possibly accept any money from Theodore Starr nor his people."
For a moment Marcia Lowe felt the shrinking a less confident person feels in the presence of one in full command of the situation. She paused and trembled, but in a moment her sense of right and determination came to her aid. Her eyes flashed, and with some spirit she said:
"You are only speaking for yourself now."
"For whom else is there to speak?"
Had Marcia dealt Ann Walden a physical blow the result could not have been different. Horrified and appalled, the older woman gasped:
"My uncle's and your sister's! Miss Walden, you could not expect me to believe the story that the people tell around here. You perhaps think your sister was not married to my uncle—but I trust him. I think you and I, no matter what has passed, owe it to this little girl to do the best we can for her. I have left my home to help; I have no one besides her in the world—please consider this and be forgiving and generous. Oh! what is the matter?"
For Ann Walden had risen and stood facing Marcia with such trembling anger that the younger woman quailed.
"I wish you to leave my house!"—the words came through clenched teeth—"leave it and never return."
"If you resist me in this way," anger met anger now, "I will have to consult a lawyer. I mean to carry out my uncle's desires; I will not be party to any fraud where his child is concerned. I hoped that you and I might do this together for her—but if I have to do it alone I am prepared to do so. I have brought the letter I found among my mother's things—may I read it to you?"
"No!" Ann Walden stared blankly at the firm face almost on a level with her own, for Marcia Lowe had risen also.
"You—you cannot forgive us for the long silence? But at least do me this justice: I came when I could—as soon as possible. I was ill—oh! Miss Walden can you not understand how hard this is for me to do? Think how I must put my own mother at your mercy—my own, dear mother!"
Only one thought held Ann Walden—would her visitor never go? The few moments were like agonized hours; the shock she had received had been so fearful that for a moment she was stunned, and before the true significance overwhelmed her she must be alone!
"I—have nothing to forgive. You and yours, Miss Lowe, have nothing to do with me and mine—you must indeed—go! I cannot talk of—the past to you. You—have made a great mistake—a fearful mistake. My sister has—has nothing——"
The stern young eyes compelled silence.
"I—I wish you would let me help you—for the love you once had for Uncle Theodore," said Marcia Lowe; "you must have forgiven your sister when she told you; can you not forgive him?"
"Stop! You do not know what you are talking about——" Vainly, almost roughly, the older woman strove to push the knife away that the ruthless, misunderstanding young hands were plunging deeper and deeper into the suddenly opened wound.
"Oh! yes, Miss Walden, I know—here's the letter!"
She held it out frankly as if it must, at least, be the tie to bind them.
"I spoke perhaps too quickly, too unexpectedly; but it is as hard for me as it is for you. I thought you would know that. I could not talk of little things when this big thing lay between us. It is our—duty."
Pleadingly, pitifully, the words were spoken, but they did not move the listener. Hurriedly, as if all but spent, Ann Walden panted:
"I reckon it is because you are young you cannot understand how impossible it is for you and me to—be friends. You must forgive me—and you must go!"
"But the money!"
"What money?" Something bitterer and crueller than the money had taken the memory of that away.
"Uncle Theodore's money. You see it is not mine—neither you nor I should keep it from Uncle Theodore's——"
"Oh! go, go; I cannot talk to you now. I will see you again—some other day—go!"
At last the look in Ann Walden's face attracted and held Marcia Lowe's mercy. She forgot her own trouble and mission; her impetuosity died before the dumb misery of the woman near her. Realizing that she could gain nothing more at present by staying, she placed the letter upon the table as she passed out of the room and the house.
For a few moments Ann Walden stood and looked at the vacant spot whence the blow had come. The restraint she had put upon herself in Marcia Lowe's presence faded gradually; but presently a sensation of faintness warned the awakening senses of self-preservation. Slowly she reached for the letter which lay near—no one must ever see that! She would not read it, but it must be destroyed. And even as she argued, Ann Walden's hot, keen eyes were scanning the pages that unconsciously she had taken from the envelope.
The date recalled to her the time and place—it had been written that summer when Theodore Starr had gone to the plague-stricken people back in the hills; after he had told her they, he and she, could never marry; that it had all been a mistake. How deadly kind he had been; how grieved and—honest! Yes, that was it; he had seemed so honest that the woman who listened and from whose life he was taking the only beautiful thing that had ever been purely her own, struggled to hide her suffering, and even in that humiliating hour had sought to help him. But—if what had been said were true, Theodore Starr had not been honest with her; even that comfort was to be dashed from her after all these years. She remembered that he had said that while he lived he would always honour her, but that love had overcome him and conquered him. Queenie had always seemed a child to him, he had told her, until the coming of Hertford, and the sudden unfolding of the child into the woman. He could no longer conceal the truth—in his concealment danger lay for them all, and his life's work as well. When he came back—they would all understand each other better! But he had not come back and then, when she had discovered poor Queenie's state, it was for Starr as well as herself that she sternly followed the course she had. She struck a blow for him who no longer could speak for himself—for he had died among his people.
"I loved him better than life," those were the words Ann Walden had spoken to her sister in that very room twelve years ago. The air seemed ringing with them still; "loved him as you never could have; but he loved you; he told me so, and because of my love for him—I hid what I felt. I could have died to make him happy, but you—why, you were another man's idle fancy while you lured Theodore Starr to his doom. The only thing you have left me for comfort and solace is this: I can now keep his dear, pure memory for my own, and love it to the day of my death."
