A Special Limited Edition
IN CONNECTION WITH THE De WILLOUGHBY CLAIM
FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
Author of "A Lady of Quality," "Little Lord Fauntleroy," Etc.
The People's Library Issued Monthly By The American News Company
New York The American News Company Publishers' Agents 39-41 Chambers Street
Copyright, 1899 by Charles Scribner's Sons All rights reserved
The owners of the copyright of this volume sanction the issue of this edition as a paper-covered book, to be sold at fifty cents; but, while not wishing to interfere with any purchaser binding his own copy, they do not sanction placing on the market any volumes of this edition bound in any other form.
In Connection with The De Willoughby Claim
High noon at Talbot's Cross-roads, with the mercury standing at ninety-eight in the shade—though there was not much shade worth mentioning in the immediate vicinity of the Cross-roads post-office, about which, upon the occasion referred to, the few human beings within sight and sound were congregated. There were trees enough a few hundred yards away, but the post-office stood boldly and unflinchingly in the blazing sun. The roads crossing each other stretched themselves as far as the eye could follow them, the red clay transformed into red dust which even an ordinarily lively imagination might have fancied was red hot. The shrill, rattling cry of the grasshoppers, hidden in the long yellow sedge-grass and drouth-smitten corn, pierced the stillness now and then with a suddenness startling each time it broke forth, because the interval between each of the pipings was given by the hearers to drowsiness or heated unconscious naps.
In such napping and drowsiness the present occupants of the post-office were indulging. Upon two empty goods boxes two men in copperas-coloured jean garments reclined in easy attitudes, their hats tilted over their eyes, while several others balanced their split-seated chairs against the house or the post-porch and dozed.
Inside the store the postmaster and proprietor tilted his chair against the counter and dozed also, though fitfully, and with occasional restless changes of position and smothered maledictions against the heat. He was scarcely the build of man to sleep comfortably at high noon in midsummer. His huge, heavy body was rather too much for him at any time, but during the hot weather he succumbed beneath the weight of his own flesh. Hamlin County knew him as "Big Tom D'Willerby," and, indeed, rather prided itself upon him as a creditable possession. It noted any increase in his weight, repeated his jokes, and bore itself patiently under his satire. His indolence it regarded with leniency not entirely untinged with secret exultation.
"The derndest, laziest critter," his acquaintances would remark to each other; "the derndest I do reckon that ever the Lord made. Nigh unto three hundred he weighs, and never done a lick o' work in his life. Not one! Lord, no! Tom D'Willerby work? I guess not. He gits on fine without any o' that in his'n. Work ain't his kind. It's a pleasin' sight to see him lyin' round thar to the post-office an' the boys a-waitin' on to him, doin' his tradin' for him, an' sortin' the mail when it comes in. They're ready enough to do it jest to hear him gas."
And so they were. About eight years before the time the present story commences, he had appeared upon the scene apparently having no object in view but to make himself as comfortable as possible. He took up his quarters at one of the farm-houses among the mountains, paid his hostess regularly for the simple accommodations she could afford him, and, before three months passed, had established his reputation and, without making the slightest apparent effort, had gathered about him a large circle of friends and admirers.
"His name's D'Willerby," Mrs. Pike would drawl when questioned about him, "an' he's kin to them D'Willerbys that's sich big bugs down to D'Lileville. I guess they ain't much friendly, though. He don't seem to like to have nothin' much to say about 'em. Seems like he has money a-plenty to carry him along, an' he talks some o' settin' up a store somewhars."
In the course of a month or so he carried out the plan, selecting Talbot's Cross-roads as the site for the store in question. He engaged hands to erect a frame building, collected by the assistance of some mysterious agency a heterogeneous stock consisting of calicoes, tinware, coffee, sugar, tobacco, and various waif and stray commodities, and, having done so, took his seat on the porch one morning and announced the establishment open.
Upon the whole, the enterprise was a success. Barnesville was fifteen miles distant, and the farmers, their wives and daughters, were glad enough to stop at the Cross-roads for their calico dresses and store-coffee. By doing so they were saved a long ride and gained superior conversational advantages. "D'Willerby's mighty easy to trade with," it was said.
There was always a goodly number of "critters" tied to the fence-corners, and consequently to business was added the zest of society and the interchanging of gossip. "D'Willerby's" became a centre of interest and attraction, and D'Willerby himself a county institution.
