CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published August, 1913
THE RARE, SWEET MEMORY OF
SUSANNE LIVINGSTON GREEN LLOYD
MY WIFE AND THE DEAR COMPANION
WITH ME OVER THESE PAGES
"Take care not to tumble into the water, David," said my mother.
She was standing by the gate, and from my perch on the back of the off-wheeler, I smiled down on her with boyish self-assurance. The idea of my tumbling into the water! The idea of my drowning even did I meet with so ludicrous a mishap! But I was accustomed to my mother's anxious care, for as an only child there had fallen to me a double portion of maternal solicitude. In moments of stress and pain it came as a grateful balm; yet more often, as now, it was irritating to my growing sense of self-reliance. To show how little I heeded her admonition, how well able I was to take care of myself, as I smiled loftily from my dangerous perch, with my legs hardly straddling the horse's back, I disdained to secure myself by holding to the harness, but folded my arms with the nonchalance of a circus rider.
"And, David, be careful about rattlesnakes," said my mother.
Had I not seen in her anxious eyes a menace against all my plans for that day I should have laughed outright in scorn, but knowing it never wise to pit my own daring against a mother's prudence, I returned meekly, "Yessem." Then I gave the horse a surreptitious kick, trying thus to set all the ponderous four in motion. The unsympathetic animal would not move in obedience to my command. Instead, he shook himself vigorously, so that I had to seize the harness to save myself from an ignominious tumble into the road.
"You won't let David wander out of your sight, now, will you, James?" my mother said.
James was climbing into the saddle. Being a deliberate man in all his actions, he made no sign that he had heard until he had both feet securely in the stirrups, until he had struck a match on his boot-leg and had lighted his pipe, until he had unhooked the single rein by which he guided the leaders and was ready to give his horses the word to move. Then he spoke in a voice of gentle protest:
"You hadn't otter worry about Davy, ma'am, not when he's with me." His long whip was swinging in the air, but he checked it, that he might turn to me and ask: "Now, Davy, you're sure you have your hook and line?"
"And your can o' worms for bait?"
Again I nodded. The whip cracked. And I was off on the greatest adventure of my life! My charger was a shaggy farm-horse, hitched ignominiously to the pole of a noisy wood-wagon; my squire, the lanky, loose-limbed James; my goal, the mountains to which were set my young eyes, impatiently measuring the miles of rolling valley which I must cross before I reached the land that until now I had seen only in the wizard lights of distance.
Every one lives a story—every man and every woman. A million miles of book-shelves could not hold the romances which are being lived around you and will be unwritten. I am sure that when your own story has been lived, when it is stored in your heart and memory, you will follow the binding thread of it, and find it leading you back, as mine leads me to one day like that day in May when I went fishing. There will be your Chapter I. Before that, you will see, you were but a slip of humanity taking root on earth. My own life began ten years before that May morning, but on that May morning began my story. Then I rode all unconscious of it. I was simply going fishing for trout. Yet, as I clung to my heavy-footed horse and kept my eyes fixed on the distant mountains, my heart beat quick with the spirit of adventure, for to fish for trout in mysterious forests meant a great deal to one who had known only the sluggish waters in the meadow and the martyrlike resignation of the chub and sunny. I might begin my story on that winter morning when I came into the world and bleated my protest against living at all, but I pass by those years when I was only a slip of humanity taking root on earth and come to that May day which is the first to rise distinctly on my inward vision when I turn to retrospect. Even now I mark it as a day of great adventure. Since then I have battled with salmon in northern waters, I have felt my line strain under the tarpon's despair, I have heard my reel sing with the rushes of the bass, yet I do not believe that a whale with my harpoon in his side, as he thrashes the sea, would give me the same exulting thrill that came with a tiny trout's first tug at my hook. Filled with so exciting a prospect, I did not look back as we swung down the hill from the farmhouse. I dared not, lest I should see my too solicitous mother beckoning me home to the protection of her eyes. Though I clutched the harness and bounced about on my uncomfortable seat, the horse's rough gait had no terrors for me when every clumsy stride was carrying me nearer to the woods. As we rattled into the long street of the village, it seemed to me that all the people must have come out just to see us pass. The fresh beauty of the spring morning might have called them forth, but from the proud height where I sat looking down on them they had all the appearance of having heard in some mysterious way that David Malcolm was going fishing. They hailed me from every side. Even the Reverend Mr. Pound added to the glory of my progress, leaving his desk and his profound studies of Ahasuerus to stand at the open window as we passed.
With boyish exultation I called to him: "I'm goin' a-fishin', Mr. Pound—fishin' for trout."
In Mr. Pound's personal catechism his own chief end was to utter trenchant and useful warnings to all who came within reach of his voice. Even to a lad riding forth under careful guidance to fish in a little mountain stream he had to sound his alarm. The soft fragrance of the May-day air, and the restful green and white of the May-day coloring had brought to the minister's face a smile of contentment in spite of his melancholy ponderings over the weaknesses of Ahasuerus; he looked on me benignly from his window until I spoke, and then his face clouded with concern.
"David, David," he cried, stretching out his hand with fingers wide-spread, "don't fall into the water."
There was a mysterious note in his reverberating tones, which expressed a profound conviction that not only should I fall into the water, but that I should be drowned, and looking at his solemn face I could feel the cold pool closing over my head. I tried to laugh away the fear which seized me, but chill, damp currents seemed to sweep the shaded street. Not till we reached the open sunlit square did my sluggish blood start again. There I came under the genial influence of Squire Crumple's radiating smile, and Mr. Pound and his lugubrious warning were forgotten. The squire was trimming his lilac-bush, and from the green shrubbery his round face lifted slowly, as the sun rises from its night's rest in the eastward ridges and spreads its welcome light over the valley.
"Well, Davy, where are you bound?" he shouted, so pleasantly that I could well believe my small wanderings of interest to so great a man.
"Fishin'," I answered, drawing myself up to a dignity far above the chub and sunny—"fishin' for trout."
"Fishin', eh? Well, look out for rattlers." His voice was so cheery that one might have thought these snakes well worth meeting for their companionship. "This is the season for 'em, Davy—real rattler season, and you're sure to see some." To make his warning more impressive, the squire gave a leap backward which could not have been more sudden or violent had he heard the dreaded serpent stirring in the heart of his lilac. "Watch out, Davy; watch sharp, and when you meet 'em be sure to go backward and sideways like that."
He gave a second extraordinary leap, which was altogether too realistic to be pleasant for the boy who saw the mountains, sombre and black, beyond the long street's end, yet very near him. I forced a laugh at his antics, but I rode on more thoughtfully, my hands clutching the harness, my eyes fixed on my horse's bobbing mane. I feared to look up lest I should meet more of these disturbing warnings, and yet enough of pride still held in me to lift my head at the store. I had always looked toward the store instinctively when I passed that important centre of the village life, and now, as always, I saw Stacy Shunk on the bench.
He was alone, but alone or in the company of half a score, in silence or in the heat of debate, Stacy had a single attitude, and this was one of distortion in repose. Now, as always, he was sitting with legs crossed, his hands hugging a knee, his eyes contemplating his left foot. In the first warm days of spring, Stacy's feet burst out with the buds, casting off their husks of leather. So this morning his foot had a new interest for him, and he was absorbed in the study of it, as though it were something he had just discovered, a classic fragment recently unearthed, at the beauty of whose lines he marvelled. He did not even look up when he heard the rumble of our wagon. Stacy Shunk never troubled to look up if he could avoid it. He seemed to have a third eye which peered through the ragged hole in the top of his hat, and swept the street, and bored through walls, a tiny search-light, but one of peculiarly penetrating power. I saw his head move a little as we drew near, and his body shifted nervously as would a mollusk at the approach of some hostile substance. Yet sitting thus, eying me only through the top of his hat, he saw right into my mind, he saw right into my pockets, he saw the mustard can full of worms, he saw the line, and the fish-hooks which my mother had thoughtfully wrapped in a pill-box. How else could he have divined all that he did?
"Well, Davy," he said in a wiry voice, which cut through the din of rattling harness and creaking wagon, "I see you're goin' a-fishin' for trout?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Shunk," I returned, with a politeness that told my respect for his occult powers.
"Well, mind," he said, intently studying his foot as though he were reading some mystic signals wigwagged from the gods, "mind, Davy, that you don't fall into the hands of the Professor. If the Professor catches you, Davy—" The foot stopped wiggling. The oracle was silent. Did it fear to reveal to me so dreadful a fate as mine if I fell into the Professor's clutches? I waved a hand defiantly to the seer and I rode on. Rode on? I was dragged on by four stout horses through the village to the mountains, for in my heart I was calling to my mother, wishing that her gentle warnings had turned me back before I heard the voice of doom sounding from the depths of Mr. Pound; before I had seen the comic tragedy enacted by Squire Crumple; above all, before the man who saw through the top of his hat had uttered his enigmas about the Professor.