Ann Walden looked quickly toward the chimney-place. There Queenie had stood shrinking before her like a little guilty ghost. She seemed to be standing there still listening to the truth, and avenging herself at last.
"Hertford is the father of your unborn child. You——"
And then it was that Queenie had fallen! had hit her head against the andirons and was never again to suffer sanely. After that there were the dreary weeks when the changed girl had paced the upper balcony with her poor, vacant face set toward the hills. The pitiful story of her weak lungs was started, the journey to the far away sanatorium, which really ended in the cabin of a one-time slave of the family twenty miles away! The hideous secret; the journeys by night and that last terrible scene when the blank mind refused to interpret the agony of the riven body and the wild screams and moans rang through the cabin chamber. Alone, the old black woman and Ann Walden had witnessed the struggle of life and death, which ended in the birth of Cynthia and the release of Queenie Walden.
The four following years were nightmares of torture to Ann Walden. After bringing her sister's body home from the supposed sanatorium she lived a double life. As often as she dared she went to that cabin in the far woods. She carried clothes and food to her old servant and the little secreted child. She watched with fear-filled eyes the baby's development, and to her great relief she knew at last that no mark of mental evil had touched her! Then, when the old black woman died she brought the baby thing home; had explained it according to her knowledge of the people; they would believe what she told them—but this stranger who had left the letter—she had not been deceived for one moment!
The letter! While she had been reliving the past the words were entering her consciousness. What she knew she passed unheedingly; what she was yet to know rose as if to strike her by its force.
"I had believed that love," so Starr had written to his sister, "as men know it, was not for me; my work, my joy in the service had always seemed my recompense. I had asked Ann Walden to marry me because I felt sure of myself, and in this lonely place I needed the companionship, the wisdom and the social position her presence would give to this great work of lifting up those worthy of recognition. Then came the day when I saw the little sister—Ann Walden's and mine, for we had always called her that—a woman! She cast her childhood off like a disguise—I saw another man look at her and I saw her look at him! Something was born in me then after all the slow, sombre years—and I wanted—love! I think a madness overcame me, for, blinded and almost beside myself—I spoke to her—that child-woman, and told her how it was with me. She is the sort that wins your heart secrets by a glance of her tender eyes. And then——" Then came sharp words; disconnected and flashing like flame; but Ann Walden read on while her brain beat and ached.
"It was I she loved. I had aroused her—she saw only one man in the world—me!
"She lay in my arms—I kissed her.
"I took her with me on a long drive through the mountains—there was a dying woman and my dear love carried the poor soul unto the parting of the ways with such divine tenderness as I had never before beheld. She sang and almost played with her until the sad creature forgot her death pangs. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw—that dying hour was perhaps the only joyous hour the woman ever had known—and my sun-touched darling gave it to her!
"We were married on our way home. I wanted to speak at once, but Queenie pleaded. She did not wish, just in her own first moment of joy, to hurt the sister who was mother to her as well as sister. I listened, but I realized that my child-wife was afraid! That was it. With all her brave, splendid characteristics, Ann Walden is one to call forth fear. I felt myself shrinking hourly from confession. She is all judge; she can be just, but she cannot, I think, be merciful. Hers it is to carry out the law, not sympathize with those who fall under the law. She makes cowards of us all! She is too detached to reach humanity, or for humanity, erring, sinning humanity, to reach her.
"The call came—I had to come to the sick and dying. I made half peace with myself by telling Ann Walden that I could not carry out our compact. I told her, what is the hardest thing for any man to tell a woman—that I did not love her. I could not love her! and that it was her sister I loved. I meant to explain everything later and confess—I expected to be back in a day or so—but I am here still and the chances are I must stay on for a long time, and I may lose my life; conditions are terrible, and only once a week a doctor comes!
"She, Ann Walden, is not the hard judge alone. I must not give you a wrong impression. When I told her, she shielded me against myself; would not let me suffer as I should—she excused me. She, to excuse me! But if anything happens to me—I want all my money to go to Ann Walden. By this act she will understand my trust in her and, accepting it, she will do for Queenie what otherwise she could not do—and do it more wisely than my darling could for herself. It must be the common tie, this little fortune.
"I am feeling very ill.
"I fear—my time—has come!
"I recall—there was no marriage certificate, but the service was performed by——"
Ann Walden dropped the blurred sheet and steadied herself against the window. Evidently Theodore Starr had forgotten the name, or perhaps the deadly dizziness of the disease had overcome him. It did not matter. Ann Walden, like Marcia Lowe, had no doubts—but his sister evidently had had, and suddenly a bitter hatred filled Ann Walden's soul toward the dead woman she had never known.
"She who should have known him best," Ann Walden's thoughts ran burningly on—"she to doubt him and let all the years of injustice go on!"
And then the eyes of the tormented woman turned fearfully toward the far side of the room. The late afternoon was turning into twilight and the corner by the chimney was dim and full of shadow.
"And I—who should have trusted Queenie—I who knew her best of all—I let her suffer——"
The wraith by the hearth had her full revenge at that hour, for Ann Walden bowed beneath the memories that crowded upon her; the vivid, torturing memories. That last night—when the moans and calls of the dumb mind strove to express the agony of the poor body! The solemn hour when God entrusted a living soul to a mother incapable of realizing anything but the mortal pangs that were costing her her life!