Big Tom, however, studiously avoided taking a too active part in the duties of the establishment. Having with great forethought provided himself with a stout chair which could be moved from behind the counter to the door, and from the door to the store as the weather demanded, he devoted himself almost exclusively to sitting in it and encouraging a friendly and accommodating spirit in his visitors and admirers. The more youthful of those admirers he found useful in the extreme.
"Boys," he would say, "a man can't do more than a thousand things at once. A man can't talk a steady stream and do himself justice, and settle the heftiest kind of questions, and say the kind of things these ladies ought to have said to 'em, and then measure out molasses and weigh coffee and slash off calico dresses and trade for eggs. Some of you've got to roust out and do some clerking, or I've got to quit. I've not got the constitution to stand it. Jim, you 'tend to Mis' Pike, and Bill, you wait on Mis' Jones. Lord! Lord! half a dozen of you here, and not one doing a thing—not a derned thing! Do you want me to get up and leave Miss Mirandy and do things myself? We've got to settle about the colour of this gown. How'd you feel now, if it wasn't becoming to her complexion? Just help yourself to that plug of tobacco, Hance, and lay your ten cents in the cash drawer, and then you can weigh out that butter of Mis' Simpson's."
When there was a prospect of a post-office at the Cross-roads, there was only one opinion as to who was the man best calculated to adorn the position of postmaster.
"The store's right yere, Tom," said his patrons, "an' you're right yere. Ye can write and spell off things 'thout any trouble, an' I reckon ye wouldn't mind the extry two dollars comin' in ev'ry month."
"Lord! Lord!" groaned Tom, who was stretched full length on the floor of the porch when the subject was first broached. "Do you want a man to kill himself out an' out, boys? Work himself into eternal kingdom come? Who'd do the extra work, I'd like to know—empty out the mail-bag and hand out the mail, and do the extra cussin'? That would be worth ten dollars a month. And, like as not, the money would be paid in cheques, and who's goin' to sign 'em? Lord! I believe you think a man's immortal soul could be bought for fifty cents a day. You don't allow for the wear and tear on a fellow's constitution, boys."
But he allowed himself to be placed in receipt of the official salary in question, and the matter of extra labour settled itself. Twice a week a boy on horseback brought the mail-bag from Barnesville, and when this youth drew rein before the porch Big Tom greeted him from indoors with his habitual cordiality.
"'Light, sonny, 'light!" he would call out in languidly sonorous tones; "come in and let these fellows hear the news. Just throw that mail-bag on the counter and let's hear from you. Plenty of good water down at the spring. Might as well take that bucket and fill it if you want a drink. I've been waiting for just such a man as you to do it. These fellows would sit here all day and let a man die. I can't get anything out of 'em. I've about half a mind to quit sometimes and leave them to engineer the thing themselves. Look here now, is any fellow going to attend to that mail, or is it going to lie there till I have to get up and attend to it myself? I reckon that's what you want. I reckon that'd just suit you. Jehoshaphat! I guess you'd like me to take charge of the eternal universe."
It was for the mail he waited with his usual complement of friends and assistants on the afternoon referred to at the opening of this chapter. The boy was behind time, and, under the influence of the heat, conversation had at first flagged and then subsided. Big Tom himself had taken the initiative of dropping into a doze, and his companions had one by one followed his example, or at least made an effort at doing so. The only one of the number who remained unmistakably awake was a little man who sat on the floor of the end of the porch, his small legs, encased in large blue jean pantaloons, dangling over the side. This little man, who was gently and continuously ruminating, with brief "asides" of expectoration, kept his eyes fixed watchfully upon the Barnesville Road, and he it was who at last roused the dozers.
"Thar's some un a-comin'," he announced in a meek voice. "'Tain't him."
Big Tom opened his eyes, stretched himself, and gradually rose in his might, proving a very tight fit for the establishment, especially the doorway, towards which he lounged, supporting himself against its side.
"Who is it, Ezra?" he asked, almost extinguishing the latter cognomen with a yawn.
"It's thet thar feller!"
All the other men awakened in a body. Whomsoever the individual might be, he had the power to rouse them to a lively exhibition of interest. One and all braced themselves to look at the horseman approaching along the Barnesville Road.