There is something innately repugnant to man in the word "professor." It makes the flesh creep almost as does the thought of the toad or snake. Though when a boy of ten I had never seen a "professor," the word alone was so full of portent that the prospect of seeing one, even without being caught by him, would have frightened me. I suppose that the chill which reverberated through my spine and legs echoed the horror of many generations of my ancestors who had known professors of all kinds, from those who trimmed their hair and dosed them with nostrums to those who sat over them with textbook and rod. Being myself thus perturbed, it was astonishing that James should show no sign of fear, but should keep his horses in their collars, pulling straight for the mountains where the dreaded creature lived. He smoked his pipe nonchalantly, as though a hundred professors could not daunt him. I was sure that there was something of bravado in his conduct until he began to sing, and his voice rang out without a tremor, so full and strong that it fanned a spark of courage into my cowering heart. James had a wonderfully inspiring way of singing. He tuned his voice to the day and to the time of the day. This morning the sky was clear blue above us, and about us the orchards blossomed pink and white, and the fresh green fields were all awave under the breeze, not the grim wind of winter, but the soft yet buoyant wind of spring. So his song was cheery. The words of it were doleful, like the words of all his songs, but under the touch of his magic baton, his swinging whip, a requiem could become a hymn of rejoicing. Now the birds in the meadows seemed to accompany him, and our heavy-footed four to step with a livelier gait in time to his rattling air, all unconscious that he sang of "the old gray horse that died in the wilderness." It was a boast of his that he could sing "any tune there was," and I believed him, for I had a profound admiration of his musical ability. Indeed, I hold it to this day, and often as I sit in the dark corner of an opera-box and listen to the swelling harmonies of a great orchestra, I close my eyes and fancy myself squatting on the grassy barn-bridge at James's side when the shadows are creeping over the valley and he weeps for Nellie Grey and Annie Laurie in a voice so mighty that the very hills echo his sorrow.
This May morning, as James sang, my spirits rose with his soaring melody from the depths into which they had been cast in the passage of the village, and when the last note had died away and he was debating whether to light his pipe or sing another song, I asked him with quite a show of courage:
"Is it very dangerous in the mountains?"
James looked down at me. A smile flickered around the corners of his mouth, but he suppressed it quickly.
"Yes—and no," he drawled.
Inured as I was to his cautious ways, I was not taken aback by this non-committal reply, but pursued my inquiry, hoping that in spite of his vigilance I might elicit some encouraging opinion.
"Am I likely to tumble into the water while I'm fishing, James?"
"That depends, Davy." James looked profoundly at the sky.
"And what's the chance of my being bit by a rattlesnake, James?"
"I wouldn't say they was absolutely none, nor yet would I say they was any chance at all." At every word of this sage opinion James wagged his head.
We rode some distance in silence, and then I came to the real point of my examination. "James, what kind of a man is a professor?"
James looked down at me gravely. "I s'pose, Davy, you have in mind what Stacy Shunk said about him catchin' you."
"Oh, dear, no," I protested. "I was just wondering what kind of a man he was."
"Well, Davy," James said, in a voice of mockery which silenced as well as encouraged me, "if you can fall into the creek, be bit by a rattler, and catched by the Professor all in the one-half hour we will be in the mountains while I loaden this wagon with wood, I'll give you a medal for being the liveliest young un I ever heard tell of. Mind, Davy, I'll give you a medal."
With that he checked further questioning by breaking into a song, and had he once descended from the heights to which he soared and shown any sign that he was aware of my presence, pride would have restrained me from pressing my trembling inquiry.
So, singing as we rode, we crossed the ridge, the mountain's guarding bulwark; we left the open valley behind us and descended into the wooded gut. We passed a few scattered houses with little clearings around them, and then the trees drew in closer to us until the green of their leafy masonry arched over our heads. At last I was in the mountains! This was the mysterious topsy-turvy land, the land of strange light and shadow to which I had so often gazed with wondering eyes. In the excitement of its unfolding, in the interest with which I followed the windings of the narrow road, I forgot the dangers which threatened me in these quiet, friendly woods; and when I cast my line into the tumbling brook I should have laughed at Mr. Pound, at Squire Crumple, and Stacy Shunk, had I given them a thought. But even James's kindly warnings were now uncalled for. That he should admonish me at all I accepted as merely a formal compliance with his promise to my mother that he would keep an eye on me. For him to keep an eye on me was a physical impossibility, as the road plunged deeper into the woods, bending just beyond the little bridge where he had fixed me for my fishing. He was soon out of my sight, and his warning to me to stay in that spot went out of my mind before the rumble of his wagon had died away. Had he turned at the bend he would have seen me lying flat on my back on the bridge, unbalanced by the eagerness with which I had answered the first tug at the hook.
I could have landed a shark with the strength which I put into that wild jerk, but I saw only the worm bait dangling above my astonished face. With my second cast I lifted a trout clear of the water; then caught my line in an overhanging branch and saw my erstwhile prisoner shoot away up-stream. The tangled line led me from my post of safety. Had I returned to it; had I remembered the admonition of the cautious James, and held to the station to which he had assigned me—my life might have run its course in another channel. Now, as I look back, it seems as though my story became entangled with my line in that overhanging branch, as though there I picked up the strong, holding thread of it, and followed its tortuous windings to this day.
My blood was running quick with excitement. I had no fear. A wonderful catch, a game fish six inches long filled me with the pride of achievement, and with pride came self-confidence. The stream lured me on. The rapids snapped up my hook, and with many a deceitful tug enticed me farther and farther into the woods. The brush shut the bridge from my view, but I knew that it was not far away, and that a voice so mighty as James could raise would easily overtake my slow course along the bank. So I went from rock to rock with one hand guiding my precious rod, and the other clutching overhanging limbs and bushes.
What sport this was for a lad of ten who had known only the placid brook in the open meadow and the amiable moods of its people! How many a boyish shout I muffled as I made my cautious way along that boisterous stream and pitted my wits against its wary dwellers! I wormed through an abatis of laurel; I scampered over the bared and tangled roots of a great oak; I reached a shelf of pebbly beach. Around it the water swept over moss-clad rocks into a deep pool; above it the arched limbs broke and let in the warm sunlight, making it a grateful spot to one chilled by the dampness of the thicker woods. Eager to try my luck in that enticing pool, I leaped from the massed roots to the little beach without troubling to see what others might have come here to enjoy with me a bit of open day. My hook touched the stream; my line ran taut; my rod almost snapped from my hands. I clutched it with all my strength. Every muscle of arms, legs, and body was bent to land that gigantic fish. That it was gigantic I was sure, from the power of its rush. I pitted my weight against his and felt him give way. Then, shouting in exultation, I fell over backward. I saw him leave the water, not quite the leviathan I had fancied; I saw him fly over my head and heard him flopping behind me. Getting to my feet, I turned to rush at my prize and capture him. I was checked—first by my ears, for in them rang the sharp whir of a rattle. Cold blood shot from my heart to the tips of my toes and the top of my head. I needed nothing more to hold me back, but there before my eyes was the other visitor to this pleasant sunny spot, his head rising from his coiled body, his tail erect and lashing in fury.
Since that day I have learned that the rattler when disturbed by man will seek refuge in flight, and fights only when cornered. This particular snake, I think, must have been told that a boy will glide away into the bushes if a chance is given him, for he seemed determined to stand his ground and let me flee. But where was I to escape when he held the narrow way to the bank, and behind me roared the stream, grown suddenly to mighty width and depth? How was I to move at all when every nerve was numbed by the icy currents which swept through my veins? Could I escape? Was it not foreordained that I should meet my end in these woods? Had I not spurned the chance of life given me through the prophecies of good Mr. Pound and the warning of the squire?
The snake before me grew to the size of a boa-constrictor. The brook behind me roared in my ears like Niagara. The snake began to drive his head toward me, showing his fangs as though he were making a reconnoissance of the air before his spring. He was so terrible that I knew that when he did hurl himself at me I must go backward and fulfil the prophecy of Mr. Pound. I had forgotten the man who saw through the top of his hat. I awaited helplessly the triumph of Mr. Pound.
From out of the bush, from out of the air, as though impelled by a spirit hand, a long stick swung. It fell upon my enemy's head and drove it to the ground. He lifted his head and turned from me, striking madly, but the rod fell again upon his back. He uncoiled and tried to run; he twisted and turned in his dying agony and lashed the air in futile fury. The merciless rod broke him and stretched him to his full length. But even though dead he was terrible to me, for had I not heard that a snake never dies until sunset; could I not see the body still quivering; might not the bruised head dart at me in dying madness!
I took a step backward, and hurtled into the water. For a long time I groped in the depths of the pool. To me it seemed that I struggled there for hours in the blackness; that serpents drew their slimy lengths across my face; that fishes poked their noses with bold inquisitiveness about me and dared to nibble at my hands; that Mr. Pound looked up at me from the abyss, benignly in his triumph, and that his solemn voice joined with the roaring of the torrent. Knowing well that my end had come and that the prophecy was being fulfilled, I struggled without hope, but my fingers clutching at the water at last met some solid substance and closed on it. I felt myself turn, and suddenly opening my eyes saw the sunlight pouring through the green window in the tree-tops. My legs straightened; my feet touched the stony bottom; my shoulders lifted from the stream, and I looked into a small girl's face, while my hand was tightly clasped in hers.