The child dishonoured, shamed and hidden because of—misunderstanding. Humbly Ann Walden confessed that Theodore Starr's sister was no more to blame than she herself.
Outside a sudden shower had come over Lost Mountain; the room in which Ann Walden stood became dark and still, then a sharp crash shook the house—something white fell upon the hearth; ashes, long dead ashes were blown hither and yon by a rising wind. With a wild cry of—"My God!" Ann Walden sank in a chair. Wornout nerves could stand no more.
When she recovered consciousness she was lying upon the old horsehair sofa in the library. Ivy had gone on an errand, but Cynthia stood over her and the girl's face shocked the reviving woman into alertness. Familiarity had dulled her in the past, but now she saw the expression and outline of Theodore Starr's features bending near her.
"Oh!" she moaned shudderingly. "Oh! oh!"
"Aunt Ann, it is little Cyn! The tree by the smoke-house was struck, but we-all are safe."
"I must be alone!" Then gropingly and tremblingly Ann Walden got upon her feet.
"The letter," she panted, "the letter."
"Here it is—I found it on the floor where you fell."
At the time Cynthia was too distressed to attach any importance to the matter, but she recalled the incident later.
"Yes, yes!" Ann Walden gripped the closely written sheets; "and now I—I want to be alone!"
Sandy Morley came out of his shed and turned his bruised and aching face to Lost Mountain. It was very early, and the first touch of a red morn was turning the mists on the highest peak to flaming films of feathery lightness.
There had been a desperate quarrel in the Morley cabin the night before, and Sandy, defending his father for the first time in his life against the assault of Mary, had reaped the results of the woman's outraged surprise and resentment.
"You!" she had shrieked, rushing at him; "you, taking on the man-trick, are you? Then——" and the heavy blow dealt him carried Sandy to the floor by its force. Later he crept to his shelter and suffered the growing pangs of maturity. The words of Mary had roused him more than the hurt she had inflicted. No longer could he submit—why? All the years he had borne the shame and degradation, but of a sudden something rose up within him that rebelled and defied. He no longer hated as he had in his first impotent childish heat; he seemed now to be a new and changed creature looking on with surprise and abhorrence at the suffering of some one over whom he had charge and for whom he was responsible. The some one was Sandy Morley, but who was this strange and suddenly evolved guardian who rose supreme over conditions and demanded justice for the hurt boy lying on the straw mattress in the wretched outhouse?
All night, sleeping only at intervals, Sandy Morley strove to understand. Morning found him still confused and tormented. He went outside and with aching eyes looked upon the cloud. Presently, as if ordered by a supreme artist, the rosy films parted majestically and Lost Mountain, stern and grim, stood clearly defined! Just then a bird-note broke the mystic stillness; it filled The Hollow with triumphant joy—it became part of the tumult of Sandy's soul compelling the discord to lose itself in harmony.
"I must go away!" Sandy murmured as if in prayer. "I must go away!" The new man into which he was merging felt its way cautiously through the brightening prospect. "I must go away, now."
That was it. The years of preparation were past. Little or much, he must take his savings and go forth! For a moment a soul loneliness possessed him.
"Where?" he faltered in that rosy quiet that was moved and stirred by the bird-song. "Where?" There was only one place on earth to him beyond his mountain home—he must go to that state which recognized so generously the yearning for knowledge he must go to Massachusetts! But now that the hour had arrived he found his day-dreamings of the past were as vague and unreliable as guides as his idea of heaven, that state of mind which Marcia Lowe always insisted was here and now, or nowhere at all!
Well, he would go to the Cup-of-Cold-Water Lady and get a more concise conception of heaven and Massachusetts, if possible.
Sandy turned his bruised face to earth as he reached this decision; like a condemned man on his last earthly day, he set about the doing of the unimportant but necessary duties that lay between the dawn and the night. With no joy did Sandy Morley anticipate his great change. He only realized the "call," and in a subtle, compelling way he felt himself driven by forces, quite beyond his control, to bear himself bravely.
He filled the rusty pail with water from the spring down by the Branch; he brought wood and lighted a fire on the ashy hearth before which, the night before, the quarrel had waged. Having finished the homely tasks he gathered some scraps of ash cakes and bacon together and made for himself a breakfast, which he washed down with some thin, sour buttermilk. After this he went to his shed and arrayed himself in a suit of clothes, old but decent, that some one at The Forge had charitably given him; then, packing a basket with some luscious late peas and berries that he had been fostering for weeks in a tiny garden patch back of the cabin, he started out on his last day's journey on the hills for many and many a year. He had thought it out clearly while he was performing his tasks. He would bargain and sell; he would draw Miss Lowe out as to particulars of direction, cost and details; he would bid her good-bye—she a stranger who had been so kind to him! He would miss her teaching and guidance; miss her strange inspiration of joyousness and courage. After leaving Trouble Neck he must see Cynthia Walden and tell her that the great hour had come! Then there was to be the final scene. He was going to ask his father to go away with him! The quarrel of the night before had decided him. Together he and his father might make a place for themselves beyond the touch of Mary and the sound of her terrible voice. Tenderly and with a beating heart Sandy recalled the old, old days—the days when Martin sang, and prayed his wonderful prayers to a little happy child. Yes, they would go away together and then nothing would be quite so hard or impossible.