"He's a kinder curi's-lookin' feller," observed one philosopher.
"Well, at a distance of half a mile, perhaps he is," said Tom. "In a cloud of dust and the sun blazin' down on him like thunderation, I don't know but you're right, Nath."
"Git out!" replied Nath, placidly. "He's a curi's-actin' feller, anyway. Don't go nowhar nor hev nothin' to say to nobody. Jest sets right down in that thar holler with his wife, as if b'ars an' painters wus all a man or woman wanted round 'em."
"She's a doggoned purty critter," said the little man in large trousers, placidly. He had not appeared to listen to the conversation, but, as this pertinent remark proved, it had not been lost on him.
His observation was greeted with a general laugh, which seemed to imply that the speaker had a character which his speech sustained.
"Whar did ye see her, Stamps?" was asked.
The little man remained unmoved, still dangling his legs over the porch side, still ruminating, still gazing with pale, blinking eyes up the road.
"Went over the mountain to 'tend court to Bakersville, an' took it on my road to go by thar. She was settin' in the door, an' I see her afore she seen me. When she hearn the sound of my mule's feet, she got up an' went into the house. It was a powerful hot mornin', 'n' I wus mighty dry, 'n' I stopped fur a cool drink. She didn't come out when fust I hollered, 'n' when she did come, she looked kinder skeered 'n' wouldn't talk none. Kep' her sunbonnet over her face, like she didn't want to be seen overmuch."
"What does she look like, Ezry?" asked one of the younger men.
Mr. Stamps meditated a few seconds.
"Don't look like none o' the women folk about yere," he replied, finally. "She ain't their kind."
"What d'ye mean by that?"
"Dunno eggsactly. She's mighty white 'n' young-lookin' 'n' delicate—but that ain't all."
Tom made a restless movement.
"Look here, boys," he broke in, suddenly, "here's a nice business—a lot of fellows asking questions about a woman an' gossiping as if there wasn't a thing better to do. Leave 'em alone, if they want to be left alone—leave 'em alone."
Mr. Stamps expectorated in an entirely unbiased manner. He seemed as willing to leave his story alone as he had been to begin it.
"He's comin' yere," he said, softly, after a pause. "Thet's whar he's comin'."
The rest of the company straightened themselves in their seats and made an effort to assume the appearance of slightly interested spectators. It became evident that Mr. Stamps was right, and that the rider was about to dismount.
He was a man about thirty years of age, thin, narrow-chested, and stooping. His coarse clothes seemed specially ill-suited to his slender figure, his black hair was long, and his beard neglected; his broad hat was pulled low over his eyes and partially concealed his face.
"He don't look none too sociable when he's nigher than half a mile," remarked Nath in an undertone.
He glanced neither to the right nor to the left as he strode past the group into the store. Strange to relate, Tom had lounged behind the counter and stood ready to attend him. He asked for a few necessary household trifles in a low tone, and, as Tom collected and made them into a clumsy package, he stood and looked on with his back turned towards the door.
Those gathered upon the porch listened eagerly for the sound of conversation, but none reached their ears. Tom moved heavily to and fro for a few minutes, and then the parcel was handed across the counter.
"Hot weather," said the stranger, without raising his eyes.
"Yes," said Tom, "hot weather, sir."
"Good-day," said the stranger.
"Good-day," answered Tom.
And his customer took his departure. He passed out as he had passed in; but while he was indoors little Mr. Stamps had changed his position. He now sat near the wooden steps, his legs dangling as before, his small countenance as noncommittal as ever. As the stranger neared him, he raised his pale little eyes, blinked them, indulged in a slight jerk of the head, and uttered a single word of greeting.
The stranger started, glanced down at him, and walked on. He made no answer, untied his horse, mounted it, and rode back over the Barnesville Road towards the mountain.
Mr. Stamps remained seated near the steps and blinked after him silently until he was out of sight.
"Ye didn't seem to talk none, D'Willerby," said one of the outsiders when Tom reappeared.
Tom sank into his chair, thrust his hands into his pockets, and stretched his limbs out to their fullest capacity.
"Let a man rest, boys," he said, "let a man rest!"
He was silent for some time afterwards, and even on the arrival of the mail was less discursive than usual. It was Mr. Stamps who finally aroused him from his reverie.
