AT THE CROSSROADS
BOOKS BY HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
A Little Dusky Hero A Son of the Hills At the Crossroads Camp Brave Pine Janet of the Dunes Joyce of the North Woods Mam'selle Jo Princess Rags and Tatters The Man Thou Gavest The Place Beyond the Winds The Shield of Silence The Vindication Unbroken Lines
AT THE CROSSROADS
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
WALTER DE MARIS
GARDEN CITY—NEW YORK
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
AT THE CROSSROADS
AT THE CROSSROADS
The great turning points of life are often rounded unconsciously. Invisible tides hurry us on and only when we are well past the curve do we realize what has happened to us.
Brace Northrup, sitting in Doctor Manly's office, smoking and ruminating, was not conscious of turning points or tides; he was sluggish and depressed; wallowing in the after-effects of a serious illness.
Manly, sitting across the hearth from his late patient—he had shoved him out of that category—regarded him from the viewpoint of a friend.
Manly was impressionistic in his methods of thought and expression. Every stroke told.
The telephone had not rung for fifteen minutes but both men knew its potentialities and wanted to make the most of the silence.
"Oh! I confess," Northrup admitted, "that my state of gloom is due more to the fact that I cannot write than to my sickness. I'm done for!"
Manly looked at his friend and scowled.
"Rot!" he ejaculated. Then added: "The world would not perish if you didn't write again."
"I'm not thinking about the world," Northrup was intent upon the fire, "it's how the fact is affecting me. The world can accept or decline, but I am made helpless. You see my work is the only real, vital thing I have clawed out of life, by my own efforts, Manly; that means a lot to a fellow."
Manly continued to scowl. Had Northrup been watching him he might have gained encouragement, for Manly's scowls were proof of his deeply moved sympathies.
"The trouble with you, old man," he presently said, "is this: You've been dangerously ill; you thought you were going to slip out, and so did I, and all the others. You're like the man who fell on the battlefield and thought his legs were shot off. You've got to get up and learn to walk again. We're all suggesting the wrong thing to you. Go where people don't know, don't care a damn for you. Take to the road. That ink-slinging self that you are hankering after is just ahead. You'll overtake it, but it will never turn back for you—the self that you are now."
Manly fidgeted. He hated to talk. Then Northrup said something that brought Manly to his feet—and to several minutes of restless striding about the room.
"Manly, while I was at my worst I couldn't tell whether it was delirium or sanity, I saw that Thing across the water, the Thing that for lack of a better name we call war, in quite a new light. It's what has got us all and is shaking us into consciousness. We're going to know the true from the false when this passes. My God! Manly, I wonder if any of us know what is true and what isn't? Ideals, nations, folks!"
Northrup's face flushed.
"See here, old man," Manly paused, set his legs wide apart as if to balance himself and pointed a finger at Northrup, "You've got to cut all this out and—beat it! Whatever that damned thing is over there, it isn't our mess. It's the eruption of a volcano that's been bubbling and sizzling for years. The lava's flowing now, a hot black filth, but it's going to stop before it reaches us."
"I wonder, Manly, I wonder. It's more like a divining rod to me, finding souls."
"Very well. Now I'm going to put an ugly fact up to you, Northrup. Your body is all right, but your nerves are frayed and unless you mind your step you're going to go dippy. Catch on? There are places where nothing happens. Nothing ever has happened. Go and find such a hole and stay in it a month, six weeks—longer, if you can. Be a part of the nothingness and save your life. Break all the commandments, if there are any, but don't look back! I've seen big cures come from letting go! I'll look after your mother and Kathryn."
The telephone here interrupted.
"All right! all right!" snapped Manly into the receiver, "set the operation for ten to-morrow and have the hair shaved from the side of her head."
Then he turned back to Northrup as if disfiguring a woman were a matter of no importance.
"The fact is, Northrup, most of us get glued to our own narrow slits in the wall, most of us are chained to them by our jobs and we get to squinting, if we don't get blinded. I'm not saying that we don't each have a slit and should know it; but your job requires moving about and peering through other fellows' slits, and lately, ever since that last book of yours, you've kept to your hole; the fever caught you at the wrong time and this mess across seas has got mixed up with it all until you're no use to yourself or any one else. Beat it!"
Something like a wave of fresh air seemed to have entered the quiet, warm room. Northrup raised his head. Manly took heed and rambled on; he saw that he was making an impression at last.
"Queer things jog you into consciousness when you detach yourself from your moorings. A mountain-top, a baby's hold on your finger, when you're about to hurt it. A sunset, a woman's face; a moment when you realize your soul! You're never the same after, Northrup, but you do your job better and your slit in the wall is wider. Man, you need a jog."
"What jogged you, Manly?"
This was daring. People rarely questioned Manly.
"It was seeing my soul!" Quite simply the answer came.
There was a long, significant silence. Both men had to travel back to the commonplace and they felt their way gingerly.
"Northrup, drop things. It is your friend speaking now. Go where the roar and rumble of what doesn't concern you haven't reached. Good-night."
Northrup got up slowly.
"I wonder if there is such a place?" he muttered.
"Sure, old man. Outside of this old sounding-board of New York, there are nooks where nothing even echoes. Usually you find good fishing in them. Come now, get out!"
Brace Northrup received the first intimation of his jog when he knocked on the door of a certain little yellow house set rakishly at the crossroads, a few miles from King's Forest.
The house gave the impression of wanting to go somewhere but had not decided upon the direction. Its many windows of shining glass were like wide-open eyes peering cheerfully forth on life, curiously interested and hopeful. The shades, if there were any, were rolled from sight. It might have seemed an empty house but for the appearance of care and a curl of smoke from the chimney.
Northrup walked across the bit of lawn leading, pathless, to the stone step, and knocked on the door. It was a very conservative knock but instantly the door swung in—it was that kind of a door, a welcoming door—and Northrup was precipitated into a room which, at first glance, appeared to be full of sunlight, children, and dogs.
As a matter of fact there were two or three little children and an older girl with a strange, vague face; four dogs and a young person seated on the edge of a table and engaged, apparently, before Northrup's arrival, in telling so thrilling a story that the small, absorbed audience barely noted his entrance. They turned mildly interested eyes upon him much as they might have upon an unnecessary illustration adorning the tale.
The figure on the table wore rough knickerbockers, high, rather muddy boots, a loose jacket, and a cap set crookedly on the head. When Northrup spoke, the young person turned and he saw that it was a woman. There was no surprise, at first, in the eyes which met Northrup's—the door of the little yellow house was constantly admitting visitors—but suddenly the expression changed to one of startled wonder. It was the expression of one who, never expecting a surprise, suddenly is taken unawares.
"I beg your pardon!" stammered Northrup. "I assure you I did knock. I merely want to ask the direction and distance of Heathcote Inn. Crossroads are so confusing when one is tired and hungry and——"
Once having begun to speak, Northrup was too embarrassed to stop. The eyes confronting him were most disconcerting. They smiled; they seemed to be glad he was there; the girl apparently was enjoying the situation.
"The inn is three miles down the south road; the lake is just beyond. Follow that. They serve dinner at the inn at one."
The voice was like the eyes, friendly, vital, and lovely.
Then, as if staged, a clock set on a high shelf announced in crisp, terse tones the hour of twelve.
That was all. The incident was closed and Northrup backed out, drawing the humorous door after him. As the latch caught he heard a thin, reedy voice, probably belonging to the vague girl, say:
"Now that he's gone, please go on. You got to where——"
Northrup found himself at the crossroads where, five minutes before, he had stood, and there, in plain sight of any one not marked by Fate for a turning-point, was a sign-board in perfectly good condition, stating the fact that if one followed the direction, indicated by a long, tapering finger, for three miles, he would come to Heathcote Inn, "Open All the Year."
"The girl must take me for a fool, or worse!" thought Northrup. Then he was conscious of a feeling that he had left something behind him in that room he had just invaded. But no! His gripsack was securely fastened on his back, his walking stick was in his hand, his hat upon his head. Still he felt that lack of something.
"It's the air!" Northrup sniffed it. "I'm as hungry as a wolf, too. Hungry as I used to be twenty years ago." Northrup was twenty-seven. "Lord! what a day."
It was a day with which to reckon, there was no doubt about that. An autumn day of silence, crispness, and colour. Suddenly, something Manly had said came hurtingly into Northrup's consciousness: "... or a woman's face!"
Then, because of the day and a certain regained strength, Northrup laughed and shook off that impression of having left something behind him and set off at a brisk rate on the road to the inn. He soon came to the lake. It lay to the right of the road. The many-coloured hills rose protectingly on the left. All along the edge of the water a flaming trail of sumach marked the curves where the obliging land withdrew as the lake intruded.
"I might be a thousand miles from home," Northrup thought as he swung along.
In reality, he had been only a week on his way and had taken it easy. He had made no plans; had walked until he was weary, had slept where he could find quarters, and was doing what he had all his life wanted to do, and which at last Manly had given him courage to do: leave the self that circumstances had evolved and take to the open trail, seeking, as Manly had figuratively put it, his real self.