Thus arranged, Sandy began his day. He sold his basketful at the first house—a place five miles away where some strange artist-folks were boarding. Sandy got a great deal of money there, for not only did the mistress of the house pay him well, but a man and woman gave him a dollar for posing for them while they sketched him. Reaching Trouble Neck, Sandy met his first setback. Miss Lowe was away; the little cabin was closed and on the door was pinned a scrap of paper which confided to any chance visitor that the owner would be gone for several days. Marcia Lowe had set out for that far place among the hills where her uncle's body had been laid years before. She had gone to make it beautiful, when she located it, and the task was to take longer than she knew.
Sandy sat down upon the doorstep dejected and disappointed. He had depended more than he knew upon what he felt sure the little doctor could give him, and yet, not for a moment, did he contemplate waiting for her return—his order had been given. As his great-grandfather had taken up arms unquestioningly long ago, so Sandy now responded to this later command. He must go that night!
After resting for a few moments and struggling against the dreariness that was spreading through his thought he roused and set forth for the Walden place. Having no legitimate business at the back door of Stoneledge, the boy had no intention of braving old Ivy's sombre stare or the chance meeting with the mistress of the Great House, but there were other ways of communicating with Cynthia besides the back door and the vicarious personalities of those who ruled over her. Youth has its own methods of telegraphy, and the hills people are master hands at secrecy. There was a certain bird-note for which Sandy was famous: a low but shrill pipe that had startled old Ivy more than once and was nearly always successful in causing Cynthia to materialize in due time. So Sandy, from the shelter of trees back of the Stoneledge smoke-house, gave his peculiar and penetrating call. A second time he gave it and then Ivy issued forth and, cocking her weird old head on one side, listened. A long silence followed. The hot afternoon palpitated and throbbed in The Hollow, but the hidden bird did not break it by another call. At last it became evident that Cynthia was beyond the reach of her slave's desires, and so poor Sandy gathered together his flagging strength and spirits and turned toward home with the forlorn hope that he might meet Cynthia on the way there. Now that the parting time had come he knew that the girl was his only real friend on earth in the sense that youth knows a friend. They were near each other, though so far apart. They spoke a common tongue and there were hours when the girl of the Great House and Sandy of the cabin reached across the gulf of tradition and class distinction and opened their souls to each other. During such moments Cynthia had awakened and called forth Sandy's dormant imagination. Through Cynthia he had been shown the beauty of the flowers; been taught the note of the birds and the thrill of life under winter's cold and hard wing. Poverty sharpened the senses of The Hollow people alike in hovel and great house; it drove Miss Ann and Cynthia into close quarters with Ivy and her weird superstitions; it drove Sandy and his kind into dangerous contact with each other, for behind closed doors and in the semi-darkness of the one-windowed cabins evil traits grew apace and the cold and the poor food were fuel for passion and hate.
But no little enchantress met lonely Sandy on his homeward way.
"I reckon I must—go without!" he muttered with something much like a sob in his voice. Not even then did he dream of procrastinating. He was hungry and weary and when he reached the cabin he paused to eat again before going to the rock with his day's earnings. Mary, Molly, and Martin were absent, but that was no new thing. Sandy meant to hide his money, come back and speak to his father and then, by the dark of the moon, start out either with Martin or alone. Grimly the young, tired face set into stern lines; a paleness dimmed his freckles and a fever brightened his eyes, but the heat in his blood, now at the day's end, acted like a stimulant to his thoughts. No longer did he fear or doubt—he had passed that stage and, like a warrior reinforced and exhilarated, he began to whistle confidently and almost joyously. He meant to give Mary her share of his profits, but he would leave them in the box beside the stone that so long had hid his secret.
Over the Branch and up the hill to the woods went Sandy with an uplifted expression on his poor, bruised face and the dignity of his clothing adding a strange touch of age to him. Near the sacred spot he paused and the tune died on his lips. Some one or some thing was stirring just beyond, and, of a sudden, fear and past doubt drove the blood from his heart. His only thought was of Molly! All the years, perhaps, she had deceived and betrayed him. He had, like a coward, failed to count his money; to guard it as he should!
Creeping forward on hands and knees he made his way silently through the bushes. He knew the trick of the beasts; knew how to pad the underbrush beneath his hands before he trusted the weight of his body to it. When within a few feet of the spot whence the sound of moving came, Sandy started up and dashed with one bound into the open. His hands were spread wide with eagerness to grip that which had betrayed him, and so he came upon—Cynthia Walden! He fell back panting, when his brain, at last, interpreted for him what he saw. The girl sat with the tin box of money in her lap; the overturned stone beside her and the last rays of the hot sun filtering through the dogwood trees and pines upon her sweet, pale beauty. By a sharp trick of memory Sandy recalled how the dogwood blossoms one spring long past had looked like stars under the dark pines and now he thought that Cynthia's face was like the pale, starry blossoms. He was always to remember her so when, in the hard years on before, she was to come to him in fancy and longing. A pure girl-face, radiant with hope and bravery, touched, just then, with startled fear which faded into laughing triumph as she recognized Sandy.