Having obtained his mail—one letter in a legal-looking envelope—and made all other preparations to return to the bosom of his family, Stamps sidled up to the counter, and, leaning over it, spoke in an insinuatingly low tone:
"She was bar'foot," he said, mildly, "'n' she hadn't been raised to it—that was one thing. Her feet wus as soft 'n' tender as a baby's; 'n' fur another thing, her hands wus as white as her face, 'n' whiter. Thet ain't the way we raise 'em in Hamlin County—that's all."
And, having said it, he slipped out of the store, mounted his mule, and jogged homeward on the Barnesville Road also.
Before the war there were no people better known or more prominent in their portion of the State than the De Willoughbys of Delisle County, Tennessee. To have been born a De Willoughby was, in general opinion, to have been born with a silver spoon in one's mouth. It was indeed to have been born to social dignity, fortune, courage, and more than the usual allowance of good looks. And though the fortune was lavishly spent, the courage sometimes betrayed into a rather theatrical dare-deviltry, and the good looks prone to deteriorate in style, there was always the social position left, and this was a matter of the deepest importance in Delisleville. The sentiments of Delisleville were purely patrician. It was the county town, and contained six thousand inhabitants, two hotels, and a court-house. It had also two or three business streets and half a dozen churches, all very much at odds with each other and each seriously inclined to disbelieve in the probable salvation of the rest. The "first families" (of which there were eight or ten, with numerous branches) attended the Episcopal Church, the second best the Presbyterian, while the inferior classes, who could scarcely be counted at all, since they had not been born in Delisleville, drifted to the Methodists.
The De Willoughbys attended the Episcopal Church, and, being generally endowed with voices, two or three of them sang in the choir, which was composed entirely of members of the attending families and executed most difficult music in a manner which was the cause after each service of much divided opinion. Opinion was divided because the choir was divided—separated, in fact, into several small, select cliques, each engaged in deadly and bitter feud with the rest. When the moon-eyed soprano arose, with a gentle flutter, and opened her charming mouth in solo, her friends settled themselves in their pews with a general rustle of satisfaction, while the friends of the contralto exchanged civilly significant glances; and on the way home the solo in question was disposed of in a manner at once thorough and final. The same thing occurred when the contralto was prominent, or the tenor, or the baritone, or the basso, each of whom it was confidently asserted by competent Delisleville judges might have rendered him or herself and Delisleville immortal upon the lyric stage if social position had not placed the following of such a profession entirely out of the question. There had indeed been some slight trouble in one or two of the best families, occasioned by the musical fervour of youthful scions who were in danger of being led into indiscretions by their enthusiasm.
The De Willoughbys occupied one of the most prominent pews in the sacred edifice referred to. Judge De Willoughby, a large, commanding figure, with a fine sweep of long hair, mustache and aquiline profile; Mrs. De Willoughby (who had been a Miss Vanuxem of South Carolina), slender, willowy, with faded brunette complexion and still handsome brunette eyes, and three or four little De Willoughbys, all more or less pretty and picturesque. These nearly filled the pew. The grown-up Misses De Willoughby sang with two of their brothers in the choir. There were three sons, Romaine, De Courcy, and Thomas. But Thomas did not sing in the choir. Thomas, alas! did not sing at all. Thomas, it was universally conceded by every De Willoughby of the clan, was a dismal failure. Even from his earliest boyhood, when he had been a huge, overgrown fellow, whose only redeeming qualities were his imperturbable good-humor and his ponderous wit, his family had regarded him with a sense of despair. In the first place, he was too big. His brothers were tall, lithe-limbed youths, who were graceful, dark-eyed, dark-haired, and had a general air of brilliancy. They figured well at college and in their world; they sang and danced in a manner which, combining itself with the name of De Willoughby, gave them quite an ennobled sort of distinction, a touch of patrician bravado added to their picturesqueness in the eyes of the admiring; and their little indiscretions were of a nature to be ignored or treated with gentle consideration as the natural result of their youth, spirit, and Southern blood. But at nineteen Thomas had attained a height of six feet five, with a proportionate breadth and ponderousness. His hands and feet were a disgrace to a De Willoughby, and his voice was a roar when he was influenced by anything like emotion. Displays of emotion, however, were but rare occurrences with him. He was too lazy to be roused to anger or any other violent feeling. He spent his leisure hours in lying upon sofas or chairs and getting very much in everybody's way. He lounged through school and college without the slightest eclat attending his progress.