During his long illness reality seemed to have fallen from his perceptions—or was it unreality? He knew that he must find out or he could never again hope to take his place among men with any assurance. As far as he could he must cut himself off from the past, blot out the time-honoured prejudices that might or might not be legitimate. He must settle that score!
Northrup was a tall, lean man with a slant of the body that suggested resistance. His face, too, carried out the impression. The eyes, deep set and keenly gray, brooded questioningly when the humour of a situation did not control them. The mouth was not an architectural mouth; the lines had been evolved; the mouth was still in the making. It might become hard or bitter: it could never become cruel. There was hope in the firm jaw, and the week of outdoor air and sun had done much to remove the pallor of sickness and harden the muscles.
With every mile that set him apart from his old environment the eyes grew less gloomy; the lines of the mouth more relaxed: in fact, Northrup's appearance at that moment might have made Manly sympathize with the creator of Frankenstein. The released Northrup held startling possibilities.
Striding ahead, whistling, swinging his stick, he permitted himself to recall the face of the woman in the yellow house. He had taken the faces of women in the past largely for granted. They represented types, ages, periods. Only once before had he become aware of what Life, as he had not known it, could do to women's faces: While he was writing his last book—the one that had lifted him from a low literary level and set him hopefully upon a higher—he had lived, for a time, on the lower East Side of New York; had confronted the ugly results of an existence evolved from chance, not design.
But this last face—Life had done something to it that he could not comprehend. What was it? Then Northrup suddenly concluded that Life had done nothing to it—had, in fact, left it alone. At this point, Northrup resorted to detail. Her eyes were almost golden: the lashes made them seem darker. The face was young and yet it held that expression of age that often marks the faces of children: a wondering look, yet sweetly contemptuous: not quite confident, but amused.
Now he had it! The face was like a mirror; it reflected thought and impression. Life had had nothing to do with it. Very good, so far.
"And her voice! Queer voice to be found here"—Northrup was keen about voices; they instantly affected him. "Her voice had tones in it that vibrated. It might be the product of—well, everything which it probably wasn't."
This was laughable.
Northrup would not have been surprised at that moment to have seen The Face in the flaming bushes by the roadside.
"I wonder if there is any habitation between that yellow house and the inn?" He pulled himself together and strode on. Hunger and weariness were overcoming moods and fancies. There was not. The gold and scarlet hills rose unbroken to the left and the road wound divertingly by the lake.
There was no wind; scarcely a stirring of the leaves, but birds sang and fish darted in the clear water that reflected the colour and form of every branch and twig.
In another half hour Northrup saw the inn on ahead. He knew it at once from a picture-card he had bought earlier in the day. It set so close to the lake as to give the impression of getting its feet wet. It was a long, low white building with more windows, doors, and chimneys than seemed necessary. Everything looked trim and neat and smoke curled briskly above the hospitable house. There were, apparently, many fires in action, and they bespoke comfort and food.
Northrup, upon reaching the inn, saw that a mere strip of lawn separated it from the road and lake, the piazza was on a level with the ground and three doors gave choice of entrance to the wayfarer. Northrup chose the one near the middle and respectfully tapped on it, drawing back instantly. He did not mean to have a second joke played upon him by doors.
There was a stirring inside, a dog gave a sleepy grunt, and a man's voice called out:
"The bolt's off."
It would seem that doors were incidental barriers in King's Forest. No one was expected to regard them seriously.
Northrup entered and then stood still.
He was alive to impressions, and this second room, within a short space of time, had power, also, to arouse surprise. There was no sunlight here—the overshadowing piazza prevented that—but there were two enormous fireplaces, one at either end of the large room, and upon the hearths of both generous fires were burning ruddily.
By the one nearer to Northrup sat a man with a bandaged leg stretched out before him on a stool, and a gold-and-white collie at his side. The man was elderly, stout, and imposing. His curly gray hair sprang—no other word conveyed the impression of the vitality and alertness of the hair—above a rosy, genial face; the eyes were small, keen, and full of humour, the voice had already given a suggestion of welcome.
"You are Mr. Heathcote, I suppose?"
Northrup was subconsciously aware of the good old mahogany furniture; the well-kept appearance of everything.
"You've struck it right. Will you set?"
Northrup took the chair opposite the master of the inn.
"My name is Northrup, Brace Northrup from New York."
"Footing it?" Heathcote was rapidly making one of his sudden estimates; generally he did not take the trouble to do this, but some people called forth his approval or disapproval at once.
"Yes. I've taken my time, been a week on the way and, incidentally, recovering from an illness."
"Pausing or staying on?"
Northrup meant to say "pausing"; instead he found himself stating that he'd like to stay on if he could be accommodated.
"We'll have to consult Aunt Polly as to that," said Heathcote. "You see I'm rather off my legs just now. Gander! Great bird, that gander. He lit out two weeks ago and cut me to the bone with his wing. He's got a wing like a hatchet. I'll be about in a day or two and taking command, but until then I have to let my sister have her say as to what burdens she feels she can carry."
For a moment Northrup regarded himself, mentally, as a burden. It was a new sensation and he felt like putting up a plea; but before he could frame one Heathcote gave a low whistle and almost at once a door at the rear opened, admitting a fragrance of delectable food and the smallest woman Northrup had ever seen. That so fragile a creature could bear any responsibility outside that due herself, was difficult to comprehend until one looked into the strange, clear eyes peering through glasses, set awry. Unquenchable youth and power lay deep in those piercing eyes; there was force that could command the slight body to do its bidding.
"Polly, this is Mr. Northrup, from New York"—was there lurking amusement in the tone?—"He wants to stop on; what do you say? It's up to you and don't hesitate to speak your mind."
The woman regarded the candidate for her favour much as she might have a letter of introduction; quite impersonally but decidedly judicially.
"If Mr. Northrup will take pot luck and as is, I think he can stay, brother."
Northrup had an unreasoning sense of relief. All his life his pulses quickened when what he desired seemed about to elude him. He smiled, now, like a boy.
"Thank you," he ventured, "you'll find me most grateful and adaptable."
"Well, since that's settled," Aunt Polly seemed to pigeonhole her guest and label him as an individual, "I'll run out and lay another plate. You just go along upstairs and pick out your room. They are all ready. The front ones open to the lake and the west; the back ones are east and woodsy; outside of that there isn't much choice. It's one o' clock now, but I can put things back a spell and give you a chance to wash before dinner."
Northrup picked up his bag and hat and started for the stairs at the far end of the room. The sense of unreality was still upon him. He felt like breathing low and stepping light. The sensation smacked of magic. So long as one could believe it, it would hold, but once you doubted, the old, grim existence would snatch you!
Upstairs the hall ran from north to south of the rambling house, on either side the doors opened, leading to small, orderly rooms, apparently alike except in detail of colour and placing of furniture. There was a hearth in every room, upon which lay wood ready to light and beside which stood huge baskets of logs giving promise of unlimited comfort. Fresh towels and water were on stands, and the beds fairly reached out to tired bodies with assurances of rest and sleep. Northrup went, still treading light and believing, from door to door, and then he chose a west room because the lapping of the lake sounded like a lullaby.
It was the work of a few moments to drop dust-stained garments and plunge one's head into the icy water; a few moments more and a refreshed man emerged from a vigorous rubbing and gave a laugh of sheer delight.
"I'm in for it!" he muttered, still clinging to the mood of unreality. "I bet my last nickel that something's going to happen and by the lord Harry! I'm going to see it through. This is one of those holes Manly prophesied about. Looks as if it had been waiting for me to come."
He was downstairs in time to help his host to the head of his table, in the adjoining room. They made rather an imposing procession, Aunt Polly leading, the golden collie bringing up the rear.
Heathcote in a fat whisper gave some staccato advice en route: "Better call sister 'Aunt Polly' at once. If you don't suggest offishness, none will be suspected. Fall in line, I say! Dog's name is Ginger. Animals like to be tagged, more human-like. Act as if you always had been, or had come back. If there's one thing Polly can't abide, it's hitting a snag."
Devoutly Northrup vowed he'd be no snag.
He took his place on the east side of the table, so to speak, and the lake was in front of him. The lake was becoming a vital feature in the new environment.
The water was ruffled now; the reflections trembled and the lapping was more insistent.
The food was excellent. Aunt Polly had prepared it and watched, with a true artist's eye, her guest's appreciation of it.
"Food is just food to some folks," she confided, casting a slantwise glance at her brother, "just what you might call fodder. But I allas have held that, viewed rightly, it feeds body and soul."
"And right you are, Aunt Polly!" Northrup said, watching the effect of his familiarity. Nothing occurred. He was being taken for granted.
Bits of history crept into the easy conversation during the meal. Apparently meal-time was a function at the inn, not an episode.
Heathcote and his sister, it appeared, had come to King's Forest for his health, fifty years before. He was twenty then; Aunt Polly eighteen.
"Just like silly pioneers," Polly broke in, "but we found health and work and we grew to love the place. We feel toward it as one does to an adopted child, less understanding, but more responsible. Every once so often, when we got into ruts, God Almighty made us realize that He was keeping His hand on the reins," the dear old soul chuckled happily. "Peter got himself made into a magistrate and that was something to work with. We made a home and friends, but the Forest isn't an easy proposition. It ain't changed much. It's lazy and rough, and I often tell Peter that the place is like two old folks over on the Point, Twombley and Peneluna. Still and scroogy, but keeping up a mighty lot of thinking. If anything ever wakes the Forest up it's going to show what it's been cogitating about."