Since that day the sun's soft brown has faded from her cheeks, uncovering their radiance; since then she has grown to fairest womanhood, and I have seen her adorning the art of Paris and Vienna; but to me she has given no fairer picture than on that May morning when, shamefaced, I climbed from the mountain stream and looked down from my ten years of height on the little girl in a patched blue frock. Nature had coiffed her hair that day and tumbled it over her shoulders in wanton brightness, but she had caught the crowning wisp of it in a faded blue ribbon which bobbed majestically with every movement of her head. Had some woodland Mr. Pound told her that I was coming? Since then I have seen her more daintily shod than when her bare brown legs hurried from view into broken shoes of twice her size. Since then the hard little hand has turned white and thin and tapering, to such a hand as women are wont to let dawdle over the arms of chairs. Then I was a boy, with a boy's haughty way of regarding girlish softness. I was haughtier that day because I sought in my pride to cover up my debt to her. Now I am a man, but the boy's picture of Penelope Blight, the little girl in the patched blue frock and broken shoes, standing by the mountain stream, holds in the memory with clear and softening colors.
She leaned, a tiny Amazon, on the stick which towered to twice her height, and she said to me: "Boy, you hadn't otter be afraid of snakes."
In my shame I answered nothing and my teeth chattered, for I was very cold from fright and the ducking.
Then she said to me: "Boy, you had otter come over to our house and get warm."
I remembered my dignity, and, in a tone of patronage assumed by right of the one year of difference in our ages, I asked: "Where is your house, young un?"
She pointed over her shoulder, over the quivering body of the snake, across the bushes, and through the green light of the woods. There I saw a bit of blue sky, cut by a thin spire of smoke.
"Yonder's our patch," she said, "and father will give you something to warm you up."
I asked: "Who is your father, little un?"
She drew herself up very straight, and even the blue ribbon in her hair rose in majesty as she answered. Then I almost tumbled into the pool again, for she said: "Some call him the Professor."
The words of Penelope Blight fell on my ears as chillingly as the rattler's whir. That the prophecies of Mr. Pound and Squire Crumple had come to nothing was little consolation for me. So near had they been to fulfilment that it seemed that I must have been spared only for a harder fate, and the figure of Stacy Shunk peering at me through the top of his hat, uttering his ominous warning, rose before my startled eyes. I should have run, but my retreat was barred, the girl blocking the way over the shelving beach. I took a backward step and for an instant the Prophet Pound's star was in the ascendant, for the foot touched the water. So great was my dread of the Professor that had I been in a position to choose my course I should have taken my chances in the stream, but I lost my self-control with my balance and made a desperate clutch at the air.
Again the brown hand caught mine, and this time it did not release me.
"Come with me," my small captor said in a tone of command.
I did not resist, but I went with fear. To resist would have been a confession of cowardice, and there is no pride of courage like that of a boy of ten in a girl's presence. I might have made excuses, but with that little spire of smoke so close at hand, promising a fire, I, dripping and shivering as I was, could think of nothing to say in protest. I did declare feebly that I was not cold. My teeth chattered, and my body shook, and the girl looked up at me and laughed, and led me on.
James, a man of a superstitious and imaginative mind, in the quiet evenings on the barn-bridge had often told me strange stories in which giants and dwarfs, witches and fairies, entangled men in their spells. One of these tales, a favorite of his, came to me now and caused my feet to lag and my eyes to study my guide with growing distrust. It was of a lady called "Laura Lee," who, James said, sat on the bank of the big river combing her hair and singing, the beauty of her face and voice luring too curious sailormen to their destruction. It was a far cry from the big river to the mountain brook, from the lovely "Laura Lee" to this tiny girl, about whom all my careful scrutiny could discover no sign of a comb. Yet it did seem to me that there was a resemblance between the creature of the story, "the beautiful lady with blue eyes and golden hair who hung around the water," and this child of the woods who had no fear of snakes and boasted a professor for a father. She felt the tug of my resisting hand.
"You're not afraid of me, are you, boy?" she asked, turning to me sharply.
I, a boy of ten, afraid of this mite! Had she really been what I was beginning to suspect, a decoy sent out by the Professor to lure me to his den, she could not have used more cunning than to put to me such a question. I afraid? Though the blood still waved through me, I squared my shoulders, dissembled a laugh, and stepped before her, and it was I who led the way along the path into the open day of the clearing. There I came face to face with the Professor.
First I saw that he was human in shape and attire. Indeed, both his appearance and his occupation were exceedingly commonplace. When we came upon him he was leaning on a hoe and watching a passing cloud. Had he smiled at me, I think I must have fallen to my knees and lifted my hands in pleading, but he gave no sign of pleasure that another victim had fallen into his toils. In fact, there was something reassuring in the perfect indifference with which he regarded me. When the crackling of the bushes called his eyes to us, he threw one glance our way as though a trifle annoyed at being disturbed in his study. Then he returned to the contemplation of the sky. So I stood on the edge of the woods my hand holding the girl's, and watched him, and as the seconds passed and he did not change his form, but remained a lazy man leaning on a hoe in a patch of riotous weeds, fear left me and wonder took its place.
There was nothing about this man to merit the opprobrium of his name, and from appearances Stacy Shunk had as well warned me against being caught by Mr. Pound. In the village Mr. Pound was the mould of respectability. He always wore a short frock-coat of glossy black material, which strained itself to reach across his chest. So did the Professor. But his black had turned to green in spots, and he was so thin and the tails were so short and the coat so broad that it seemed as though its length and breadth had become transposed. It was a marvellously shabby coat, but even in its poverty there was no mistaking its blue blood. It was a decayed sartorial aristocrat, ill nourished and sad, but flaunting still the chiselled nose and high, white brow of noble lineage. Here it was all out of place. Mr. Pound wore a great derby which swelled up from his head like a black ominous cloud, and so dominated him that it seemed to be in him the centre of thought and action, and likely at any moment to catch a slant on the wind and carry him from earth. The Professor wore a great derby, too, but one without the buoyant, cloud-like character of Mr. Pound's. It was a burden to him. Only his ears kept it from dragging him to earth and smothering him, and now as he looked up at the sky I saw clear cut against its blackness a thin quixotic visage, shaded by a growth of stubble beard. I marvelled at a man working in such attire, for the sun baked the clearing, but watching, I saw how little he swung his hoe and how much he studied the sky. The whole place spoke of one who kept his coat on while he worked, and gazed at the clouds more than he hoed. It was wretched and dismal. It hid itself away in the woods from very shame of its thriftlessness. Age had twisted the house askew, so that the mud daubing crumbled from between the logs, and the chimney was ready to tumble through the roof with the next puff of wind. The shanty barn was aslant and leaned heavily for support on long props. The hay burst through every side of it, and the sole occupant, an ancient white mule, had burst through too, and with his head projecting from an opening and his ears tilted forward, he was regarding me critically. Everywhere the weeds were rampant. Everywhere there were signs of a feeble battle against them, bare spots where the Professor had charged, cut his way into their massed ranks, only to retreat wearied and beaten by their numbers.
Over this wretchedness the girl waved her hand and said: "Here is our farm." The blue ribbon in her hair bobbed majestically as she pointed across the stretch of weeds to the cabin. "And yonder is our house." She pinched my arm as a sign of caution. "And there is father," she added in a voice of muffled pride. "He's studying. Father's always studying."
She would have led me on in silence, not to disturb his labors with either mind or hoe, but he looked down and asked in a tone of yawning interest: "Who's the lad, Penelope?"
"I don't know," she answered. "He fell into the creek, and I pulled him out. I've brought him in to warm him up."
Wet, shivering boys emerging suddenly from the woods might have been a common sight about the Professor's home, did one judge from the way he received his daughter's explanation. He merely nodded and fell upon the weeds with newly acquired vigor. As we walked on we heard the spasmodic crunching of his hoe. But the noise stopped before we reached the house door, and the silence caused us to turn. He was standing erect looking at us.
"I think you'd better have something, lad," he cried, and, dropping the hoe, he hurried after us.
So it came that the Professor did me the honors of his home, and with such kindness that all my fear of him was soon gone. He stirred the fire to a roaring blaze and placed me in front of it. He spread my coat before the stove and drew my boots, and quickly my clothes began to steam, and I was as uncomfortably warm as before I had been uncomfortably cold. The shy politeness of my age forbade my protesting against this over-indulgence in heat, and not until the Professor declared that he must give me a dose to ward off sickness did I raise a feeble voice in remonstrance.
My protest was in vain. From the cupboard he brought a large black bottle. Had I seen my mother approaching me with a bottle as ominous as that, even her favorite remedy that I knew so well, the Seven Seals of Health and Happiness, I should have fled far away, but now the girl had my coat, and was turning it before the fire, while her father stood between me and my boots. He smiled so benignly that had he offered me our family nostrum I should have taken it without a grimace. I accepted the proffered glass and drank. Never had anything more horrible than that liquid fire passed my lips. In a moment I seemed to be turned inside out and toasting at a roaring blaze, and to increase my discomfort the Professor poured another dose, many times larger than the first. Had he held it toward me I should have abandoned my coat and boots, but to my relief he raised it to his lips and drained it off with a smile of keen appreciation of its merits.
"Now I feel better," he said, putting the bottle and glass on the table, and dropping into a chair.
It was strange to me that he, who was perfectly dry, should prescribe for himself exactly the same remedy that he had given to me for my wringing wetness. Yet there was no denying the beneficence of the dose, for I was most uncomfortably warm, and had he been feeling badly he was certainly now in fine spirits.