It became the pastime of the household to make rather a butt of him, and for the most part he bore himself under the difficulties of his position peaceably enough, though there had been times when his weighty retorts had caused some sharp wincing.
"You're an ill-natured devil, Tom," his brother De Courcy said to him, as he stood fingering the ornaments on the mantel after one such encounter. "You're an ill-natured devil."
Tom was stretched on a sofa, with his big hands under his head, and did not condescend to look around.
"I'm not such a thundering fool as you take me for, that's all," he answered. "I've got my eyes open. Keep to your side of the street, and I will keep to mine."
It was true that he had his eyes open and had more wit and feeling than they gave him credit for. No one understood him, not even his mother, who had deplored him from the first hour of his overweighted babyhood, when she had given him over to the care of his negro nurse in despair.
In the midst of a large family occupied with all the small gaieties attendant upon popularity and social distinction in a provincial town, he lived a lonely life, and one not without its pathetic side if it had been so looked upon. But even he himself had never regarded the matter from a sentimental point of view. He endeavoured to resign himself to his fate and meet it philosophically.
"I wasn't cut out for this sort of thing, boys," he had said to his friends at college, where he had been rather popular. "I wasn't cut out for it. Go ahead and leave me behind. I'm not a bad sort of fellow, but there is too much of me in one way and too little in another. What the Lord made such a man as me for after six thousand years' experience, I haven't found out yet. A man may as well make up his mind about himself first as last. I've made up mine and nobody differs from me so far as I've gone."
When he left college his brothers had already chosen their vocations. Delisle County knew them as promising young lawyers, each having distinguished himself with much fiery eloquence in an occasional case. The cases had not always been gained, but the fervour and poetry of the appeals to the rather muddled and startled agriculturists who formed the juries were remembered with admiration and as being worthy of Delisleville, and were commented upon in the Delisleville Oriflamme as the "fit echoings of an eloquence long known in our midst as the birthright of those bearing one of our proudest names, an eloquence spurred to its eagle flights by the warm, chivalric blood of a noble race."
But the "warm, chivalric blood" of the race in question seemed to move but slowly in veins of its most substantial representative. The inertness of his youngest son roused that fine old Southern gentleman and well-known legal dignitary, Judge De Willoughby, to occasional outbursts of the fiery eloquence before referred to which might well have been productive of remarkable results.
"Good God, sir!" he would trumpet forth, "good God, sir! have we led the State for generation after generation to be disgraced and degraded and dragged in the dust by one of our own stock at last? The De Willoughbys have been gentlemen, sir, distinguished at the bar, in politics, and in the highest social circles of the South; and here we have a De Willoughby whose tastes would be no credit to—to his overseer, a De Willoughby who has apparently neither the ambition nor the qualification to shine in the sphere in which he was born! Blow your damned brains out, if you have any; blow your damned brains out, and let's have an end of the whole disgraceful business."
This referred specially to Tom's unwillingness to enter upon the study of medicine, which had been chosen for him.
"I should make a better farmer," he said, bitterly, after a prolonged discussion. "I'm not the build for women's bedrooms and children's bedsides. De Courcy would have suited you better."
"De Courcy is a gentleman—a gentleman, sir! He was born one and would shine in any profession a gentleman may adorn. As for you, this is the only thing left for you, and you shall try it, by G——!"
"Oh," said Tom, "I'll try it. I can only fail, and I've done that before."
He did try it forthwith, applying himself to his studies with a persistence quite creditable. He read lying upon sofas and lounging in the piazzas, and in course of time was sent to attend lectures in Philadelphia.
Whether he could have gained his diploma or not was never decided. Those of the professors who commented on him at all, spoke of him as slow but persevering, and regarded him rather as a huge receiving machine of orderly habits. The Judge began to congratulate himself upon his determination, and his mother thought it "a good thing poor Tom was disposed of."
But one terrible morning just before the first course of lectures was completed, he suddenly returned, walking into the Judge's office without any previous intimation of his intention.
When he turned in his seat and confronted him, the Judge lost his breath.
"You!" he cried; "you!"