"You thought it was—Molly?" she whispered, holding her hands clasped over the box in her lap. "So did I. Once I found her here—found her hunting under one rock after another. I gave her a lick on the back I reckon she has always remembered." The slow, sweet laugh rippled out—"Molly is mighty afraid of me."
Then Sandy managed to command his thought and motions. He stepped to Cynthia and knelt beside her.
"I am going away," he said softly.
"Yes, I know. When?"
"To-night?" Fourteen and twelve have no perspective—everything is final and vital to them. The past has been but a witchery of preparation in a fairy tale of wonder and delight; the actual experience of action found them both unfitted for the ordeal, but in each boy and girl is the potential man and woman, and Sandy and Cynthia met the present moment characteristically.
"I dreamed two dreams," said the girl with a shade of mysticism in her tones. "Once I saw you going down The Way, Sandy, with the look on your face that you now have. I stood by the big pine just where the trail ends in The Way, and watched you. Then I dreamed last night that I stood by the big pine again and you were coming up The Way a-waving to me like you knew I would be there. There was a look on your face—a new look—but I knew it, for I've seen it before in the Significant Room." Cynthia paused, for the question in Sandy's eyes held her.
"You know my story?" she said with her delicious laugh thrilling her listener; "the story part of my life?"
"Oh!" It came to Sandy then, in this strained, prosaic moment, the memory of Cynthia's fancy to set her little world in the frame of her "Pilgrim's Progress," the only book of fiction free to her. "Oh! yes, now I remember."
"Sandy, all these years I have tried and tried to make you fit in—but you wouldn't until—until last night. When it was right dark and still and everybody was sleeping, I went down into the old library—that's where Aunt Ann had the queer spell the day Miss Lowe came—the room is all dirty and full of ashes, for the chimney fell that afternoon; but right beside the fireplace there is an empty space on the wall that I've always saved for you!"
Cynthia had forgot the present in her fantastic play and she held Sandy as she always had before by the trick of her fascination.
"Yes," he murmured; "there is your mother's picture and the old general's and the frame that holds your father's portrait—the father that no one knows about but you—and now—am I hanging in the Significant Room?"
Sandy was all boy now; the strange new dignity fell wearily from him—he was playing, after a hard lesson, with little Cyn.
"And what am I?" he asked, "what have you made me?"
"Oh! I did not make you, Sandy. You just were! The moonlight was streaming in through the window where the roses and honeysuckle are—it was a leafy moonlight and all ripply like dancing water. I was not afraid—I went right boldly up to—your picture, Sandy, and I knew you at once. You know in the Significant Room of my book it says there was a man in a cage; the man and his dream; and the man that cut his way through his enemies—the biggest of them all! But, oh! Sandy, mighty plain and fine I saw you like you were all three of the book folks. You were Sandy of the cage—and the cage was Lost Hollow! You were Sandy with your dream of helping us-all. Me, the po' lil' white trash in Crothers' factory—everybody! Then you were Sandy cutting your way through your enemies like the Hertfords are to your family; I heard Aunt Ann telling Ivy—and then right sudden I saw you hanging up in a gold frame with the ripply moonlight shining on you—— The Biggest of Them All!"
Sandy's eyes were brilliant and glittering; his breath came quick and hard, and to steady himself he whispered:
"I am going away—to-night!"
The vision vanished and Cynthia felt two large tears roll down her cheeks. They left no sorry stains upon the pale smoothness of the girl's skin; Cynthia's eyes could always hold a smile even when dimmed; her eyes were gray with blue tints and her straight, thick hair was the dull gold that caught and held light and shade. Some day she was going to be very handsome in an original and peculiar fashion, and Sandy unconsciously caught a glimpse of it now, and it disturbed him.
"I am going—to-night. I wonder if there is enough?"
He glanced at the box. "I have never counted it."
"Never counted it? I have counted it every week. That's because I am I, and you are you, Sandy. There's over thirty dollars."
At this Sandy gasped.
"I—reckon it will take me to Massachusetts," he said.
"I reckon it will take you to the world's end," Cynthia, the mystic exclaimed, "and back again!"
"Back again!" Sandy's imagination could not stretch past a certain limit.
"But you are coming back, Sandy?" A startled fear crept into the girl's eyes; "you promised!"
"I shall come back—yes!"
"Let us count the money together, Sandy."
Dishevelled dark head and smooth bright one bent close in the dimming light. There was a far-distant rumble of thunder, but neither heeded it; showers were almost daily occurrences, and excitement and concentration ran high. Suddenly Sandy started back and pointed to a small roll of bills—three one-dollar bills they were—but Sandy had never put a piece of paper money in the box!
"That!" he whispered hoarsely; "how did that get here?"
Too late Cynthia saw her mistake. All the small savings and sacrifices of her life she had exchanged that very day at the post-office for the three bills. Tod Greeley had picked out the cleanest and newest, and now they had betrayed her.
Sandy was on his feet at once, and a stern frown drew his brows together; the bruise on his cheek stung as the blood rushed to it, and then he waited.
Presently Cynthia rose to her feet and from her slim height faced Sandy on the level—eye to eye.
"I put it there!" defiance and pride touched the words, "it means as much to me as it does to you—the going away, I mean. I've thought it all out—you'll have to pay it back—pay it as I want it."
Sandy's mind worked more slowly; gropingly he strove to understand.