Drawing his daughter between his knees, he enfolded her in his arms protectingly. "Well, boy, I warrant you feel better," he said.
I replied that I did, and if he did not mind I should like to sit a little farther from the stove.
He consented, laughing. "And now we should introduce ourselves—formally," he went on. "You have met my daughter, Miss Blight—Miss Penelope Blight. I am Mr. Blight—Mr. Henderson Blight—in full, Andrew Henderson Blight. And you?"
"I am David Malcolm, sir," I answered.
"Ah!" He lifted his eyebrows. "You are one of those bumptious Malcolms."
"Yes, sir," I returned proudly, for the word "bumptious" had a ring of importance in it, and I had every reason to believe that the Malcolms were persons of quite large importance.
Why Mr. Blight laughed so loud at my reply I could not understand, but I supposed that in spite of his saturnine appearance he was a man of jovial temperament and I liked him all the more.
The wave of merriment past, he regarded me gravely. "Then you must be the son of the distinguished Judge Malcolm."
"Yes, sir," I said, pride rising triumphant over my polite humility.
"Penelope," he said, as though addressing only his daughter, "we are greatly honored. Our guest is a Malcolm—a sop of the celebrated Judge Malcolm."
By this adroit flattery my host won my heart, and in the comfort he had given me I lost all care for passing time. When I recalled James, it was with the thought that I was safe and he would find me, and I was troubled by no obligation to save him worry. This strange man interested me, he held my family in high regard, and I was well satisfied to see more of him. So I fixed my heels on the rung of my chair, folded my hands in my lap, sat up very straight, and watched him gravely. In this was the one grudge that I long bore against the Professor—that he baited me as he did, played with my child's pride, and with my innocent connivance vented his contempt on all that I held most dear. I did not understand the covert sneer against my father. Years have given me a broader view of life than was my father's, and at times I can smile with Henderson Blight at the solemnity with which he invested his judgeship, but mine is the smile of affection. With no knowledge of the law, with a power restricted to county contracts, when he sat on the bench in court week with his learned confrere, drew his chin into his pointed collar, and furrowed his brow, Blackstone beside him would have appeared a tyro in legal lore. The distinguished Judge Malcolm! So Henderson Blight spoke of him in raillery and so he was in truth, distinguished in his village and his valley, and as I have come to know men of fame in larger villages and broader valleys I can still look back to him with loving pride. Yet that day I sat complacently with my feet on the chair-rung, regarding the Professor with growing friendliness.
"You know my father?" I asked, seeking to draw forth more of this agreeable flattery.
"I have not the honor," he replied. "You see I am comparatively new in these parts—driven here, as you may suspect, by temporary adversity. But a man with ideas, David, must some day rise above adversity. All he needs is a field of action." He looked across the bare room and out of the door, where the weeds were charging in masses against the very threshold; he looked beyond them, above the wall of woods, to a small white cloud drifting in the blue. Young as I was, I saw that in his eyes which told me that could he reach the cloud he might set the heavens afire, but under his hand there lay no task quite worthy of him. "A field of action—an opportunity," he repeated meditatively. "It's hard, David, to have all kinds of ideas and no place to use them. When a man knows that he has it in him and——"
"Is that why Mr. Shunk calls you the Professor?" I interrupted.
Henderson Blight turned toward me a melancholy smile. "Yes," he said. "They all call me that, David, down in the village. Ask them who the Professor is. They will tell you, a vagrant, a lazy fellow with a gift of talking, a ne'er-do-well with a little learning. Ask Stacy Shunk. Ask Mr. Pound—wise and good Mr. Pound. He will tell you that ideas such as mine are a danger to the community, that I speak out of ignorance and sin. As if in every mountain wind I could not hear a better sermon than he can give me and find in every passing cloud a text to ponder over. They don't understand me at all."
The Professor drew his little daughter close to him and regarded me fixedly, as though to see if I understood.
"Yes, sir," I said. "I will ask them."
At this matter-of-fact reply his mouth twitched humorously. "And perhaps you will find that they are right," he said. "That's the worst of it. Even dull minds can generate a certain amount of unpleasant truth; that's what sets me on edge against them—when they ask me why I don't carry out some of my fine ideas instead of criticising others."
"Why don't you?" The question was from no desire to drive my host into a corner, but came from an innocent interest in him and a wish to get at something concrete.
He took no offence at my presumption, but rose slowly, lifted his arms above his head, and stretched himself. Unconsciously he answered my question.
"Had I the last ten years to live over again I would," he said as he paced slowly up and down the room. "Perhaps I shall yet. Long ago, when I was home on a little farm with the mountains tumbling down over it, I used to plan getting out in the world and doing something more than to earn three meals a day. It is stupid—the way men make meals the aim of their lives. I wanted something better, but to find it I had to have the means, and means could only be had by the most uncongenial work. So here I find myself on a still smaller farm with the mountains coming down on my very head. It was different with Rufus."
"Rufus who?" I demanded with the abruptness of an inquisitive youth who was getting at the facts at last.
The Professor halted by my chair. "My brother Rufus. You see, David, I taught school because it was easy work and gave me time to think. Rufus was a blockhead. He never had a real idea of any kind, but he could work. When he owned a cross-road store he was as proud as though he had written 'Paradise Lost.' He went to conquer the county town and did it by giving a prize with every pound of tea. He wrote me about it and you might have supposed that he had won a Waterloo. Yet he had his good points. Now if Rufus and I could have been combined, his physical energy with my mental, we should have done something really worth while."
"Yes, sir—yes, indeed, sir," I said politely. My conception of the Professor's meaning was very faulty, but I found him engrossing because he talked so fluently and made so many expressive gestures. He, I suspect, was pleased with a sympathetic listener, though one so small.
Laying a hand on my shoulder, he asked: "David, what are you going to do when you grow up?"
"I am going to be like my father," I replied.
"Like the distinguished Judge Malcolm?" he exclaimed. "That's a high ambition—for the valley." He was standing over me pulling his chin, and from the manner in which he eyed me I believe that he quite approved my choice of a model. Suddenly his arms shot out. "Try to be more, David. Try to be what Rufus and I combined would have been. Try to work for something better than three meals a day. Wake up, David, before you fall asleep in a land where everybody dozes like the very dogs."
To enforce his admonition his hands closed on my shoulders; he lifted me from my chair and began to shake me. Being so much in earnest he was rather violent, so that James, now in the doorway, saw me wincing and looking up with a grimace of fright and eyes of pleading.
"Steady there, man," he cried. He thought that he was just in time to rescue me from torture, and came forward with his whip raised.
"I beg your pardon," said the Professor, dropping me gently into my chair. "I didn't mean to hurt you, David. Did I hurt you?"
"Not at all, sir," I answered, and feeling more at ease with James near I made a dive for my coat and hat.
"Well," said James, glaring at my host. "I advise you to keep your hands off anyway, for if I catch you a-hurting of him again—" There was a terrible threat in the eyes and in the upraised butt of the whip, but suddenly the manner changed, for James was looking at the bottle on the table and it had a strangely quieting influence on his temper. The blaze died away from his eyes; his voice became soft to meekness; the whip fell limply. "I might think you'd done it a-purpose, Professor, and you know I allus tries to be friendly."
"I hardly believe David will complain of my treatment," returned the Professor. "You see he came to us all wet and cold from a tumble into the creek."
James turned to me with wide-opened eyes. "And I suppose you met a rattler," he cried.
"Oh, yes," I answered, as though this was but a petty incident of my day.
"Well, you are a boy!" From me his eyes moved to the bottle again, and as he looked at it he began to tremble and his legs lost their strength and he sank to a chair by the table. "You'll be the death of me yet, Davy. Why, my nerves has all gone from just thinking of what might have happened."
His hand was groping toward the bottle, and he gave the Professor a glance that asked for his permission.
"Penelope," the Professor said quietly, "the gentleman would like a glass of water."
Evidently the gentleman did not think that water would quiet his nerves, for he did not hear the command and was contented with the healing power nearer at hand. He poured the tumbler almost full of the fiery liquid and raised it to his lips. He winked gravely at Mr. Blight, threw back his head, and drained the glass without taking breath. The Professor failed to see the humor of the act, and, seizing the bottle, drove the cork in hard, while the unabashed James beamed on him, on Penelope, and on me.
"Thank you," he said, rising, and slowly drawing his sleeve across his mouth; "I feel better—much better. Another drop would set me up all right, but, as you say—" He looked hopefully from the bottle in the Professor's hands to the Professor's face, but finding there no promise of more of the sovereign remedy, he took my arm and led me to the door. "Davy, you must thank Mr. Blight and the young lady."
"You'll come again, Davy," Penelope cried.
"And all by yourself, Davy," the Professor added.
To me this remark was of the kindest, but it irritated James. He picked up his whip and fumbled with it while he stared at our host, who stood by the table, with one hand on the bottle and the other pointing the way over the clearing. "You're a good talker, Professor," James drawled. "You can argue down Stacy Shunk and make Mr. Pound tremble, but when it comes to manners—the manners of a gentleman—I never see such a lack of them."