"Yes," said Tom, "I've come back." He was rather pale and nervous, but there was a dogged, resigned look in his eyes. "I've made up my mind," he added, "that I cannot stand it. Turn me loose on one of your plantations to—to boss niggers. You said once I was fit for an overseer. Perhaps you weren't wrong. Say the word and I'll start to-morrow."
The Judge's aquiline countenance turned gray with fury. His fine mustache seemed to curl itself anew.
"You—you accursed scoundrel!" he gasped. "You accursed, underbred hound! Tell me what this means, or I'll strangle you."
"You'll say I'm a fool," said Tom, "and I suppose it's true, and—and——" with a tremour in his voice, "I've no need to be particular about the names you call me. I ought to be used to them by this time."
"Speak out," thundered the Judge, "and tell me the whole disgraceful truth!"
"It won't take long," said Tom; "I told it when I said I'd made up my mind I couldn't stand it. I've been walking the hospitals and attending the clinics for the last three months, and I've had a chance to see what my life would be if I went through. I've seen things to make a man tremble when they came back to him in the dead of night—agony and horror—women and children! Good Lord! I can't tell you. De Courcy could, but I can't. I'd rather be in hell than live such a life day after day. I tried to stand up against it at first. I thought I might get used to it, but I haven't the nerve—or something was wrong. It got worse and worse, until I used to start up out of my sleep in a cold sweat, hearing screams and groans and prayers. That was the worst of all—their prayers to us to help them and not to hurt them. Four days ago a child was brought in—a child four or five years old. There was an operation to be performed, and I was the man chosen to hold it still. Its mother was sent out of the room. My God! how it screamed when it saw her go and knew it was to be left to us. They told me to hold it because I was the strongest, and—and I put my hands on it. I'm a big fellow to look at, and I suppose it knew there was no help for it when I came near. It turned as white as death and looked up at me with the tears streaming down its face. Before the operation was half over it hadn't the strength left to scream or struggle, and it lay and looked at me and moaned. I should have given up the job, but somehow I couldn't make up my mind to—to leave it. When it was all done, I gave it back to its mother and went to my rooms. I turned sick on the way and had to sit down to rest. I swore then I'd let the thing drop, and I bought my ticket and came back. I'm not the man for the work. Better men may do it—perhaps it takes better men. I'm not up to it." And his shaken voice broke as he hung his great head.
A deadly calm settled upon the Judge. He pointed to the door.
"Go home to your mother, sir," he said, "I've done with you. Go and stay with the women. That's the place for you."
"He's a coward as well as a fool," he said afterwards in the bosom of his family; "a white-livered fool who hasn't the nerve to look at a sick child."
It was a terrible day for the household, but at last it was over. Tom went to his room in an apathy. He had been buffeted and scorned and held up to bitter derision until he had ceased to feel anything but a negative, helpless misery.
About a week later Delia Vanuxem appeared upon the scene. Delia Vanuxem was a young cousin of Mrs. De Willoughby's, and had come to pay her relatives a visit. It was the hospitable custom of Delisleville to cultivate its kinsfolk—more especially its kinswomen. There were always in two or three of the principal families young lady guests who were during their stay in the town the sensation of the hour. Novelty established them as temporary belles; they were petted by their hostesses, attended by small cohorts of admirers, and formed the centre for a round of festivities specially arranged to enliven their visits.
Delia Vanuxem bore away the palm from all such visitors past or to come. She was a true Southern beauty, with the largest dark eyes, the prettiest yielding manner, and the very smallest foot Delisleville had ever fallen prostrate before, it being well known among her admirers that one of her numerous male cousins had once measured her little slipper with a cigar—a story in which Delisleville delighted. And she was not only a pretty, but also a lovable and tender-hearted young creature. Her soft eyes end soft voice did not belie her. She was gentle and kindly to all around her. Mrs. De Willoughby and the two older girls fell in love with her at once, and the Judge himself was aroused to an eloquence of compliment and a courtly grandeur of demeanour which rose even beyond his usual efforts in a line in which he had always shone. The very negroes adored her and vied with each other to do her service.
It was quite natural that a nature so sweet and sympathetic should be awakened to pity for the one member of the gay household who seemed cut off from the rest, and who certainly at the time existed under a darker cloud than usual.
From the first she was more considerate of poor Tom than anyone who had ever been before, and more than once, as he sat silent and gloomy at the table, he looked up to find her lovely eyes resting upon his big frame with a questioning, pitying glance.