"How did you get it?" he asked relentlessly.
Cynthia laughed a little.
"Just scratches and pricks—it was great fun! I've been gathering the wool from the bushes under which the sheep go, for years and years; ever since you began to save, Sandy. Lily Ivy sold the wool to the darkies—and I got Mr. Greeley to change the pennies—for bills. It is all mine, every bit!"
A mist rose to Sandy's eyes—it almost hid that pure flower-like face shining under the dark trees.
"You mustn't be mean, Sandy; besides, you are to pay it all back."
"How?" That word was all Sandy could master for a sharp pain in his throat drove all else he meant to say back.
"Why, you are going to set me free—you must marry me!"
Like a child playing with fire Cynthia heedlessly spoke these words. They had no deeper significance to her than the lilt of a world-old song. Marriage was the end-all and consummation of her magic stories and, in this case, it had simply been a trifle more difficult to consider on account of the social difference between Sandy and her. However, that had been overcome by the wand of imagination. Sandy would evolve into something so peculiarly splendid that the chasm could be bridged!
The effect of Cynthia's words upon Sandy was tragic. He closed his eyes in order that he might shut out the hurting power of her face and commanding eyes—but between the lids and his vision the girl mocked him—he could not escape her!
The night before his manhood had been stung to life by Mary's cruelty; it was fanned into live flame now by the childish tenderness of this girl so near to womanhood that the coming charm and sweetness glorified her. Then she touched him and a wave of delicious pain coursed through his body.
"How did—this happen?" A finger lightly passed over the bruise on his cheek. He could not answer.
"I know! But they couldn't hurt the you of you, Sandy. I see the bigness shining through everything. Why do you keep your eyes shut?"
Sandy opened his eyes desperately and saw only the child until eye met eye again, and then the vision of what Cynthia foretold shook him once more.
"My head—spins," he said vaguely; "the day's heat made it ache."
"You will take my money, Sandy?"
"And you will come back and—marry me?"
"I'll come back and—and——"
"Will you marry me, Sandy, like they do in books?"
"If—if—that is the best way, yes."
"Oh! it always is! It's a mighty fine way, because then no one can—make you do things. I shall make you do whatever I choose, Sandy—will you mind?"
"You know in my book, Sandy, there is a Madam Bubble and I'm making myself like her. You can make yourself into anything, I reckon, Sandy, if you just will, and dream about it. Listen to me!" Cynthia had Sandy by the shoulders now in frank, playful mood. "I am tall and comely—I looked up the word, and it says it means to be agreeable and good-looking. Well, I'm good-looking—or I'm going to be. Then the book says Madam Bubble speaks smoothly and smiles at the end of a sentence. I've tried and tried and now I can smile that way. Look, Sandy!"
Again Sandy forced himself to fasten his eyes on the sweet, tender mouth.
"I love to smile, Sandy."
Suddenly the girl's gay tone changed; she came back to grim facts with a catch in her voice.
"How I shall miss you, Sandy. The woods will be right empty—till you come again! I shall make believe find you on the hills even when I know you are not here, but always I will be able to see you in the Significant Room! I'm going to study and make myself fit for you—I shall be right busy. I am going to ask Aunt Ann to let me learn of the little doctor. I shall study the books you have and—it won't seem long, Sandy!"
The brave attempt at cheer, the tender renunciation in the soft voice, wrung Sandy's heart.
"I'm sorry I hated the little doctor for teaching you, Sandy. She helped you—to—to come back quicker, only I did not know then. She'll help me now, I reckon, to be ready for you. Sandy, I just couldn't see you go down The Way! You stand here like you were going to stay on forever and I'll run down the trail. I won't look back once, Sandy, but—kiss me good-bye."
It was the little Cyn of the past playful days who pleaded so pathetically—forgetting caste and dividing line. The little Cyn who had always clung to her comrade when danger or fear threatened; but behind the childish words rang the woman's alluring sweetness—the woman little Cyn was some time to be. By a mighty effort Sandy Morley bent and kissed the pretty upturned mouth. The rough, unlovely clothing could not disguise the dignity of the stiff, boyish form; the bluish bruise on his face grew darker as the hot blood surged through it, but the clear, boyish eyes were frank and simple at last as the:
"Good-bye, Cynthia!" rang sharply.
There was one look more, full of brave sorrow, then Cynthia turned abruptly and ran like a wild thing of the woods into the shadow of the pines.
Sandy stood and watched her, with his thin face twitching miserably, until the sound of her going died away; then he groaned and bent to pick up the box of money that had lain unheeded while bigger things had been conceived and born. Slowly, mechanically he counted the small fortune to the last piece, then he placed two half dollars in the box and left it where any one could easily find it. Poor Sandy was beyond suffering now, or indeed beyond any sensation except that of dull action. His head was aching excruciatingly; fever throbbed in his body and a heavy weariness overcame him. He would rest before he went to his father!
Sinking to the ground he leaned against the tree under which Cynthia had stood and, for a moment, lost consciousness.
"So you've come home to be fed, eh?"
Martin Morley slunk into a chair and eyed the woman by the cook-stove ingratiatingly.
"I sho' have," he replied; "it smells like ash cakes, and I've brought a bucket of buttermilk from ole Mis' Walden's place. She certainly is a techersome woman but a powerful good manager."