With this parting shot he strode away so fast that I could hardly keep pace with him. At the edge of the woods, I looked back and saw the father and child in the slanting doorway waving their hands to me. From his window in the barn the white mule was watching with ears pricked, and now he brayed a hostile note, as though he divined the trouble which could come at the heels of a wandering boy. I waved my hat and plunged into the bush.
"Now, Davy, tell me how it all happened," said James, drawing himself up very straight in the saddle as he started the horses toward home.
I began to tell him. He broke into a song. When I tried to make myself heard, his voice swelled up louder. Never before had James sung as he was singing now, and I watched him first with wonder and then with increasing terror. As we dragged our way up the ridge, out of the narrow gut, he droned his music in maudlin fashion in time to the slow motion of the beasts. When the valley stretched before us he fairly thundered, striving to make himself heard across the broad land. I hoped that before we entered the village exhaustion would silence him, but in answer to my appeals he raised his voice to a pitch and volume that brought the people running out of their houses, and he seemed to find great pleasure in the attention that he was attracting. The high throne from which I had looked down so proudly that morning as I rode to my fishing became a pillory of shame. I could not escape from it, for the whip was swinging in time to the music, and the horses, confused by the riot, were rearing and plunging. I had to cling to the harness with all my strength. We halted at the store. It was quite unintentional and made the climax of a boisterous progress. James, lurching back in his saddle, would have fallen but for the support of the rein. The horses stopped suddenly. He shot forward, clutching at the air, and hurtled into the road. From my height and from my shame, I saw the whole world running to witness our plight—men, women, and children, it seemed to me hundreds of them, who must have been lying in wait for this very thing to happen. Through them Mr. Pound forced his way, waving back the press until he reached the side of the fallen man.
"James," he said, looking down and speaking not unkindly, "how often have I warned you!"
The answer was a look of childish wonder.
"Come, come," said Mr. Pound, taking a limp, sprawling arm and lifting the culprit to his feet. "Tell me, who was the tempter who brought you to this?"
James gazed stupidly at the minister. Then a devil must have seized him, for in his nature he was a gentle soul, as I knew, who had heard him so often crooning over his horses or sitting on the barn-bridge of an evening sorrowing for Annie Laurie and Nellie Grey, women whom he had never seen. Before all the town he raised his hand and brought it crashing down on Mr. Pound's cloud-like hat.
My mother was a McLaurin of Tuckapo Valley. In the mid-part of the eighteenth century, when that valley was a wild forest, her great-grandfather, Angus McLaurin, came out of the air, out of the nothingness of a hiatus in our genealogy, and settled along the banks of the Juniata. His worldly goods were strapped on the back of a cow; his sole companion was his wife; his sole defence his rifle. To the dusky citizens of the valley he seemed a harmless person, and they sold him some thousands of acres for a few pounds of powder and beads. They must have smiled when he attacked the wilderness with an axe, as we should smile at the old woman who tried to ladle up the sea. With what chagrin must they look down now from the Happy Hunting Ground to see McLaurinville the busy metropolis of McLaurin township, and McLaurins rich and poor, McLaurins in brick mansions and McLaurins in log cabins where they once chased the deer and bear! My mother was one of the McLaurins, which is to say that she was born on the very spot where Angus felled the first tree in Tuckapo. These McLaurins were naturally the proudest of all their wide-spread family, some of whom had gone down to the poor-house, and some up and over the mountains to be lost and snubbed among the great ones of other valleys. There was a tradition in our family, which grew stronger as the years covered the roots of our family tree, that Angus was really The McLaurin, chief of the clan, and had fled over the sea to save his head after Prince Charlie's futile struggle for a crown. With my mother tradition had become history. She had one grudge against Walter Scott, whose novels, with the Bible, made her sole reading, and this was that he never mentioned "our chief," as she called him. More than once I can remember her looking up from the pages of "Redgauntlet," and declaring that had the Prince been a more capable man we should be living in a castle in Scotland. From the incompetence of Prince Charlie, then, it came that my mother entered life in a red brick house in McLaurinville instead of in a highland keep, and as it is just six miles as the crow flies over the ridges to Malcolmville in Windy Valley, she met my father in the course of time, and in the course of time the two great families were united in my small self. The Malcolms were a great family, too. They were a proud people, though not in the same way as my McLaurin kin. They had no fine traditions based on the fragments of a Scotchman's kilt. Quite to the contrary, my father used to boast that they had been just simple, God-fearing folk, Presbyterians in every branch for generations, and sometimes he delighted in the idea that he was a self-made man. As he always chose a large company to make this boast in, it was to my mother a constant source of irritation, and she would contradict him with heat, and point out that his father before him had farmed three hundred acres of land, while his grandfather on his mother's side had been for fifty years the pastor of the Happy Hollow church.
Knowing this little of our family history, it is possible to realize the consternation which prevailed when in the middle of a formal dinner-party, in the presence of Mr. Pound, Squire Crumple, and that most critical of women, Miss Agnes Spinner, in the presence of these and a half-dozen others of the most important persons in the neighborhood, in the silence which followed the appearance of the first asparagus of spring, I, a small boy, suddenly projected my head from the shadow of the good minister and asked: "Mother, what is a bumptious Malcolm?"
Mr. Pound lowered his fork, turned half around, and looked at me. Miss Agnes Spinner began to choke and had to cover her face with her napkin, while Squire Crumple with great solicitude fell to patting her very hard between the shoulders. Mrs. Pound glanced at my father, and then found a sudden interest in her coffee, pouring it from her cup into her saucer, and from her saucer into her cup, so often that she seemed to be reducing it to a freezing mixture. Mrs. Crumple discovered something awry with the lace of her gown, for she drew in her chin, and one eye examined her vertical front while the other covertly circled the table. Old Mr. Smiley, never an adroit man in society, crossed his knife and fork on his plate, lifted his napkin half across his face like a curtain, and over the top of it stared at my mother as though he were waiting with me to learn just what a bumptious Malcolm could be.
My father never lost his self-command. He seemed not to have heard me, for he leaned over the table, and in a voice designed to smother any further interruptions from my quarter, said: "Mrs. Malcolm, my dear, Mr. Pound's coffee is all." As a matter of fact Mr. Pound's coffee was not "all." My mother, never niggardly, had just filled it for the third time to overflowing, and a full cup rose from a full saucer; but she had an opportunity, while turning solicitously to her guest, to give me a frown, which in private would have found fuller expression in a slipper. As Miss Spinner was still choking, my father proposed dropping a brass door-key down her back as the most efficacious of cures. Had she consented to this heroic treatment I might have been shunted into silence, but her prompt refusal to allow any one to do anything for her left diplomacy at its wit's end. In the portentous silence which followed I was able to repeat my question with more incisive force.
"Yes, but, mother, what is a bumptious Malcolm?"
"David," said my father sternly, "children should be seen and not heard!"
"But, father," I exclaimed, being aroused by this injustice to defend myself, "Professor Blight said that I must be one of those bumptious Malcolms. Those were his exact words—bumptious Malcolms."
As the horse saith among the trumpets, ha! ha! and smelleth the battle afar off—the thunder of the captains and the shouting—so Mr. Pound lifted his great mane at the mention of the Professor and swept the table with eyes full of fire.
"Ha! Judge Malcolm, what have I not told you of this man? Don't you recall that I warned you we should have to deal with him? When I found him making trouble in my flock, setting the sheep against the shepherd, I told you the time would come when he would strive to set the son against the father."
While I could not understand in what way I had turned against my father, it was plain to me that the term which the Professor had applied to my family was one of opprobrium. It was clear, too, that it had considerable explosive power, for after the first frightened hush it stirred the whole company into a terrific outburst against my friend of yesterday. Even Miss Spinner stopped choking, and announced that she "declared." What she declared was not imparted, but as the general trend of exclamation was against the Professor I knew that did she continue her statement it must be aimed at him.
My father leaned back and grasped the knobs of his chair-arms. "David," he said slowly, "when did Henderson Blight speak in terms so disrespectful—no, that is not the word I want—in this sarcastic—that is hardly correct—when did he speak thus of us?"
"Yesterday, sir," I answered, "when I was in his house getting warm. But he didn't mean anything bad, father. Why, he told me that you were the celebrated Judge Malcolm."
I expected that such gentle flattery would propitiate my father. Instead, his brows knitted, and he shot forward his head and asked: "The what kind of a judge, David?"
Before I could reply Mr. Pound injected himself into the examination.
"Pardon me, Judge, but I should like to ask my young friend if Henderson Blight smiled as he said it."
"No, sir," I answered promptly. "He was just as solemn as you are now."
Miss Spinner fell to choking again. My mother gave vent to a long-drawn "Dav-id!" an exclamation which I had come to fear as much as the Seven Seals, and her use of it now so unjustly made me feel as if every man's hand were against me, for Mr. Pound was solemn, and in using the best comparison at hand I meant no ill.
"Dav-id!" said my mother again, lifting an admonishing finger.
The good minister saw nothing offensive in my remark, but even repeated it with a nod of understanding. "As solemn as I am now. Judge Malcolm, your son has quite accurately described this man Blight's way of speaking—of saying one thing when he means quite another. I should hardly dare repeat some of the terms which have come to my ears as having been applied by him to me. Just the other day, as we were walking through town, I overheard him talking to Stacy Shunk, and he referred to my wife as the lovely Mrs. Pound. Now I have no objections to persons speaking of my wife as lovely, but I want them to mean it and not to infer quite the opposite."