"He is so much too big, Aunt Jule," she wrote home once. "And he seems somehow to feel as if he was always in the way, and, indeed, he is a little sometimes, poor fellow! and everyone appears to think he is only a joke or a mistake; but I have made up my mind never to laugh at him at all as the other girls do. It seems so unkind, and surely he must feel it."
She never did laugh at him, and sometimes even tried to talk to him, and once drew him out so far in an artful, innocent way, that he told her something of his medical failure and the reasons for it, manifestly ashamed of the story as he related it, and yet telling it so well in a few clumsy, rather disconnected sentences, that when he had finished her eyelashes were wet and she broke into a little shuddering sigh.
"Oh!" she said, "I don't think you are to blame, really. I have often thought that I could never, never bear to do such things, though, of course, if there was no one to do them it would be dreadful; but——"
"Yes," said Tom, "there it is. Someone must do it, and I know I'm a confounded coward and ninny, but—but I couldn't." And he looked overwhelmed with humiliation.
"But after all," she said, in the soft voice which had always the sound of appeal in it, "after all, I'm sure it was because you have a kind heart, and a kind heart is worth a great deal. You will do something else."
"There is nothing else for me to do," he said, mournfully; "nothing that won't disgrace the rest, they tell me."
It was small wonder that this was his final undoing, though neither was to blame. Certainly no fault could be attached to the young creature who meant to be kind to him, as it was her nature to be to all surrounding her; and surely Tom's great and final blunder arose from no presumption on his part. He had never thought of aspiring to the proud position with regard to her which Romaine and De Courcy seemed to occupy by natural right. It was only now and then, when they were unavoidably engaged, that he had the courage to offer his services as messenger or escort, but even those rare pleasures were a little too much for him. He was so unused to such privileges that they intoxicated him and set his mind in a whirl which prevented his thinking clearly, or, indeed, ever thinking at all sometimes.
Even when it was all over, he scarcely knew how he had been betrayed into the weakness he was guilty of. It was not like him to lose sight of his manifold imperfections; but for once they were swept out of his mind by a momentary madness.
It was on the occasion of a ball at the Delisle House. The Delisle House was the principal hotel, and all important festivities were held in its long dining-hall disguised as a ballroom. The ball was given by a gallant Delisleville Club in honour of Miss Delia Vanuxem, and it was a very magnificent affair indeed. The disguise of the dining-room was complete. It was draped with flags and decorated with wreaths of cedar and paper roses. A band of coloured gentlemen, whose ardour concealed any slight musical discrepancies, assisted the festivities, which—to quote the Oriflamme of the next morning—"the wealth, beauty, and chivalry of Delisleville combined to render unequalled in their gaiety and elegance, making the evening one of the most successful of the piquant occasions
When youth and pleasure meet To chase the glowing hours with flying feet."
Usually Tom's part in such festivities was to sit uncomfortably in dull corners, taking up as little room as possible, or piloting his way carefully through the crowd to the supper-table with an elderly lady or a wall-flower clinging timidly to his huge arm. But during this one evening he lost his equilibrium. Delia had been more than usually kind to him, perhaps because she saw his unhappy awkwardness as he towered above everyone else and tried to avoid treading upon his neighbours. She gave him such a pretty smile across the room that he obeyed the impulse to go to her and stand at her side; then, when she left him to dance with De Courcy, she gave him her fan and bouquet and fleecy white wrap to hold, and somehow it seemed not unnatural that De Courcy should bring her back to him as to a sentinel when the dance was over. Thus it was as she sat, flushed a little and smiling, her face uplifted to his, while she thanked him for taking care of her possessions, that the wild thought which so betrayed him rushed into his brain.
"Delia," he faltered, "will you dance once with me?"
It was so startling a request, that, though she was quick enough to conceal her surprise, she hesitated a second before recovering her breath to give him her answer.
"Yes, Tom, if you like," she said, and glanced down at her programme. "The next is a waltz, and I can let you have it because Dr. Ballentine has been called away. Do you waltz?"
"I have learned," he answered, rather huskily and tremulously. "I do it badly, of course, but I know the steps well enough."
He was so helpless with nervousness that he could scarcely speak, and his hands trembled when they stood up together and he laid his arm reverently about her waist.
She saw his timidity and looked up at him with a kind smile.