"Where's the buttermilk?"
"Outside the do'!"
"Run and fetch it, Molly."
The child, glaring at Martin, sprang to do her mother's bidding and as she passed Morley he seemed to note, for the first time in his life, her fantastic beauty. And then Morley stared after her—she looked like his mother! With the thought a blush of shame rose to his thin, sallow face.
His mother! Between his mother and him lay a black abyss. What right had anything, holding part in that shadow, to look like his mother? He arose and almost snatched from the child the pail she had brought in.
"Hyar!" he cried, "let me take that, you're slopping it over the floor. Whar's yo' brother?"
With this Mary Morley turned from her task with hot, blazing face? She had been handsome once—but the fleeting beauty was gone.
"Sho'! whar's that blessed son of yours?" Mary screamed. "You better go and find out. Do you know what the brat has been doing all these years? Years, I say! While we-all have been slaving and starving he's been saving up; cheating us-all out of his earnings. Eating us-all out of house and home while he—saved and glutted!"
Martin stared at the woman as if she were speaking a foreign language.
"Who—tole yo?" he asked vaguely, hoping by the question to clarify the moment's confusion.
"Molly, she don' keep her eye on him fo' years! It's under a stone beyond the Branch—dollars and dollars while we-all done without."
"Whar did he—get it?"
"He only gave us part of what he earned—he made us-all fools while he hid the rest."
This was too bewildering for Martin and he looked helplessly at the girl who had been informer. The bold little face of Molly confronted him with something like fear in it.
"He'll sho' kill me!" she whined, "him and that—that Cynthia Walden."
This latter betrayal was new to Mary Morley and she came forward angrily.
"None of your lying!" she commanded—"nobody's going to hurt you so long as you tell the truth. What has the Walden girl got to do with the stolen money?"
"She watched it! She licked me right smart once because I—tried to find out how much there was. She told me she'd kill me sho' if I let on and I ain't till to-day when ma said she'd send me down to Miss Lowe's to larn things if she only had money to buy me some shoes. Why should Sandy have that money and me no shoes?"
Why he yearned to lay the lash on the girl before him, Martin could not tell, but she filled him with savage anger. She looked so mean, so hard and—young! Then he tried to think it was Sandy with whom he was angered. He had left the boy to his own devices, to be sure, but—hidden money and the Walden girl aroused a sudden hot fear in him.
"You lie!" he cried in a tone that for many a day Mary, with her growing power over him, had not heard. "You-all lie; you're a lying lot. I'll find the boy——" Martin reached up and took down a lash whip which hung beneath an old rusted sword on the wall. "I'll find the boy and the truth, and by heaven! the sneak and liar, whoever he may be, will get a taste of this!" He snapped the lash sharply.
Molly shrank from his path and Mary gazed after him in sullen amazement. Led by some intuition, Martin strode down the path leading to the Branch and, just as he crossed the almost-dry stream bed, he saw, on the hill opposite, Sandy coming toward him. The boy stopped as he caught sight of his father and waited at the edge of the woods. His brief rest had refreshed him and the cool evening breeze, bearing a shower in its keeping, calmed his aching head and feverish body. Martin noticed how white and haggard the boy looked and some instinct warned him to hide the whip behind his back. When he reached Sandy the two stepped back to where a log lay across the path and upon that Martin dropped, while Sandy braced against a tree.
"Whar was yo' going?" asked Morley.
"Home, Dad. I wanted to see you—and then——"
"I'm going away!"
"Come, too, Dad! Come and let us fight it out together. She——" The boy's eyes, haunted and fierce, turned toward the home place. "She don't belong to us or with us. I don't know how better to say it—but she don't. She won't mind; no one will mind after the first. I've got to go and—I want you! I've been saving and saving little by little for years—there's enough now and we can go to-night. Out beyond—somewhere—Dad, there's something better for us than—this. By and by we'll come back. We'll come and help——" and a sob choked the words; "we'll come and help all Lost Hollow. Somehow I feel—called!"
Martin Morley stared at the boy before him as though he saw a ghost. And indeed a ghost of the grim past did confront him. He saw himself as he once was ere his Inheritance was downed forever. He, too, had wanted to break away; get out to the free chance and the new hope.
"You can't do it!" he said in a faint voice to that ghost of himself standing opposite in the darkening shadows. "There's something as allus holds us-all from getting away. It began back there in grandfather's day—it's settled on us-all like a death grip."
Sandy listened as if already he was far and apart from all the sordid, little hampering things that made up the life of Lost Hollow.
"What did—grandfather do?" he asked, like one who had no special interest in the matter.
"It was my grandfather, he was the friend of Lansing Hertford. They said he betrayed his friend—but they-all lied. First it was a whisper, then in your grandfather's time they-all spoke louder. The lie took away the faith of men from us-all and—that ended it! The lie slinks low till some Morley raises his head and then it springs up and strikes him down."
"It will not strike me down!" Sandy, weak and forlorn, straightened against the tree with the darkness almost blotting him from the eyes fastened tenderly on his face, spoke firmly. "I'll kill the lie whatever it was! What did they say, Dad?"
Never before had Sandy cared. He knew there was something lurking in the past that caused his father to slink from the mountain people, caused the men and women to avoid and shun him, but it had always existed. It was part of Lost Hollow and the Morley fate.