"Is there a village?" Northrup asked.
"There's one seven miles from here," Heathcote replied; "stores, post office, a Methodist minister—necessary evils, you know," this came with a fat chuckle, "but the Forest ain't anything but the Forest. Houses sorter dropped down carelesslike where someone's fancy fixed 'em. There used to be a church and school. The school burned down; the church, half finished, stands like a hint for better living, on a little island a half mile down the line. There's the Point where the folks live as can't get a footing elsewhere. There's always a Point or a Hollow, you know. And there's the Mines, back some miles to the south. Iron that used to be worked. Queer holdings!"
Peter paused. Sustained conversation always made him pant and gave Polly an opportunity to edge in.
"As I was saying," she began calmly, "every once so often God Almighty made us realize that He had His hand on the reins. When me and Peter got to acting as if we owned things, someone new happened along and—stuck.
"First there was old Doctor Rivers. We never rightly knew where he came from, or why. By and by we got to feeling we best showed our love and respect by not wondering about him.
"Then after the doctor did his stint and left his mark, Maclin came. We're studying over Maclin yet. He bought the Mines and kinder settled down on us all like a heavy air that ain't got any set of the wind."
Aunt Polly was picturesque. Peter eyed her admiringly and gave his comfortable chuckle.
"Sister holds," he explained, "that the Forest isn't the God-forsaken place it looks to be, but is a rich possibility. I differ, and that is what queers Maclin with us. His buying those wore-out mines and saying he's going to make the Forest is damaging evidence against him. He ain't no fool: then what is he? That's what we're conjuring with. Maclin ain't seeing himself in partnership with the Almighty, not he! One-man firm for Maclin."
"Now, brother!" Polly remarked while Heathcote was catching his breath, "I say give a good doubt to a man till you have to give a bad one. We've no right to judge Maclin yet, he's only just begun to have his say-so out loud, and put out feelers."
"And now"—Peter put his plate down for the faithful Ginger to lap clean, and prepared to rise—"and now, you've come, stranger. When you hesitated a time back as to whether you was pausing or staying on, I just held my breath, and when you slapped out, 'staying on,' I thought to myself, 'Now, which is he, a dispensation of Providence or just a plain passer-by?'"
Northrup smiled grimly. This all fitted into his own vague mood of unreality.
"You mustn't take me seriously," he said, going around the table to help his host. "I'm as ordinary as the majority. I like the looks of things here. I stop and enjoy myself, and pass on! That's the usual way, isn't it?"
"Yes"—Polly began gathering the dishes—"it's what happens while one stops, that counts. That, and what one leaves behind, when he passes on. It's real queer, though, to have any one staying on this season of the year."
During the afternoon Northrup wandered in the woods which rose abruptly from behind the house. So still was the brilliant forest that a falling leaf startled him and a scurrying creature among the bushes set his nerves tingling. Then it was that the haunting face and voice of the girl in the little yellow house rose again with an insistence that could not be disregarded. It dominated his thought; it was part of this strange sense of shadowy and coming events; it refused to be set aside.
It did not mock him—he could have dealt with that phase—it pleaded. It seemed to implore him to accept it along with his quickened pulses; the colour of the autumn day; the sweetness of the smell of crushed leaves; the sound of lapping water; the song of birds.
"I wonder who she is, and why she looks as she does?"
Northrup ceased to scoff at his fancy; he wooed it. He pictured the girl's hair loose from the rough cap—curly, rather wild hair with an uplift in every tendril. What colour was it? Gold-brown probably, like the eyes. For five minutes he tried to decide this but knew that he would have to see it again to make sure.
The face was a small face, but it was strong and unutterably appealing. A hungry little face; a face whose soul was ill-nourished, a contradictory face.
Northrup called himself to order just here. He wasn't going to be an ass, not if he could help it!
"Strange voice!" he thought on. "It had calls in it. I am an ass!" he admitted, and in order to get the better of the situation he turned sharply and went back to the inn.
Northrup decided to refrain from asking questions. Long ago he discovered that he could gain more from a receptive state of mind than an inquiring one.
He began to understand his peculiar mental excitement. Manly was right. All that was needed to bring about complete recovery was detachment and opportunity for his machinery to get into action. He knew the signs. The wheels were beginning to turn!
Now from Northrup's point of view this was all right; but his sudden appearance in a place where bad roads and no reason for coming usually kept people out, caused a ripple to reach from the inn to the Point and even the Mines, twelve miles away.
The people took time before accepting strangers; they had not yet digested Maclin, and in silent disapproval they regarded Northrup as in some way connected with Maclin.
The mine owner had been more or less familiar to the Forest for several years: his coming and going were watched and speculated upon. Recently he had imported foreign labour, much to the sneering contempt of the natives whose philosophy did not include the necessity of perpetual work and certainly repudiated the idea of outsiders originating a new system. But Northrup was not a foreigner. He must be regarded from a different angle.
Aunt Polly made it her business, after the first few days, to start propaganda of a safe and inspiring character about her guest. While not committing herself to any definite statement, she made it known that if Northrup had any connection with Maclin, he was against him, not for him.
Maclin just then was the hub from which the spokes of curiosity led.
"He couldn't be for Maclin," Polly had said to Peter. "You know that as well as I do, Peter Heathcote. And getting facts signed and witnessed is an awful waste of time. The Lord gave women a sixth sense and it's a powerful sight surer than affidavits."
Peter grunted. So long as Polly hinted and made no statements he was content. He believed she was partly right. He thought Northrup might be on Maclin's trail, and from appearances Peter had confidence in his guest's ability to run his quarry to earth where, heretofore, others of the Forest had failed.
He liked Northrup, believed in him, and while he sat and nursed his leg, he let Polly do her hinting.
It was the evening of Northrup's third day at the inn when the three, with Ginger blinking contentedly, sat by the fire. Polly knitted and smiled happily. She had drifted that day into calling Northrup "Brace" and that betokened surrender. Peter puffed and regarded his bandaged leg—he had taken a few steps during the afternoon, leaning on Northrup's arm, and his mood was one of supreme satisfaction.
Breaking the silence, now and again, an irritating sound of a bell intruded. It was a disconcerting note for it had a wild quality as if it were being run away with and was sending forth an appeal. Loud; soft; near; distant.
"Is there a church around here?" Northrup asked at last.
"There is," Heathcote replied, taking the pipe from his lips. "It's the half-built church I mentioned to you. A bit down the line you come to a bridge across an arm of the lake. On a little island is the chapel. It ain't ever used now. Remember, Polly," Heathcote turned to his sister, "the last time the Bishop came here? Mary-Clare was about as high as nothing, and just getting over the mumps. She got panicky when she heard of the Bishop, asked ole Doc if she could catch it. I guess the Bishop wasn't catching! Yes, sir, the church is there, but it's deserted."
"What is the bell ringing for?" Northrup roused, more because the name of Mary-Clare had been introduced than because the bell interested him.
He knew, now, that the girl in the yellow house was Mary-Clare. Her name slipped into sound frequently, but that was all.
"Who is ringing the bell?"
Aunt Polly rolled her knitting carefully and set her glasses aslant on the top of her head. Northrup soon learned that the angle and position of Aunt Polly's spectacles were significant.
"No human hands are ringing the bell," she remarked quietly. "I hold one notion, Peter another. I say the bell is ha'nted; calling, calling folks, making them remember!"
"Now, Polly!" Peter knocked the ashes from his pipe on to Ginger's back. "Don't get to criss-crossing and apple-sassing about that bell." He turned to Northrup and winked.
"Women is curious," he admitted. "When things are flat and lacking flavour they put in a pinch of this or that to spice them up. Fact is—there's a change of wind and it ain't sot yet. While it's shifting around it hits, once so often, a chink in the belfry that's got to be mended some day. That's the sum and tee-total of Polly's ha'nted tower."
Then, as if the question escaped without his sanction and quite to his consternation, Northrup spoke again:
"Who lives in the yellow house by the crossroads?"
This was not honest. Northrup knew who. What he wanted to say, but had not dared, was: "Tell me about her."
"I reckon you mean Mary-Clare." Aunt Polly shook a finger at Ginger. "That dog," she added, "jest naturally hates the bell ringing. Animals sense more than men!"
This slur escaped Peter, he was intent upon Northrup's question.
"Seen that girl in the yellow house?" he asked. "Great girl, Mary-Clare. Great girl."
"I stopped there on my way here to ask directions. Rather unusual looking girl."
"She is that!" Peter nodded. Mary-Clare was about the only bit of romance Peter permitted himself. "Remember the night Mary-Clare was born, Polly?"
Of course Polly remembered. Northrup felt fully convinced that Polly knew everything in King's Forest and never forgot it. She nodded, drew her spectacles over her eyes, and continued her knitting while Peter hit the high spots of Mary-Clare's past. Somehow the shallows Northrup was filling while he listened.