It was Mrs. Pound's turn to "declare," but she was clearer in the meaning than Miss Spinner. She would have told us some of the things Mr. Blight had said of Mr. Pound with a meaning quite as inverted. My mother, seeing the tempest rising, sought to still it by protesting that she was sure that in this instance the Professor was quite sincere.
"I know he meant it," she said over and over again, until Mrs. Pound was unable to make herself heard and retired to silence and coffee.
But Mr. Pound, a believer in truth at all hazards, would not admit that the Professor did mean it. "A person of such an insinuating character is a danger to the community," he said. "I have repeatedly warned the judge against him, Mrs. Malcolm, and now my warning has come home. Yesterday's deplorable incident has been forgotten by me; I have blotted it from my memory because I realized that you were in spirit struck down as I was, though not so publicly. I have forgiven James. Since he has come to me sober and penitent, and confessed where he got the liquor, I have passed his part in the affair by with a kindly warning. But I cannot pass by the real culprit, the man who struck at me through the weak James, and almost felled me before the town, the man who furnished James with the sources of his intoxication. His punishment I leave to you." Mr. Pound drove his fork into an asparagus stalk to show that he had said all that could be said and all that he would say. That he had said enough to bring others to his way of thinking was evident from the gravity with which my father shook his head.
"David, when I questioned you as to yesterday's unfortunate occurrence you confessed that this man Blight gave James the liquor."
"No, sir," I returned quickly. "I didn't say that."
"How was it, then?" my father asked.
I had pleaded with my mother to allow me to be one of this great dinner-party, that I might partake, first-hand, of the good things which I had seen preparing. I was to enjoy the feast in a silence proper to my years. So I had promised. And now one of those dangerous questions which rise like a rocket from a boy's lips had transformed me from a small guest whose part was to sit silently in the shadow of the mighty clergyman, and there only to even up the side of the table, into a person of unpleasant importance. Had my father rapped for order, risen, and announced that we had the good fortune to have with us Master David Malcolm, who would tell us where James found the source of his intoxication, he could not have made me more dreadfully conspicuous. I wanted to run, but, if nothing else, my father's eyes would have held me. I wanted, above all, to keep silent because I loved James, who from the day when I had first toddled out of the house into the broad world of hay and wheat fields had been almost my sole playfellow. As yet I did not know what a bumptious Malcolm was; I did not understand the man who always said what he did not mean; I remembered him only as the kindly host who had found me dripping and cold and had made me gloriously warm. And more than that, I remembered the little girl who had dragged me from the creek. Something in the gaunt man who lived among the clouds, something in the ragged creature who lifted a smiling face and ribboned head above the weeds of that lonely clearing, had touched me strangely. It seemed that I must be their only friend, and for them I would tell the truth. I should have told the truth but for Mr. Pound.
"I said, sir," I answered my father, "that James just took the bottle and——"
"The bottle was Blight's, was it not?" broke in Mr. Pound.
"Yes, sir," I said.
It had dawned on me the afternoon before, as James and I rode home, just what was the medicine I had taken. It was hard for me to believe that the vilely tasting stuff was whiskey, which I had heard men drank for pleasure, but when all doubt was removed by the exclamations of the crowd who hovered about the prostrate man I was overwhelmed by a sense of my own sin. Yet I had feared to confess to my mother the dose which I had taken. It would only make her unhappy, I had told myself, and I had tried to still my turbulent conscience with the plea that my silence was saving others. Now simple justice demanded that I tell everything, even to the admission of my own fault.
"Father," I cried, "the Professor didn't want James——"
"It is high time the community were rid of this man," Mr. Pound interrupted.
"David!" said my father, and I shrank into the minister's shadow.
"And it seems to me, Squire Crumple," Mr. Pound went on, "it is clearly your duty as a justice of the peace to act."
"Act how?" cried the astonished squire.
"Have him arrested!" replied Mr. Pound, making the dishes rattle under the impact of his fist on the table.
At this suggestion every one forgot the dinner and sat up very straight, staring in amazement at the bold propounder of it.
"Arrest him," exclaimed the squire, "and for what?"
"For anything that will rid the community of him," snapped Mr. Pound. "Do you not agree with me, Judge?"
The Judge quite agreed with Mr. Pound. He admitted that until the unfortunate occurrence of yesterday he had opposed any proceedings which were not altogether regular in law. "And yet," he said gravely, "it is incumbent on us to rid the community of him. We all know that from the porch of Snyder's store he has been preaching doctrines that are not only revolutionary but, if the ladies will pardon me, I will call damnable. What good is it for us to have Mr. Pound in the pulpit for one day of the week, and this glib-tongued man contradicting him for seven. Yet no statute forbids him to do this. What can you suggest, Mr. Pound?"
Mr. Pound sought an inspiration in the ceiling. "The man has no visible means of support," he said after a moment. "His child is badly clothed, and, I presume, badly fed. Right there is an indictment. Vagrancy."
This bold suggestion was greeted with general approval save by the squire, who protested that a man could not be called a vagrant who had paid seventy dollars in cash for his clearing and was never known to beg or steal.
"But I tell you he is a moral vagrant," argued Mr. Pound, "and I will make such a charge against him. It will be your duty then, Squire Crumple, to offer him his choice between six weeks in jail and leaving the valley and taking his bottle with him."
Still the squire was unconvinced, but he saw himself being overawed by my father and the minister, and his efforts to combat them evolved futile excuses.
"Who will arrest him?" he pleaded.
"Haven't we a constable?" retorted my father. "What did we elect Byron Lukens for?"
"Precisely!" cried Mr. Pound.
"The one arrest he has made was a source of endless trouble," returned Squire Crumple. "He had to lock the prisoner overnight in his best room, and his wife has since said distinctly and repeatedly that——"
"You can avoid trouble with Mrs. Lukens by arresting him in the morning," said Mr. Pound.
"And the chances are he will leave the valley rather than go to jail," my father added.
"But suppose he is cantankerous and chooses jail, what will we do with the girl?" argued the reluctant magistrate.
"The girl?" Mr. Pound waved his great hands about the table. "Surely we can find her a better home and better parents than she has now. Surely there are among us good women who will esteem it a privilege to care for an orphaned child."
My mother said "surely," too, and so did all the other good women at the board. Even Miss Spinner, while not prepared to receive the child into her home, was ready to teach her "as she should be taught."
"And she should be taught," my mother broke in. "Her father has been the stumbling-block. I heard him say myself to a committee of our Ladies' Aid that he would gladly place her in Miss Spinner's Sunday-school class if Miss Spinner could convince him that she had any knowledge worth imparting. I never liked to tell you that before, Miss Spinner; I feared it might hurt your feelings."
Miss Spinner's feelings were decidedly hurt, and she began to vie with Mr. Pound in urging that the valley be rid of the obnoxious Professor. So drastic were the measures which she called for, and so vigorous her demands on the gentle squire, that he retreated on Mr. Pound for aid, advocating all that the minister had proposed as the most humanitarian method of dealing with the case.
"A warrant will issue to-night, but to avoid trouble with the constable's wife I shall order it served in the morning," he said at last as he stood by his chair, folding his napkin. Thus he eased his conscience by making the warrant responsible for its own existence, and his words struck deeper into my heart for their impressive legal form.
A warrant will issue! As I slipped out by the kitchen this rang in my ears with the insistence of a refrain. Because I had disobeyed, left my post of safety, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of a few small trout, a warrant would issue, a ghoulish offspring of my reckless spirit, seize the gentle Professor in its claws and drag him to ignominy. A warrant would issue! And the blue ribbon would no longer bob majestically in Penelope's hair, but would droop with her father's shame. The picture of them standing in the cabin door, waving their farewell and calling to me to come again, was very clear in my mind, and made sharper the sense of the trouble which I had brought to them. Three times I ran around the house wildly, as though I would blur the picture by merely travelling in a circle; but instead it grew clearer, and the Professor seemed to regard me with eyes more kindly and Penelope to call to me in a more friendly voice. So became clearer my obligation to help them, and intent on making my plea I burst into the parlor. The scene there chilled my ardor. In the dim evening light, like sombre ghosts, the company sat in a wide circle about the borders of the room, erect and uncomfortable as one must sit on slippery horse-hair, listening to Miss Spinner at the piano droning through the first bars of "Sweet Violets."
"Ssh!" exclaimed my father, and even the gloom could not hide his frown.
"But, father, the Professor didn't——"
My mother tiptoed across the room and gently pushed me out of the door. "David, go to bed!" she commanded.