Then, alone with the last of his race, Martin Morley told the old story that had sapped the vitality of his family. Such a small, mean thing it seemed to have downed the once good stock! But in a place where tradition thrives on starvation, lack of ambition and misunderstanding, it had done its work. As Morley drawled the ancient wrong to light, as he eased his soul of the burden and so shared it with his boy, his eye brightened and he sat straighter upon the fallen log for—at its completion—Sandy laughed!
"It was this—er—way. In them days us-all and the Hertfords was equals. The plantation lying off to the east of the old Hertford home place belonged to us-all"—many and many were the quarts of berries and bushels of nuts Sandy had gathered from there!—"but it slipped away—it's all gone years past. My grandfather and Lansing Hertford was close friends—none closer. They fought and loved side by side till Hertford—he got some kind of government order to go to furrin' parts a mighty distance from Lost Hollow. Some time after he went my grandfather followed on a pleasure trip—a pleasure trip, Sandy, think of that! He went away for pleasure! His pockets full of money and him right well fixed! On his travels he stopped and called on Hertford in them furrin' parts and Hertford he gave to grandfather a mighty precious bottle of stuff to bring back home to a big merchant down Lynchburg way. What happened the Lord only knows, Sandy, but when the merchant opened the bottle there wasn't nothing but water in it! No one ever spoke out in grandfather's day—they dassent. He was a mighty proud and upperty man, but a whisper and a nudge can do the work, and little by little grandfather was pushed down and out. In my father's time they spoke louder—they don' said how grandfather had sold the precious stuff before he came back; Lord, Sandy, I leave it to you, son, would he have come if he had done that low-down, mean trick?"
"No!" Sandy breathed the word like a hiss, and in the darkness and his weakness he felt the poison of the lie stealing into his thought, but he flung his head up proudly. "No! No!" he repeated clearly and defiantly; "No!"
"But they-all never trusted none of us again."
Sandy recalled his first visit to the Walden back door and his courage rose—they had learned to trust him even in Lost Hollow!
"Grandfather tried to rise up and failed. Father had his hope, but it was killed; I strove, Sandy, I sho' did, God knows! but you see how it has been with me. There's no use, son, we-all is damned!"
"I am—going to succeed!"
Sandy's voice struck through the gloom and stillness like a tangible blow. Martin started and gave a nervous laugh.
"Come home!" he said; "come home and bring your money with you. It will buy peace and pardon—them's better than any fool idees. And just remember this, Sandy Morley, we-all may be dastards and hard drinkers and what not, but we sho' don't desert women and children. They, down there, belong to us, son, and I expect you and me belong to them!"
Martin rose hurriedly and dropped the whip in the underbrush.
"Come on home, son!"
But Sandy did not move.
"It's come with me or I go alone, Dad."
The child was master of the man!
"You mean it? You mean you dare to disobey—me?"
"I'm going to—take my chance, Dad, out among—folks!"
"You—will—obey—me!" But even as the words were spoken, Martin felt how impotent they were.
"It's good-bye, Dad?"
It was good-bye. Both man and boy realized it. The night closed them in and the protecting trees sheltered them for a moment more.
"You po' little lad! you mean it?"
"Yes, Dad. Will you come?"
Martin turned one glance to where the light from his cabin door shone; then he groaned and said:
"No! God knows they do belong to me and I'm too old, too broken. The curse will get the best of you, boy, and you'll come trailing home. I'll be here—then! But——" And now Martin came closer and held him by the thin, trembling shoulders.
"Grandfather never done it! It was one man's word agin another's and the Hertfords have the luck—they allus had. Onct one of them come back"—and here Morley came closer to Sandy—"it was back in ole Miss Ann Walden's early days—he came back and something happened!" The whisper made Sandy creep with chill.
"What?" he asked, hoarsely.
"He done a mighty wrong to—Miss Ann's little sister, her that was called Queenie and looked it! We-all knew, but we-all stood by Miss Ann, even such as me stood by her! it was the only thing we-all could do for her. He got away! Then that po' chile took to watching from the balcony for him who never come—and then she went away—and by and by—the baby come home!"
Sandy trembled and grew faint. He had eaten little and the burden being laid upon him was more than his strength could bear.
"Cynthia—the lil' girl with the face of Queenie, her mother?"
"No! No!" What he feared and abhorred the boy could not tell, but every instinct in him rose to do battle for the child—friend of his starved and empty life.
"It's your part, son, to stand by and never let on! We-all have done it; we-all took what Miss Ann said for gospel truth—and so must you!"
Then it was that Sandy laughed! The sound startled and shocked Martin and he almost reeled from before it, but strangely enough it seemed to brighten the heavy darkness.
"I don't believe it!" said Sandy between his bursts of laughter. "It's a bad dream—we-all must wake up."
"We can't fight them, Sandy!"
The poor legacy of hatred, wrong, loyalty, and despair was all that Martin Morley had to offer his boy as a weapon in the coming fight. The uselessness and weakness of it struck Sandy even then as he stood on the threshold of the new life. What did it matter? But it was the small thing, the old past that made up the shabby present of The Hollow. He was going to leave everything—even the old grudge—already the wider thought called him and gave a touch of daring to his laugh.
And then Morley staggered toward Sandy and stretched his arms out to him. There was one thing more he had to offer!