Peter was in his element and drawled on:
"The wildest storm you ever saw round these parts—snow and gale; they don't usually hang together long, but they did that night. It was a regular night if there ever was one. Nobody stirring abroad 'less he had to. Ole Doc was out—someone over the mine-way had got mussed up with the machinery. Ole Doc was a minister as well as a doctor. He'd tried both jobs and used to say it came in handy, but he leaned most to medicine as being, what you might say, more practical."
"You needn't be sacrilegious, brother," Polly interjected. "The story won't lose anything by holding to reverence."
"Oh, well," Heathcote chuckled, "have it any way you want to. Ole Doc had us coming and going, that's what I'm getting over. If he found he couldn't help folks to live, he plumped about and helped 'em to die. Great man, ole Doc! Came as you did, son, and settled. We never knew anything about his life before he took root here. Well, that night I'm telling you about, he was on his way back from the mines when he spied a fire on the up-side of the lake. He said it looked mighty curious shining and flaming in the blinding whiteness. It was Dan Hamlin's shack. Later we heard what had happened. Dan had come home drunk—when he wasn't drunk you couldn't find a decenter man than Hamlin, but liquor made him quarrelsome. His wife was going to have a baby—Mary-Clare, to be exact—and when he came in with Jack Seaver, the mail-carrier, there was a row on concerning something Seaver hadn't brought that Hamlin had ordered for his wife. There never was any reasoning with Hamlin when he was drunk, so Seaver tried to settle the question by a fight. Seaver was like that—never had any patience. Lamp turned over, set the shack on fire!" Peter breathed hard.
"Mrs. Hamlin ran for her life and the two men ran from justice. Seaver came back later and told the story. Hamlin shot himself the following day when he heard what had happened. Blamed fool! Mary-Clare was left, but she didn't seem to amount to much in the beginning. It was this way: Mrs. Hamlin ran till she fell in a snowdrift. Ole Doc found her there." Heathcote paused. The logs fell apart and the room grew hot. Northrup started as if roused from a dream.
"Yes, sir!" Heathcote went on. "Ole Doc found her there and, well, sir, he was doctor and minister for sure that night. There wasn't no choice as you might say. Mary-Clare was born in that snowdrift, and the mother died there! Ole Doc took 'em both home later."
"Good God!" ejaculated Northrup. "That's the grimmest tale I ever listened to. What came next?"
"The funeral—a double one, for they brought Hamlin's body back. Then the saving of Mary-Clare. Polly and I wanted her—but ole Doc said he'd have to keep an eye on her for a while—she seemed sorter petering out for some time, and then when she took a turn and caught on, you couldn't pry her away from ole Doc. He gave her his name and everything else. His wife was dead; his boy away to school, his housekeeper was a master hand with babies, and somehow ole Doc got to figuring out that Mary-Clare was a recompense for what he'd lost in women folks, and so he raised her and taught her. Good Lord, the education he pumped into that girl! He wouldn't let her go to school, but whenever he happened to think of anything he taught it to her, and he was powerful educated. Said he wanted to see what he could do by answering her questions and letting her think things out for herself. Remember, Polly, how Mary-Clare used to ride behind ole Doc with a book braced up against his back?"
Aunt Polly lifted the sock she was knitting and wiped her eyes.
"Mary-Clare just naturally makes you laugh and cry at once," the old voice replied, "remembering her is real diverting. She came from plain, decent stock, but something was grafted onto her while she was young and it made a new kind of girl of Mary-Clare. So loving and loyal." Again Aunt Polly wiped her eyes.
"And brave and grateful," Heathcote took up his story, "and terrible far-seeing. I don't hold with Polly that Mary-Clare became something new by grafting. Seems more like she was two girls, both keeping pace and watching out and one standing guard if the other took a time off. I never did feel sure ole Doc was quite fair with Mary-Clare. Without meaning to, he got a stranglehold on that girl. She'd have trotted off to hell for him, or with him. She'd have held her head high and laughed it off, too. I don't suppose any one on God's earth actually knows what the real Mary-Clare thinks about things on her own hook, but you bet she has ideas!"
Northrup was more interested than he had been in many a day. The story thrilled him. The girl of the yellow house loomed large upon his vision and he began to understand. He was not one to scoff at things beyond the pale of exact science; his craft was one that took much for granted that could not be reduced to fact. Standing at the door of the little yellow house he had become a victim of suggestion. That accounted for it. The mists were passing. He had not been such an ass, after all.
"So! that is your old doctor's place down by the crossroads?" he said with a genuine sense of relief.
"It was. Ole Doc died seven years back."
"What became of his son—you said he had a boy?" Northrup was gathering the threads in his hands. Nothing must escape him; it was all grist.
"Oh! Larry came off and on the scene. There are them as think ole Doc didn't treat Larry fair and square. I don't know, but anyway, just before ole Doc was struck with that stroke that finished him, Larry came home and seemed to be forgiving enough, if there had been any wrong done. He had considerable education; ole Doc had given him that chance, but Larry drifted—allas was, and still is, a drifter. We all stand pat for the feller on account of his father and Mary-Clare. It was a blamed risky thing, though, Larry's marrying Mary-Clare! I allas will hold to that!"
Once, when Northrup was a young boy, he had been shocked by electricity. The memory of his experience often recurred to him in moments of stress. He had been standing within a few yards of the tree that had been shattered, and he had fallen unconscious. When he came to, he was vividly aware of the slightest details of sight and sound surrounding him. His senses seemed to have been quickened during the lapse of time. He winced at the light; the flickering of leaves above him hurt; the song of birds beat against his brain with sweet clamour, and he vaguely wondered what had happened to him; where he had been?
In like manner Northrup, now, was aware of a painful keenness of his senses. Heathcote looked large and his voice vibrated in the quiet room; Aunt Polly seemed dwindling, physically, while something about her—the light playing on her knitting needles and spectacles, probably—radiated. The crackling logs were like claps of thunder. Northrup pulled himself to an upright position as one does who resists hypnotism.
"I'm afraid you're tiring Brace, brother."
Aunt Polly's voice, low, even, and calm, got into the confusion as a soft breeze had, that day so long ago, and brought full consciousness in its wake.
"On the other hand," Northrup gave a relieved laugh, "I am intensely interested. You see, she looks so young, that Mrs.—Mrs.——"
"Rivers?" suggested Heathcote refilling his pipe. "Lord! I wonder if any one ever called Mary-Clare Mrs. Rivers before, Polly?" Heathcote paused, then went on:
"Yes; Mary-Clare holds her own and her boy-togs help the idea. Mary-Clare ain't properly grown up, anyway. Some parts of her are terrible strong and thrifty; parts as has caught the sunlight, so to speak, and been sheltered from blasts. The other parts of her ain't what you might say shrivelled, but they've kept hid and they ain't ever on exhibition."
"How ridiculous you are, brother." Aunt Polly was enjoying her brother's flights, but felt called upon to keep him in order.
"Oh! it's just a blamed amusing fancy of mine," Heathcote chuckled, "to calculate 'bout Mary-Clare. You see, being a magistrate, I married Mary-Clare to Larry, and I've never been at ease about the thing, though I had to put it through. There lay ole Doc looking volumes and not being able to speak a word—nothing to do for him but keep him company and try to find out what he wanted. He kept on wanting something like all possessed. Larry and Mary-Clare hung over him asking, was it this or that? and his big, burning eyes sorter flickering, never steady. I recall old Peneluna Todd was there and she said the young uns were pestering the ole Doc. Then, it was 'long about midnight, Larry rose up from asking some question, and there was a new look on his face, a white, frozen kind of look. Mary-Clare kinder sprang at him. 'What is it?' she whispered, and I ain't never forgot her face. At first Larry didn't answer and he began shaking, like he had the chills.
"'You must tell me, Larry!' Mary-Clare went up close and took Larry by the shoulders as if she was going to tear his secret from him. Then she went on to say how he had no right to keep anything from her—her, as would give her soul for the ole Doc. She meant it, too. Well, Larry sort of dragged it out of himself. Ole Doc wanted him and Mary-Clare to marry! That was what was wanted! There wasn't much time to consider things, but Mary-Clare went close to the bed and knelt down and said slowly and real tender:
"'You can hear me, can't you, Daddy?' The flicker in ole Doc's eyes steadied. I reckon any call of Mary-Clare's could halt him, short of the other side of Jordan. 'Then, dearie Dad, listen.' Just like that she said it. I remember every word. 'You want me to marry Larry—now? It would make you—happy?' The steady look seemed to kinder freeze. I called it a listening look more than an understanding one. I'll allas hold to that, but God knows there warn't much time to calculate. Peneluna began acting up but Mary-Clare set her aside.
"'All right, Daddy darling!' she whispered, and with that she stood up and said to me, 'You marry us at once! Come close so that he can see and know!'
"Things go here in the Forest that don't go elsewhere; I married them two because I couldn't help it—something drew me on. And then just when I got to the end, ole Doc rose up like he was lifted—he stared at what was passing; tried to say something, and sank back smiling—dead!"