To bed I went, but not to sleep. Did I close my eyes I saw the Professor in the clutches of Byron Lukens being dragged along the village street amid the jeers of the people. Swallows fluttered in the chimney, and I heard there the echoes of the struggle when the constable laid his hand on the shoulders of my friend. The wind moaned in the trees, and I fancied Penelope now upbraiding me for the trouble I had brought upon them, now pleading with me to send her father home to her. A faint crowing sounded from the orchard, hailing the shadow of the morning, the gray ghost rising from the dark ridges. I slipped from my bed to the window, and watched the valley as it shook itself from sleep. How slowly came that day! The birds stirred in their nests, but, like me, they dared not venture forth into a world so filled with uncanny shadows. Yet the day did come. Over by the dark, towering wall that hemmed in the valley the gray turned to pink, and I could see the trees on the ridge-top like a fringe against the brightening sky. Louder sounded the crowing in the orchard, and to me it brought a warning that I must hurry. I looked to the northward, and saw only the mists covering the land, and in my fancy beyond them the mountains where bear and wildcat lurked. There the Professor and Penelope lay unconscious that even now the terrible warrant might be issuing and at any moment would fall upon them. There was only one thing for me to do, and though when I had closed the house door softly behind me and turned my back to the reddening east the mists were tenfold more mysterious and the mountains tenfold more forbidding, I ran straight down the road into the gloom, as though the warrant were racing with me.
When with a last desperate spurt I ran into the clearing, I saw the Professor sitting in the cabin door, smoking his pipe and basking in the sunshine as though life held no trouble for him. I believed that I was in time to warn him of the threatening danger, that I had outsped the warrant, that I had outrun the redoubtable Lukens, and in the luxury of that thought my overtaxed strength ebbed away and I sank down on a stump, hot and panting. I had run a hard race for so small a boy. At times it seemed as though the mountains drew back from me, that every one of the five miles had stretched to ten, but I kept bravely on, going at top speed over the level places, dragging wearily up the steep hills, cutting through fields and woods where I could save distance, following every brief rest with a spasmodic burst of energy, and now I had come to the last stretch, the ragged patch of weeds, exhausted. I tried to call my friend, but my throat was parched and I could not raise my voice above a whisper, and as my head barely lifted over the wild growth of his farm, he smoked on, unconscious of my presence. Something in a distant tree-top engaged his attention, something vastly interesting, it seemed to me, for he never turned my way to see my waving hand. So I struggled to my feet and staggered on. At last he heard me, sprang up, and came striding over the clearing. Then my tired legs crumpled up; I sat down suddenly and, supported by my sprawling hands, waited for him.
"Davy—Davy Malcolm," he cried, "who has been chasing you now?"
"A warrant!" I gasped. "Mr. Lukens, he is coming with a warrant to arrest you!"
The tall form bent over me and I was raised to my feet. Supporting me in his strong grasp, he held me off from him, and for a moment regarded me with grave eyes.
"And you've come to warn me, eh, Davy?" he said.
"Yes, sir," I answered. "Mr. Pound he thinks you are a dangerous man. Mr. Pound he wants to get you out of the valley. Mr. Pound he——"
The Professor seemed to have little fear of Mr. Pound and as little interest in him. "Never mind the learned Doctor Pound," he exclaimed, and his mouth twitched in a smile inspired by the mere thought of the minister. "The point is, Davy, that you left home before daylight to tell me, and you must have run nearly all the way—eh, boy?"
"I had to," I panted. "You see, Mr. Lukens he was to come here early for you, and I thought if I was in time you might run away."
To run away seemed to me the only thing for the Professor to do, and I expected that at the mere mention of the terrible Lukens he would scurry to the mountain-top as fast as his legs would carry him. Yet he held the constable in as little terror as he did Mr. Pound, for instead of fleeing he drew me to him, and held me in an embrace so tight as to make me struggle for breath and freedom.
"Davy, Davy!" he cried; "you understand me, boy. You are a friend, a real friend—my only friend."
Again and again he said it—that I was his only friend—and not until I cried out that I had had no breakfast and would he please not squeeze me so tight did he release me, and then it was to keep fast hold on my arm and lead me to the house. Penelope had heard us and met us half-way, running, halting suddenly before us, and staring wide-eyed at the bedraggled boy who lurched along at her father's side.
"Davy," she cried, "have you come fishin' again?"
My answer was to hold out my hand to her, and together we three went into the house. There, with my breath regained, and my parched throat relieved, and my tired legs dangling from the most luxurious of rocking-chairs, my spirits rose with my returning strength. It nettled me to see the Professor giving so little heed to my warning. I had performed what was for me a herculean task, and yet the precious moments which I had fought so hard to gain for him were being frittered away in preparations for a breakfast for me. He was evidently grateful for what I had done, but he was getting no good from it. Had I run all those miles to tell him that the bogie man was coming he could not have moved about his cooking with less concern. For a time I watched him with growing indignation, yet I hesitated to mention the purpose of my errand before Penelope, who had fixed herself before my chair and, with her hands clasped behind her back and her head lifted high, was gazing at me in admiring silence. My uneasiness increased as the minutes flew by, and when the first sharp demands of appetite had been satisfied I looked at the Professor, now seated at the other side of the table, and nodded my head toward his daughter, and winked with a sageness beyond my years.
"Mr. Blight, hadn't you otter be going?" I asked.
The Professor, in answer, laughed outright. He clasped his hands to his sides and rocked on two legs of his chair in exuberance. "Davy—Davy, you'll be the death of me yet!"
To me this seemed a very hard thing to say, as I had no wish to be the death of the Professor; but, quite to the contrary, had made a great effort and had risked much trouble at home in my desire to help him. Now I was beginning to think that I had done as well to drop a post-card in the mail to warn him of his danger. The disappointment brought tears to my eyes. He saw them. His face turned very gentle and he leaned across the table toward me.
"Davy, I can't thank you enough for what you have done. But don't worry about me—I'm not afraid of Byron Lukens."
At the name of the constable Penelope broke into laughter, and placed a hand on my arm to draw my eyes to her. "Mr. Lukens was here this morning, Davy, just before you came. And, oh, you should have seen father knock him down!"
My fork and knife clattered to the plate as I turned to the girl, and she saw doubt and wonder in my eyes.
"He did!" she cried. "And oh, Davy, you'd have died laughing if you had seen Mr. Lukens tumble over the wood-pile and hit his head against the rain-barrel."
I stared at the Professor. I had liked him for his kindness to me and had pitied him for his misfortune. Now I was filled with admiration for the physical prowess of this man who could whip the intrepid constable, for in Malcolmville there was no one whom I held in so much awe as Byron Lukens. He was mighty in bulk; his voice was proportioned to his size; his words fitted his voice. Often I had sat on the store-porch and listened to his stories of his feats, and I believed that to cross him in any way must be the height of daring. The tale of the men whom he had whipped in the past and promised to whip in the future if they raised a finger against him would almost have made a census of the valley. That this frail man should have resisted him, that those thin hands should have been raised against him, that the intellectual Professor should have knocked down the Hercules of our village, was beyond my comprehension. So my friend across the table saw amazement welling up from my open mouth and eyes.
He shrugged his shoulders. "There was nothing else to do, Davy. He beat you here after all. Probably you missed him in your short cuts over the fields. Why, it was hardly light when I heard him pounding at the door. He said he had come to arrest me." Rising and drawing himself to his full height, the Professor began to tell me of the early morning conflict, forgetting, in his indignation, how small were his two auditors, and throwing out his voice as though to reach a multitude. "He had come to arrest me—me; said that I was a vagrant; spoke to me as you wouldn't speak to a dog, and told me to come along—to come along with him, a hulking, boastful brute. Why, it was all I could do to keep my temper, Davy. I answered him as politely as I could, said that I had done no wrong, and certainly would not allow myself to be arrested. And then——"
"Then father knocked him down," cried Penelope, clapping her hands. "Oh, Davy, you'd otter seen it."
"Should have, Penelope, should have seen," said the Professor reprovingly, and having done his duty as a father and a man of education he drove his fist into the air to show with what quickness and force he could use it. "Yes, that's the way I did it, David. He applied an oath to me and laid a hand on my shoulder. What else could I do? I appeal to you—what else could I do but knock him down?"
"And didn't he whip you for it, sir?" I cried, still doubting that the giant could have fallen beneath such a blow.
"Whip me?" The Professor laughed. "Do you think that great bully could whip me? Why, David, you quite hurt my feelings. By the time he had gone over the wood-pile into the rain-barrel there wasn't any fight left in him. He didn't even speak till he was safe across the clearing. Then you should have seen him. He has gone down to the village to get help; he is going to teach me what it means to assault an officer of the law; he is going to send me to jail for life." The Professor glared out of the open doorway as fiercely as though the constable were standing there and he defying him. Then suddenly he leaned over the table to me, and fixing his eyes on mine asked in a hoarse voice: "David, did you ever hear of such injustice?"
"No, sir," I answered. "But Mr. Pound said——"
At the mention of Mr. Pound the Professor sat down and the table reeled under his fist. "Pound—he is at the bottom of it all. He has said that I am a good-for-nothing loafer and the county should be rid of me. Maybe he is right. But he won't have his way. I have done nothing and I will not go—do you hear that, Davy, I will not go. Now tell me what Mr. Pound said."
In a faltering voice I began my story with that fateful home ride with James. As I went on I lost my diffidence in my interest in the tale, and spoke rapidly till the need of breath slowed me down. There were retrogressions to speak of things which I had forgotten, and many corrections where I had slightly misquoted Miss Spinner, Mr. Smiley, or some other equally unimportant person. I told the story as a small boy recites to his elders the details of some book which he has read; so the Professor had to check me frequently with admonitions not to mind what Mrs. Crumple said about my mother's ice-cream and such matters, but to tell him exactly what my father said of him. Still I persisted in my own way, bound that whatever I did should be done thoroughly, even though he might hold in contempt my effort to be of service to him. When at last there was not a word left untold, he leaned back in his chair and gazed at me with a look of utter helplessness.