Northrup wiped his forehead. There were drops of perspiration on it, and his breath came roughly through his throat; he seemed part of the dramatic scene.
"Satisfied, I say!" broke in Aunt Polly. "It was a big risk, but the dying see far, and the doctor had left all he had to Mary-Clare, which didn't seem just right to his flesh-and-blood boy, and I guess he wanted to mend a bad matter the only way he could."
"Maybe!" sighed Peter. "Maybe. But he took big chances even for a dying man. I couldn't get rid of the notion that when he cottoned to what had been done, he sorter threw up his hands! But what happened to Mary-Clare just took my breath. 'Pon my soul, as I looked at her it was like I saw her going away after ole Doc and leaving, in her place, a new, different woman that really didn't count so long as she looked after things while the real Mary-Clare went about her business. It was disturbing and I felt downright giddy."
"You're downright silly, Peter Heathcote"—Polly tossed her knitting aside and shifted the pillows of the couch—"making Mary-Clare out the way you do when she's ordinary enough and doing her life tasks same as other folks."
"How has it worked out?" Northrup heard the words as if another spoke them.
"I guess, friend, that's what no one actually knows." Peter pulled on his pipe. "Larry is on and off. Maclin, over to the mines, seems to do the ordering of Larry's coming and going. Darned funny business, I say. However, there you are. When Larry is home I guess the way Mary-Clare holds her head and laughs gets on his nerves. No man likes to feel that he can't clutch hold of his wife, but it comes to that, say what you will, Mary-Clare keeps free of things in a mighty odd fashion; I mean the real part of her; the other part goes regular enough.
"She don't slacken up on her plain duty. What the ole Doc left she shares right enough with Larry; she keeps the house like it should be kept, and she's a good second to Polly here, where fodder is concerned. But something happened when Larry was last home that leaked out somehow. A girl called Jan-an let it slip. Not a quarrel exactly, but a thing that wasn't rightfully settled. Larry was ordered off, sudden, by Maclin, but take it from me, when Larry comes back he'll get his innings. Larry isn't what you could call a sticker, but he gets there all the same. He ain't going to let any woman go too far with him. That's where Larry comes out strong—with women."
"I don't know as you ought to talk so free, brother." Polly looked dubious.
"In the meantime," Northrup said quietly, "the little wife lives alone in the yellow house, waiting?" He hadn't heard Polly's caution.
He was thinking of Mary-Clare's look when she confronted him the day of his coming. Was she expecting her husband? Had she learned to love him? Was she that kind of woman? The kind that thrives on neglect and indifference?
"Not alone, as you might say," Heathcote's voice drawled. "There's Noreen, her little girl, you know. Noreen seems at times to be about a thousand years older than her mother, but by actual count she's going on six, ain't that it, Polly?"
Again Northrup felt as he had that day by the lightning-shattered tree.
"Her little girl?" he asked slowly, and Aunt Polly raised her eyes to his face. She looked troubled, vaguely uneasy.
"Yep!" Peter rose stiffly. He wanted to go to bed. "Noreen's the saving from the litter. How many was there, Polly?"
Polly got upon her feet, the trouble-look growing in her eyes.
"Noreen had a twin as was dead," she said tenderly. "Then the last one lived two hours—that's all, brother." She walked to the window. "The storm is setting this way," she went on. "Just listen to that lake acting up as if it was the ocean."
The riotous swish of the water sounded distant but insistent in the warm, quiet room, and faintly, at rare intervals, the bell, rung by unseen forces, struck dully. It had given up the struggle.
Northrup, presently, had a strong inclination to say to his host that he had changed his mind and must leave on the morrow. That course seemed the only safe and wise one.
"But why?" Something new and uncontrolled demanded an answer. Why, indeed? Why should anything he had heard cause him to change his plans? This hectic story of a young woman had set his imagination afire, but it must not make a fool of him. What really was taking place became presently overpoweringly convincing.
"I am going to write!"
That was it! The story had struck his dull brain into action and he had been caught in time, before running away. He had gained the thing he had been pursuing, and he might have let it escape! The woman of the yellow house became a mere bearer of a rare gift—his restored power! He was safe; everything was safe. The world had righted itself at last. It wasn't the woman with the dun-coloured ending to her story that mattered; it was the story.
"I think I'll turn in," he said, stifling a yawn, "Good-night."
"Don't hurry about breakfast," Aunt Polly said gently. "Breakfast is only a starter, I always hold. It's like kindlings to start the big logs. Sleep well, and God bless you!"
She smiled up at her guest as if he were an old friend—come back!
Up in his room Northrup had difficulty in keeping himself from work. He dared not begin; if he did he would write all night. He must be sure. In the meantime, he wrote to his mother:
By the above heading you'll see how far I've got on my way, searching for my lost health. I'm really in great shape. Manly was right: I had to let go! I'm struggling now between two courses. Apparently I was in a blue funk; all I needed was to find it out. Well, I've found it out. Shall I come home and prove it by doing the sensible thing, or shall I go on and make it doubly sure? If anything important turns up I would telegraph, but in case I do go on I want to do the job thoroughly and for a time lose myself. I will wait your word, Mother.
Northrup was not seeking to deceive any one. He might strike out for new places in a week, or he might, if the mood held, write in King's Forest. It all depended upon the mood. What really mattered was an unfettered state.
The vagrant in him, that had been starved and denied, rose supreme. Now that he was sure that he was going to write, had a big theme, there was excuse for his desire to be free. He would return to his chink in the wall, as Manly explained, better fitted for it and with a wider vision. He had a theory that a writer was, more or less, like a person with a contagious disease: he should be exiled until all danger to the peace and happiness of others was past. If only the evenly balanced folks would see that and not act as if they were being insulted!
While he undressed, Northrup was sketching his plot mentally. In the morning it would be fixed; it would be more like copying than creating when a pen was resorted to.
"I'll take that girl in the yellow house and do no end of things with her. Dual personality! Lord, and in this stagnant pool! All right. Dual personality. Now she must get a jog about her husband and wake up! Two men and one woman. Triangle, of course. Nothing new under God's heaven. It's the handling of the ragged old things. I can make rather a big story out of the ingredients at hand."
Northrup felt that he was going to sleep; going to rise to the restored desire for work. No wonder he laughed and whistled—softly; he had overtaken himself!
Three days later a telegram came from Mrs. Northrup.
"Go on," it said simply. Mrs. Northrup knew when it was wisest to let go. But this was not true of Kathryn Morris, the other woman most closely attached to Northrup's life. Kathryn never let go. When she lost interest in any one, or anything, she flung it, or him, from her with no doubtful attitude of mind. Kathryn meant to marry Northrup some day and he fully expected to marry her, though neither of them could ever recall just when, or how, this understanding had been arrived at.
It was, to all appearances, a most fitting outcome to close family interests and friendships. It had just naturally happened up to the point when both would desire to bring it to a culmination. The next step, naturally, must be taken by Kathryn for, when Northrup had ventured to suggest, during his convalescence, a definite date for their wedding, Kathryn had, with great show of tenderness, pushed the matter aside.
The fact was, marriage to Kathryn was not a terminal, but a way station where one was obliged to change for another stretch on a pleasant and unhampered journey, and she had no intention of marrying a possible invalid or, perhaps, a dying man.
So while Northrup struggled out of his long and serious illness, Kathryn played her little game under cover. Some women, rather dull and stupid ones, can do this admirably if they are young enough and lovely enough to carry it through, and Kathryn was both. She had also that peculiar asset of looking divinely intuitive and sweet during her silences, and it would have taken a keen reader of human nature to decide whether Kathryn Morris's silences brooded over a rare storeroom of treasure or over a haunted and empty chamber.
Without any one being aware of the reasons for his reappearance, a certain Alexander Arnold materialized while Northrup had been at his worst. Sandy Arnold had figured rather vehemently in the year following Kathryn's "coming out," but had faded away when Northrup began to show signs of becoming famous.
Arnold was a man who made money and lost it in a breath-taking fashion, but gradually he was steadying himself and was more often up than down—he was decidedly up at the time of Northrup's darkest hour; he was still refusing to disappear when Northrup emerged from the shadows and showed signs of persisting. This was disconcerting. Kathryn faced a situation, and situations were never thrilling to her: she lacked the sporting spirit; she always played safe or endeavoured to. Sandy was still in evidence when Northrup disappeared from the scene.
Mrs. Northrup read Brace's letter to Kathryn, and something in the girl rose in alarm. This ignoring of her, for whatever reason, was most disturbing. Brace should have taken her, if not his mother, into his confidence. Instead he had "cut and run"—that was the way Kathryn thought of it. Aloud she said, with that ravishing look of hers:
"How very Brace-like! Getting material and colour I suppose he calls it. I wish"—this with a tender, yearning smile—"I wish, for your sake and mine, dear, that his genius ran in another direction, stocks or banking—anything with an office. It is so worrying, this trick of his of hunting plots."
"I only hope that he can write again," Mrs. Northrup returned, patting the letter on her knee. Once she had wanted to write, but she had had her son instead. In her day women did not have professions and sons. They chose. Well, she had chosen, and paid the price. Her husband had cost her much; her son was her recompense. He was her interpreter, also.
"Where do you think he'll go?" Kathryn asked.
"He'll tell us when he comes home." There was something cryptic about Helen Northrup when she was seeking to help her son. Kathryn once more bridled. She was direct herself, very direct, but her advances were made under a barrage fire.
Her next step was to go to Doctor Manly. She chose his office hour, waited her turn, and then pleaded wakefulness and headache as her excuse for the call.
Manly hated wakefulness and headaches. You couldn't put them under the X-ray; you couldn't operate on them; you had to deal with them by faith. Kathryn was not lacking in imagination and she gave a fairly accurate description of long, black hours and consequent pain—"here." She touched the base of her brain. She vaguely recalled that the nerve centres were in that locality.
Manly was impressed and while he was off on that scent, somehow Northrup got into the conversation.
"I cannot help worrying about Brace, more for his mother's sake than his." Kathryn looked very sweet and womanly, "He has been so ill and the letter his mother has just received is disturbing."
Here Kathryn quoted it and Manly grinned.
"That's all right," he said, shaking a bottle of pills. "It does a human creature no end of good to run away at times. I often wonder why more of us don't do it and come back keener and better."
"Some of us have duties." Kathryn looked noble and self-sacrificing.
"Some of us would perform them a darned sight better if we took the half holiday now and then that the soul, or whatever you call it, craves. Now Northrup ought to look to his job—it is a job in his case. You wouldn't expect a travelling salesman to hang around his shop all the time, would you?"
Kathryn had never had any experience with travelling salesmen—she wasn't clear as to their mission in life. So she said doubtfully:
"I suppose not."
"Certainly not! An office man is one thing; a professional man, another; and these wandering Johnnies, like Northrup, still another breed. He's been starving his scent—that's what I told him. Too much woman in his—and I don't mean to hurt you, Kathryn, but you ought to get it into your system that marrying a man like Northrup is like marrying a doctor or minister; you've got to have a lot of faith or you're going to break your man."
Kathryn's eyes contracted, then she laughed.
"How charming you are, Doctor Manly, when you're making talk. Are those pills bitter?" Kathryn reached out for them. "Not that I mind, but I hate to be taken by surprise."
"They're as bitter as—well, they're quinine. You need toning up."
"You think I need a change?" The tone was pensive.
"Change?" Manly had a sense of humour. "Well, yes, I do. Go to bed early. Cut out rich food; you'll be fat at forty if you don't, Miss Kathryn. Take up some good physical work, not exercises. Really, it would be a great thing for you if you discharged one of your maids."
"Which one, Doctor Manly?"
"The one who is on her feet most."
And so, while Northrup settled down in King's Forest, and his mother fancied him travelling far, Kathryn set her pretty lips close and jotted down the address of Helen Northrup's letter in a small red book.
Mary-Clare stood in the doorway of the little yellow house. Her mud-stained clothes gave evidence that the recent storm had not kept her indoors—she was really in a very messy, caked state—but it was always good to breathe the air after a big storm; it was so alive and thrilling, and she had put off a change of dress while she debated a second trip. There was a stretching-out look on Mary-Clare's face and her eyes were turned to a little trail leading into the hilly woods across the highway.
Noreen came to the door and stood close to her mother. Noreen was only six, but at times she looked ageless. When the child abandoned herself to pure enjoyment, she talked baby talk and—played. But usually she was on guard, in a fierce kind of blind adoration for her mother. Just what the child feared no one could tell, but there was a constant appearance of alertness in her attitude even in her happiest moments.
"I guess you want the woods, Motherly?" The small up-turned face made the young mother's heart beat quicker; the tie was strong between them.
"I do, Noreen. It has been ten whole days since I had them."
"Well, Motherly, why don't you go?"
"And leave my baby alone?"
"I'll get Jan-an to come!"
"Oh! you blessed!" Mary-Clare bent and kissed the worshipping face. "I tell you, Sweetheart. Mother will take a bite of lunch and go up the trail, if you will go to Jan-an. If you cannot find her, then come up the trail to Motherly—how will that do?"
"Yes," Noreen sweetly acquiesced. "I'll come to the—the——" she waited for the word.
"Yawning Gap," suggested the mother, reverting to a dearly loved romance.
"Yes. I'll come to the Yawning Gap and I'll give the call."
"And I'll call back: Oh! wow!—Oh! wo!" The musical voice rose like a flute and Noreen danced about.
"And I'll answer: wo wow!—oh!" The piping tones were also flute-like, an echo of the mother's.
"And then, down will fall the drawbridge with a mighty clatter." Mary-Clare looked majestic even in her muddy trousers as she portrayed the action. "And over the Gap will come the Princess Light-of-my-Heart with her message."
"Ah! yes, Motherly. It will be such fun. But if Jan-an can come here to stay, then what?" the voice faltered.
"Why, Light-of-my-Heart, I will return strong and hungry, and Jan-an and my Princess and I will sit by the fire to-night and roast chestnuts and apples and there will be such a story as never was before."
"Both ways are beautiful ways, Motherly. I don't know which is bestest."
It was always so with Mary-Clare and Noreen, all ways were alluring; but the child had deep intuitions, and so she set her face at once away from the little yellow house and the mother in the doorway, and started on her quest of Jan-an.
When the child had passed from sight Mary-Clare packed a bit of luncheon in a basket and ran lightly across the road. She looked back, making sure that no one was watching her movements, then she plunged into the woods, her head lowered, and her heart throbbing high.
The trail was not an easy one—Mary-Clare had seen to that!—and as no one but Noreen and herself ever trod it, it was hardly discernible to the uninitiated. Up and up the path led until it ended at a rough, crude cabin almost hidden by a tangle of vines.
Looking back over the years of her married life, Mary-Clare often wondered how she could have endured them but for the vision and strength she received in her "Place," as she whimsically called it—getting her idea from a Bible verse.
Among the many things that old Doctor Rivers had given Mary-Clare was a knowledge and love of the Bible. He had offered the book to her as literature and early in life she had responded to the appeal. The verse that had inspired her to restore a deserted cabin to a thing of beauty and eventually a kind of sanctuary, was this:
And the woman fled into the wilderness where she hath a place prepared of God that they should feed her there.
The words, roughly carved, were traced on the east wall of the cabin and under a picture of Father Damien.
The furniture of the shack was made by Mary-Clare's own hands. A long table, some uneven shelves for books she most loved, a chair or two and a low couch over which was thrown a gay-patched quilt. Once the work of love was completed, Nature reached forth with offerings of lovely vines and mountain laurel and screened the place from any chance passer-by.
A hundred feet below the cabin was a little stream. That marked the limit of even Noreen's territory unless, after due ceremony, she was permitted to advance as far as the cabin door. The pretty game was evolved to please the child and secure for the mother a privacy she might not have got in any other way.
As Mary-Clare reached the "Place" this autumn day, she was a bit breathless and stepped lightly as one does who approaches a shrine; she went inside and, kneeling by the cracked but dustless hearth, lighted a fire; then she took a seat by the rough table, clasped her hands upon it and lifted her eyes to the words upon the opposite wall.
Sitting so, a startling change came over the young face. It was like a letting down of strong defences. The smile fled, the head bowed, and a pitiful look of appeal settled from brow to trembling lips.
Mary-Clare had come to a sharp turn on her road and, as yet, she could not see her way! She had drifted—she could, with Larry away—but now he was coming home!
She had tried, God knew, for three long months to be sure. She must be sure, she was like that; sure that she felt her way to be the right way; so sure that, should she find it later the wrong way, she could retrace her steps without remorse. It was the believing, at the start, that she was doing right, that mattered.
Sitting in the quiet room with the autumn sunlight coming through the clustering vines at window and door and falling upon her in dancing patterns, the woman waited for guidance. The room became a place of memory and vision.
Help would come, she still had the faith, but it must come at once for her husband might at any hour return from one of his mysterious business trips and there must be a decision reached before she met him. She could not hope to make him understand her nor sympathize with her; he and she, beyond the most ordinary themes, spoke different languages. She had learned that.
She must take her stand alone; hold it alone; but the stand must seem to her right and then she could go on. Like the flickering sunbeams playing over her, the past came touching her memory with light and shade, unconsciously preparing her for her decision. She was not thinking, but thought was being formed.
The waves of memory swept Mary-Clare from her moorings. She was no longer the harassed woman facing her problem in the clear light of conviction; but the child, whose mistaken ideals of love and loyalty had betrayed her so cruelly. Why had she who early had been taught by Doctor Rivers to "use her woman brain," gone so utterly astray?
Why had she married Larry when she never loved him; felt him to be a stranger, simply because he had interpreted the words of a dying man for her?
In the light of realization the errors of life become our most deadly accusers. We dare not make others pay for the folly that we should never have perpetrated. Mary-Clare, the woman, had paid and paid, until now she faced bankruptcy; she was prepared still to do her part as far as in her lay—but she must retrace her steps, be sure and then go on as best she could.