"Well, what am I to do now?" he cried. His head shot toward me and his hands were held out in appeal. "Davy, can't you suggest something?"
In my pride at being asked for advice by one so old, I sat up very straight as I had seen my father do and allowed a proper interval of silence before I spoke.
"Yes," I replied slowly. "If you were me I'd run away before Mr. Lukens got back."
This excellent suggestion was met by a frown so fierce that I pushed back from the table in alarm.
"Run away?" he exclaimed. "Why, that's just what they want me to do. What have I done that I should run away? And if I did, what would become of Penelope?"
He drew his little daughter close to his side, while he looked out of the door into the patch of blue sky, seeking there some inspiration. His lips moved, and I knew that he was asking again and again of that little patch of sky what he should do. Then suddenly he rose, as though the answer had been given, for he clapped on his hat, stood erect with shoulders squared and hands clasped behind him, facing the open door with the demeanor of a man whose mind was made up, who was ready to meet the world and defy it. This, to me, was the hero who had knocked down the constable, and I imagined him confronting a dozen like Byron Lukens and piling them one on top of the other, for surely things had come to pass that the man would have to hold the clearing against an army. But as suddenly the shoulders drooped, the back bowed, the head sank, and he turned to me.
"Davy, Davy, what shall I do?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.
As I was silent, he addressed the same appeal to Penelope, and she, in answer, ran to the door and pointed across the clearing.
"Look, father," she shouted; "he has come back."
Byron Lukens had indeed returned and with a heavy reinforcement. Five men climbed out of the wagon which had appeared from the road, and now they began a careful reconnoissance of the house. As they stood on the edge of the woods looking toward us I marked each one of them, and the problem uppermost in my mind concerned what I should do myself, for I was fairly cornered. I could not run away, for they were watching every exit from the cabin, and there was not one of them who would not recognize me did I flee over the open. The presence of James alone meant my undoing, and there he was, standing by the constable, eying the place with a lowering glare which threatened a storm, for here he had fallen and here he would redeem himself by some act of exceptional daring. Caught in this net, I hid behind the door-post and peered around it through a protecting shield made by the Professor's coat-tails. In the silence I could hear my heart beat.
There was one thing for the Professor to do now, and he did that well. He gathered his scattered senses and stood quietly in the doorway, smoking, leaving to the invaders the burden of action. Their indecision gave him strength.
"The idea of my giving in to a crew like that," he said to me in a steady voice. "It's a pity Mr. Pound didn't come, and your father too, David, that they might see how little I cared for their warrants." Then, to show how undisturbed he was by their presence, he called to them pleasantly: "Good morning, gentlemen."
This mild greeting gave courage to our foes and Stacy Shunk advanced. His coming was a sign that reason was to be used before force, and with his first step he began to gesticulate and to protest his friendly purpose. But he could not argue with any acumen while his bare feet were traversing a carpet of briers, and a silence followed, broken by exclamations as he came on slowly but resolutely as though he walked on eggs. Half-way over the clearing he stopped with a cry of pain, and the herald's mission was forgotten in the search for a thorn. The picture of Stacy Shunk balancing on one foot while he nursed the other in his hands made the Professor laugh hilariously and he called to him to hurry.
But Stacy would come no farther. He planted himself firmly on his bleeding feet; his great black hat-brim hid his face, but the voice which came from under it was soft, and he held out his hands as though he offered his dear friend the protection of his arms.
"You know what these other fellows want, Professor, and you know I'd only come along to help you. The whole thing was only a joke first off, but you've gone and assaulted the constable, and there'll be trouble if you don't settle it and be reasonable. Now, my advice is——"
"Thank you for your advice, Stacy Shunk," exclaimed the Professor. "But you know as well as I do that I have done nothing that I can be arrested for."
"Of course I do," returned the herald. "But you hadn't otter upset the preacher so. You'd otter believe what he says, and when he preaches about Noah and the like you hadn't otter produce figures in public to show that Noah and his boys couldn't have matched up all the animals and insects in the time they was allowed, let alone stabling 'em in a building three hundred cupids long and thirty cupids wide and three stories high. Now I allus held——"
"I don't care what you held," said the Professor sharply. "You can't get me into an argument now. I suppose it was unwise of me to try to make you people think, but you can't arrest a man for simply being unpopular. This is my home, and no law of your twopenny village can make me leave it."
"I'm not going to argue about Noah," protested Stacy Shunk. "As your friend, I'm trying——"
"As my friend, you had best go home and take your other friends with you." The Professor's voice was dry and crackling.
He reached behind the door and took up the long rifle which leaned against the wall. There was no threat in his action, for he held it under his arm and looked off to the mountain-top as though he were trying to make up his mind whether or not it was a good day for hunting. Stacy Shunk saw another purpose beneath this careless air, and he abandoned argument. Without heeding the briers, he fled to his friends; he did not even stop there, but plunged into the bushes, and above them I saw his head and hands moving together in an excited colloquy. The ludicrous figure which he cut in his retreat excited the Professor to laughter, in which Penelope joined, clapping her hands with mirth. I, wiser than she as to the danger of firearms, and trusting less to her father's mild intentions, broke into tearful pleading.
"Please don't shoot, Professor," I whimpered, tugging at his coat-tails to drag him back. "They won't hurt you, I know they won't."
"Don't worry, Davy," the Professor said with a reassuring smile. "They wouldn't hurt any one, nor would I. Didn't Shunk run at the mere sight of a gun? Why, if I pointed it at the rest of them they would fly like birds."
It was not fair to judge the courage of the others by the cowardice of Stacy Shunk. The constable's boasts came out of the past to goad him into action, and while Joe Holmes, the blacksmith, might have been very weak in the knees, he was not ready to retreat so early in the action when his helper, Thaddeus Miller, was watching him. As for James, despite the fall his moral qualities had taken in my estimation, I believed him to be a man of unflinching bravery, and he it was that I feared most when at last the advance began across the clearing, the four moving abreast with military precision, while Stacy Shunk hurled at them many admonitions to be cautious. I knew that nothing would stop James; that while his comrades might scatter like birds, he would come on to a deadly hand-to-hand conflict, and I pictured the Professor and him swallowing each other like the two snakes of tradition. I forgot my own safety, and threw both arms about one of the Professor's legs and tried to pull him into the house. Penelope, too, lost her courage when she saw the numbers of the enemy and their bold advance, and she clung, wailing, to her father's waist. He shook us off, and for the first time spoke to us sharply, and so sharply that the child reached her hand to mine and together we slunk into a dark corner.
Of what followed we saw nothing. We heard the voices, nearer and nearer. Then the men seemed to halt and to address the Professor in tones of argument. We are a peaceable folk in our valley and little given to the use of firearms, and I suspect that the constable and his aids really knew the Professor to be a peaceable man or they would not have come thus far with such boldness. To come farther they hesitated until they had made it perfectly clear that they acted in his best interests. Even Byron Lukens was willing to let "bygones be bygones."
"I'm just doing of my duty, Mr. Blight," he said in a wheedling tone, "and if you'll come along quiet-like I'll say nothing about it to the squire."
"You can fix it all up with the squire," I heard Joe Holmes say. "There's really nothing again you, only you must comply with the law."
Then James spoke—to my astonishment not in a bold demand that the Professor surrender, but softly, asking him to be careful with the gun.
"Nobody has nothing again you, Professor," he said as gently as he would have spoken to me, and hearing this I took heart, for with James in such a temper there seemed no danger of a serious clash.
"No one has nothing against me," the Professor repeated in a tone of irony. "You only want to drag me through the village before the squire. Tell the squire to come here to me and explain."
There was a moment of silence. It was so quiet outside that even the birds seemed to be listening and watching; then came the swish of weeds trampled under foot.
"Be off, the whole crew of you," cried the man in the doorway, and I saw the butt of the gun rise to his shoulder.
I wanted to cry out, but my throat was parched with fright, and Penelope was clinging to my neck in silent terror.
There was another moment of silence. Then James began to laugh in that vast ebullient way of his, and a bit of dry brush snapped sharply under some foot. The report of the rifle shook the cabin. It must have shaken the mountains too, it seemed to me, for the floor beneath me rocked in time to the echoes of it rattling among the hills, and I heard a wild scream, the cry of a man hurt to death, and the shrill cries of startled birds fleeing to the hiding of the trees. A puff of wind swept a thin veil of smoke into the room, but for me the air was filled with sickening fumes, and I sank to my knees and closed my eyes as a child does at night to shut out the perils of the darkness. I felt Penelope's arms gripped tightly about my neck, her dead weight dragging me down. I heard the last echoes of the shot, faintly, down the narrow valley, and outside the incoherent shouts of men. Then there was a silence, broken only by Penelope's sobs. It seemed to me long hours I was there on my knees before I dared to open my eyes and bring myself into the world again. And when I did it was to see the room darkened and the Professor leaning against the closed door with his hands wide-spread, as though with every muscle braced to hold it against an onslaught. Yet he trembled so that a child might have brushed him aside.