Always, in those old childish days, there had been the grim spectre of Larry's mother. Her name was never mentioned but to the imaginative, sensitive Mary-Clare, she became, for that very reason, a clearly defined and potent influence. She was responsible for the doctor's lonely life in King's Forest; for Larry's long absences from home; for the lines that grew between the old doctor's eyes when he laid down the few simple laws of conduct that formed the iron code of life:
Never lie. Never break a promise. Never take advantage for selfish gain. Think things out with your woman brain, and never count the cost if you know it is right.
Larry's mother, so the child believed, had not kept the code—therefore, Mary-Clare must the more strictly adhere to it and become what the other had not! And how desperately she had struggled to reach her ideal. In the conflict, only her sunny joyous nature had saved her from wreck. Naturally direct and loyal, much of what might have occurred was prevented. Passionate love and devout belief in the old doctor eliminated other dangers.
It was well and right to use your "woman brain," but when in the end you always came to the conclusion that the doctor's way was your way, life was simplified. If one could not fully understand, then all the more reason for relying upon a good guide, a tested friend; but above all other considerations, once the foundation was secure was this: she must make up to her adored doctor and Larry for what that unmentioned, mysterious woman had denied them.
It had all seemed so simple, when one did not know!
That was it. Breathing hard, Mary-Clare came back to the present. She could not know until she had lived, and being married did not stop life. And now, Mary-Clare could consider, as if apart from herself, from the girl who had married Larry because he had caught the dying request of the old doctor. She had wanted to do right at that last tragic moment. She had done it with the false understanding of reality and found out the truth—by living. It had seemed to her, in her ignorance, the only way to relieve the suffering of the dying: to help Larry who was deprived of everything.
Mary-Clare must not desert, as the unmentioned woman had.
But life, living—how they had torn the blindness from her! How she had paid and paid until that awful awakening after the birth and death of her last child, three months before! She had tried then to make Larry understand before he went away, but she could not! Larry always ascribed her moods, as he called them, to her "just going to have a child," or "getting over having one."
He had gone away tolerant, but with a warning: "A man isn't going to stand too much!"
These words had been a challenge. There could be no more compromising. Pay-day had come for her and Larry.
But the letters!
At this thought Mary-Clare sat up rigidly. A squirrel, that had paused at her quiet feet, darted affrightedly across the cabin floor.
The letters! The letters in the box hid on the shelf of the closet in the upper chamber. Always those letters had driven her back from the light which experience shed upon her to the darkness of ignorance.
Larry had given the letters to her at the time when she questioned, after the doctor's death, Larry's right to hold her to her marriage vows. How frightened and full of despair she had been. She had felt that perhaps Larry had not understood. Why had the doctor never told her of his desire for her and Larry to marry? Then it was that Larry had gone away to bring proof. He had never meant to show it to her, but he must clear himself at the critical moment.
And so he brought the letters. Mary-Clare knew every word of them. They were burned into her soul: they had been the guides on the hard road she had travelled. The doctor had always wanted her and Larry to marry; believed that they would. But she must be left free; no word must be spoken until she was old enough to choose. To prove his faith and love in his adopted child, Rivers had, so the letters to Larry revealed, left his all to her. In case she could not marry Larry, he confided in her justice to share with him.
The last dark hour had broken the old doctor's self-control—he had voiced what heretofore he had kept secret. The letters stood as silent proof of this. And then the old, rigid code asserted its influence. A promise must be kept!
And so the payment began, but it was not, had never been, the real Mary-Clare who had paid. Something had retreated during the bleak years, that which remained fulfilled the daily tasks; kept its own council, laughed at length, and knew a great joy in the baby Noreen, seemed a proof that God was still with her while she held to what appeared to be right.
And then the last child came, looked at her with its deep accusing eyes and died!
In that hour, or so it seemed, the real Mary-Clare returned and demanded recognition. There was to be no more compromise; no more calling things by false names and striving to believe them real. There was but one safe road: truth.
And Larry was coming home. He had not understood when he went away: he would not understand now. Still, truth must be faced.
Mary-Clare now leaned on the table, her eyes fixed upon the wall opposite. The roughly carved words caught and held her attention. Gradually it came to her, vaguely, flickeringly, like a will-o'-the-wisp darting through a murky night, that if life meant anything it meant a faith in what was true. She must not demand more than that; a sense of truth.
As a little child may look across the familiar environment of its nursery and contemplate its first unaided step, so Mary-Clare considered her small world: her unthinking world of King's Forest, and prepared to take her lonely course. The place in which she had been born and bred: the love and friends that had held her close suddenly became strange to her. What was to befall her, once she let go the conventions that upheld her?
Well, that was not for her to ask. There was the letting go and then the first unaided step. Nothing must hold her back—not even those letters that had sustained her! In recognizing her big problem in her small and crude world, Mary-Clare had no thought of casting aside her obligation or duties—her distress was founded upon a fear that those blessed, sacred duties would have none of her because she had not that with which to buy favour.
There was Noreen—she was Larry's, too. Through the years Mary-Clare had remembered that almost fiercely as she combated the child's aversion to her father. Suddenly, as small things do occur at strained moments, hurting like a cruel blow, a scene at the time when Noreen was but four years old, rose vividly before her. Larry, sensing the baby's hatred, had tried to force an outward show of obedience and affection. He had commanded Noreen to come and kiss him.
Like a bird under the spell of a serpent, Noreen had stood affrighted and silent. The command was repeated, laughingly, jeeringly, but under it Mary-Clare had recognized that ring of brutality that occasionally marked Larry's easy-going tones. Then Noreen had advanced step by step, her eyes wide and alert.
The words had been explosive. Then Larry had caught the child roughly, and Noreen had struck him!
Maddened and keen to the fact that he had been brought to bay, Larry had struck back, and for days the mark of his hand had lain across the delicate cheek. After that, when their wills clashed, Noreen, her eyes full of fear and hate, would raise her hand to her cheek—weighing the cost of rebellion. That gesture had become a driving force in Mary-Clare's life. She must overcome that which lay like a hideous menace between Larry and Noreen! She was accountable for it; out of her loveless existence Noreen had birth—she was a living evidence of the wrong done.
Looking back now, Mary-Clare realized that on the day when Larry struck Noreen he had struck the scales from her eyes. From that hour she had bunglingly, gropingly, felt her way along. The only fact that upheld her now was that she knew she must take her first lonely step, even if all her little unknowing, unthinking world dropped from her.
Again the squirrel darted across the floor and Mary-Clare looked after it lingeringly. Even the little wild thing was company for her in her hard hour. Then she looked up at the face of Father Damien. It was but a face—the meaning of what had gone into its making Mary-Clare could not understand—but it brought comfort and encouragement.
The reaction had set in. Worn-out nerves became non-resistant; they ceased to ache. Then it was that Noreen's shrill voice broke the calm:
"Motherly, Motherly, he's come: he's come home!"
Mary-Clare rose stiffly; her hands were spread wide as if to balance her on that dangerous, adventurous trail that lay between her past and the hidden future. There lay the trail: within her soul was a sense of truth and she had strength and courage for the first step. That was all.
"I'm coming, Noreen. I'm coming!" And Mary-Clare staggered on.
Mary-Clare met Noreen at the brook, smiling and calm. The child was trembling and pale, but the touch of her mother's hand reassured her. It was like waking from a painful dream and finding everything safe and the dream gone.
"I was just coming down the path with Jan-an, Motherly, when I saw him going in the house."
"Yes, Motherly, Daddy. He left a bag in the house; looked all around and then came out. I was 'fraid he was coming to you, so I ran and ran, but Jan-an said she'd stay and fix him if he did."
"Noreen!" The tone was stern and commanding.
"Well, Motherly, Jan-an said that, but maybe she was just funny."
"Of course. Just funny. We must always remember, Noreen, that poor Jan-an is just funny."
Things were reduced to normal by the time the little yellow house was reached. Jan-an was there, crouched by the fireplace, upon which she had kindled a welcoming fire after making sure Larry had not gone up the secret trail.
Rivers was not in evidence, though a weather-stained bag, flung hastily on the floor, was proof of his hurried call. He did not appear all day. As a matter of fact, he was at the mines. Failing to find his wife, he had availed himself of the opportunity of announcing his presence to his good friend Maclin, and getting from him much local gossip, and what approval Maclin vouchsafed.
All day, with Jan-an's assistance, Mary-Clare prepared for the creature comforts of her husband; while Noreen made nervous trips to door and window. At night Jan-an departed—she seemed glad to go away, but not sure that she ought to go; Mary-Clare laughed her into good humour.
"I jes don't like the feelings I have," the girl reiterated; "I'm creepy."
Mary-Clare packed a bag of food for her and patted her shoulder.
"Come to-morrow," she said, and then, after a moment's hesitation, she kissed the yearning, vacant face. "You're going to the Point, Jan-an?" she asked, and the girl nodded.
Noreen, too, had to be petted into a calmer state—her old aversion to her father sprang into renewed life with each return after an absence. In a few days the child would grow accustomed to his presence and accept him with indifference, at least, but there was always this struggle.
Mary-Clare herself wondered where Larry was; why he delayed, once having come back to the Forest; but she kept to her tasks of preparation and reassuring Noreen, and so the day passed.
At eight o'clock, having eaten supper and undressed the child, she sat in the deep wooden rocker with Noreen in her arms. There was always one story that had power to claim attention when all others failed, and Mary-Clare resorted to it now. Swaying back and forth she told the story of the haunt-wind.
"It was a wonderful wind, Noreen, quite magical. It came from between the south and the east—a wild little wind that ran away and did things on its own account; but it was a good little wind for all that foolish people said about it. It took hold of the bell rope in the belfry, and swung out and out; it swung far, and then it dropped and fluttered about quite dizzily."
"Touching Jan-an?" Noreen suggested sleepily.
"Jan-an, of course. Making her beautiful and laughing. Waking her from her sad dream, poor Jan-an, and giving her strength to do really splendid things."
"I love the wild wind!" Noreen pressed closer. "I'm not afraid of it. And it found Aunt Polly and Uncle Peter?"
"To be sure. It made Aunt Polly seem as grand and big as she really is—only blind folks cannot see—and it made all the blind folks see her for a minute. And it made Uncle Peter—no; it left Uncle Peter as he is!"
"I like that"—drowsily—"and it made us see the man that went to the inn?" Noreen lifted her head, suddenly alert.
"What made you think of him, Noreen?" Mary-Clare stopped swaying to and fro.
"I don't know, Motherly. Only it was funny how he just came and then the haunt-wind came and Jan-an says she thinks he isn't. Really we only think we see him."
"Well, perhaps that's true, childie. He's something good, I hope. Now shut your eyes like a dearie, and Mother will rock and sing."
Mary-Clare fixed her eyes on her child's face, but she was seeing another. The face of a man whose glance had held hers for a strange moment. She had been conscious, since, of this man's presence; his name was familiar—she could not forget him, though there was no reason for her to remember him except that he was new; a something different in her dull days.
But Noreen, eyes obediently closed, was pleading in the strange, foolish jargon of her rare moments of relaxation:
"You lit and lock, Motherly, and I'll luck my lum, just for to-night, and lall aleep."
"All right, beloved; you may, just for to-night, suck the little thumb, and fall asleep while Mother rocks."
After a few moments more Noreen was asleep and Mary-Clare carried her to an inner room and put her on her bed. She paused to look at the small sleeping face; she noted the baby outlines that always were so strongly marked when Noreen was unconscious; it hurt the mother to think how they hardened when the child awakened. The realization of this struck Mary-Clare anew and reinforced her to her purpose, for she knew her hour was at hand.
A week before she had dismantled the room in which she now stood. It had once been Doctor Rivers's chamber; later it had been hers—and Larry's. The old furniture was now in the large upper room, only bare necessities were left here.
Mary-Clare looked about and her face lost its smile; her head lowered—it was not easy, the task she had set for herself, and after Larry's visit to the mines it would be harder. She had hoped to see Larry first, for Maclin had a subtle power over him. Without ever referring to her, and she was sure he did not in an intimate sense, he always put Larry in an antagonistic frame of mind toward her. Well, it was too late now to avert Maclin's influence—she must do the best she could. She went back to the fire and sat down and waited.
It was after ten o'clock when Larry came noisily in. Rivers took his colour from his associates and their attitude toward him. He was a bit hilarious now, for Maclin had been glad to see him; had approved of the results of his mission—though as for that Larry had had little to do, for he had only delivered, to certain men, some private papers and had received others in return; had been conscious that non-essentials had been talked over with him, but as that was part of the business of big inventions, he did not resent it. Maclin had paid him better than he had expected to be paid, shared a good dinner with him and a bottle of wine, and now Rivers felt important and aggressive. Wine's first effect upon him was to make him genial.
He had meant to resent Mary-Clare's absence on his arrival, but he had forgotten all about that. He meant now to be very generous with her and let bygones be bygones—he had long since forgotten the words spoken just before he left for his trip. Words due, of course, to Mary-Clare just having had a baby. Almost Larry had forgotten that the baby had been born and had died.
He strode across the room. He was tall, lithe, and good-looking, but his face betokened weakness. All the features that had promised strength and power seemed, somehow, to have missed fulfilment.
Mary-Clare tried to respond; tried to do her full part—it would all help so much, if she only could. But this mood of Larry's was fraught with danger—did she not know? Success did not make him understanding and considerate; it made him boyishly dominant and demanding.
"Well, old girl"—Rivers had slammed the door after him—"sitting up for me, eh? Sorry; but when I didn't find you here, I had to get over and see Maclin. Devilish important, big pull I've made this time. We'll have a spree—go to the city, if you like—have a real bat."
Mary-Clare did not have time to move or speak; Larry was crushing her against him and kissing her face—not as a man kisses a woman he loves, but as he might kiss any woman. The silence and rigidity of Mary-Clare presently made themselves felt. Larry pushed her away almost angrily.
"Mad, eh?" he asked with a suggestion of triumph in his voice. "Acting up because I ran off to Maclin? Well, I had to see him. I tried to get home sooner, but you know how Maclin is when he gets talking."
How long Larry would have kept on it would have been hard to tell, but he suddenly looked full at Mary-Clare and—stopped!
The expression on the face confronting his was puzzling: it looked amused, not angry. Now there is one thing a man of Larry's type cannot bear with equanimity and that is to have his high moments dashed. He saw that he was not impressing Mary-Clare; he saw that he was mistaking her attitude of mind concerning his treatment of her—in short, she did not care!
"What are you laughing at?" he asked.
"I'm not laughing, Larry."
"What are you smiling at?"
"My smile is my own, Larry; when I laugh it's different."
"Trying to be smart, eh? I should think when your husband's been away months and has just got back, you'd meet him with something besides a grin."
There was some justice in this and Mary-Clare said slowly: "I'm sorry, Larry. I really was only thinking."
Now that she was face to face with her big moment, Mary-Clare realized anew how difficult her task was. Often, in the past, thinking of Larry when he was not with her, it had seemed possible to reason with him; to bring truth to him and implore his help. Always she had striven to cling to her image of Larry, but never to the real man. The man she had constructed with Larry off the scene was quite another creature from Larry in the flesh. This knowledge was humiliating now in the blazing light of reality grimly faced and it taxed all of Mary-Clare's courage. She was smiling sadly, smiling at her own inability in the past to deal with facts.
Larry was brought to bay. He was disappointed, angry, and outraged. He was not a man to reflect upon causes; results, and very present ones, were all that concerned him. But he did, now, hark back to the scene soon after the birth and death of the last child. Such states of mind didn't last for ever, and there was no baby coming at the moment. He could not make things out.
"See here," he said rather gropingly, "you are not holding a grouch, are you?"
For a moment Mary-Clare shrank. She weakly wanted to put off the big moment; dared not face it.
"It's late, Larry. You are tired." She got that far when she affrightedly remembered the bedroom upstairs and paused. She had arranged it for Larry—there must be an explanation of that.
"Late be hanged!" Larry stretched his legs out and plunged his hands in his pockets. "I'm going to get at the bottom of this to-night. You understand?"
"All right, Larry." Mary-Clare sank back in her chair—she had fallen on her adventurous way; she had no words with which to convey her burning thoughts. Already she had got so far from the man who had filled such a false position in her life that he seemed a stranger. To tell him that she did not love him, had never loved him, was all but impossible. Of course he could not be expected to comprehend. The situation became terrifying.
"You've never been the same since the last baby came." Larry was speaking in an injured, harsh tone. "I've put up with a good deal, Mary-Clare; not many men would be so patient. The trouble with you, my girl, is this, you get your ideas from books. That mightn't matter if you had horse sense and knew when to slam the covers on the rot. But you try to live 'em and then the devil is to pay. Dad spoiled you. He let you run away with yourself. But the time's come——"
The long speech in the face of Mary-Clare's wondering, amazed eyes, brought Larry to a panting pause.
"What you got a husband for, anyway, that's what I am asking you?"
Mary-Clare's hard-won philosophy of life stood her in poor stead now. She felt an insane desire to give way and laugh. It was a maddening thing to contemplate, but she seemed to see things so cruelly real and Larry seemed shouting to her from a distance that she could never retrace. For a moment he seemed to be physically out of sight—she only heard his words.
"By God! Mary-Clare, what's up? Have you counted the cost of carrying on as you are doing? What am I up against?"
"Yes, Larry, I've counted the cost to me and Noreen and you. I'm afraid this is what we are all up against."
"Well, what's the sum total?" Larry leaned back more comfortably; he felt that Mary-Clare, once she began to talk, would say a good deal. She would talk like one of her books. He need not pay much heed and when she got out of breath he'd round her up. His interview with Maclin had not been all business; the gossip, interjected, was taking ugly and definite form now. Maclin had mentioned the man at the inn. Quite incidentally, of course, but repeatedly.
"You see, Larry, I've got to tell you how it is, in my own way," Mary-Clare was speaking. "I know my way makes you angry, but please be patient, for if I tried any other way it would hurt more."
"Fire away!" Larry nobly suppressed a yawn. Had Mary-Clare said simply, "I don't love you any more," Larry would have got up from the blow and been able to handle the matter, but she proceeded after a fashion that utterly confused him and, instead of clearing the situation, managed to create a most unlooked-for result.