"I must be very little," she said, "I never knew before that I was so little."
He had thought he should recover himself when the music and motion began, but he did not. He looked down at the delicate head which reached barely to his beating heart, and a blur came before his sight; the light and the crowd of dancers dazzled and confused him. The whirling movement made him dizzy, and he had not expected to be dizzy. He began suddenly to be conscious of his own immensity, the unusualness of his position, and of the fact that here and there he saw a meaning smile; his heart beat faster still, and he knew he had been led into a mistake. He swung round and round too quickly for the music, missed a step, tried to recover himself, became entangled in his partner's dress, trod on her poor little feet, and fell headlong on the floor, dragging her with him and striking against a passing couple.
It was his brother De Courcy with whom he had come in such violent contact, and it was De Courcy who sprang to Delia's rescue, assisting her to her feet with all possible grace, and covering her innocent confusion with a brilliant speech, but not, however, before he had directed a terrible scowl at the prostrate culprit and sworn furiously at him under his breath. But Delia was very good to him and did not desert him in the hour of his need, giving him only kind looks and managing to arrange that he should lead her to her seat as if he had not been in disgrace at all.
But the shame and pain of his downfall were sharper pangs than he had ever borne, and before the night was half over he slipped away from the dangers and rushed home to his own room, where he lay awake through the long hours, cursing himself for his folly, and tossing in a fever of humiliation and grief.
In the morning when he came down to the breakfast table, the family were already assembled, and the Judge had heard the story from De Courcy, who told it all the more forcibly in the absence of Miss Vanuxem, who had spent the night at the house of another relative.
When Tom entered, his paternal parent was ready to receive him.
"Trod on Miss Vanuxem's dress and tore it off her back in the ballroom, did you?" he burst forth. "Made a fool of yourself and a bear-garden of the Delisle House ballroom! What were you trying to dance for? Leave that to men who can manage their limbs, and don't inflict yourself on women who are too high-bred to refuse to dance with a man who ought to be a gentleman. Stay at home, sir! Stay at home, and don't make a disgraceful spectacle of yourself in public, particularly when there are lovely women present to witness your humiliation."
It was the figurative last straw. Tom's mind had been dark and gloomy enough to begin with, but when during his father's harangue he glanced up and saw De Courcy bending his aquiline face over his paper with a slightly sardonic smile, he could stand no more.
To the utter dumfounding of his mother and sisters, and even the irate Judge himself, he pushed his chair back and sprang to his feet with an actual roar of rage and pain. His great body seemed to swell until its size overwhelmed them; his eyes blazed, he shook his tremendous fist.
"Leave me alone!" he shouted, "leave me alone! Yes, I did make a fool of myself! Yes, I did knock a woman down and tear her dress and look like an ass and set the whole room laughing at me, women and all—the best-bred and sweetest of them! It's all true, every word of it, and more too—more too! And that's not enough, but my own father serves it up again, and you fellows sit there and grin over it to make it worse. That's right, pitch in, all of you, and drive me mad and put an end to it."
He upset his chair and a small negro boy with a plate of waffles, and, striding over the scattered ruins, dashed out of the room with tears of fury in his eyes.
It was the turning-point of his existence. He made his bitter resolve as he walked out of the house down the street. Early as it was, he went straight to Delia, and when he found himself alone with her, poured forth all the misery of his sore heart.
"If I had been born a clod-hopper it would have been better for me," he said. "I have no place here among men with decently shaped bodies and clear heads. I'm a great clumsy fool, and there's no help for it. If I'd had more brain, I might have managed the rest; but I'm a dullard too. They may well sneer at me. I think I will go away and bury myself somewhere among the people I ought to have lived among by rights. In some simple country place I might find those who know less than I do, and forget the rest; and perhaps be content enough in time. I shall never marry. I—I suppose you know that, Delia." And he took her little hand and laid it on his own open palm and sat silent a moment looking at it, and at last suddenly a great drop fell upon it which made them both start. He did not look up at her, but took out his big white handkerchief and wiped the drop gently away and then stooped and kissed the spot where it had fallen. Her own lashes were wet when their eyes met afterwards, and she spoke in a subdued voice.
"I have always liked you very much, Cousin Tom," she said; "you mustn't talk of going away. We should miss you much more than you think. I know I should be very sorry."
"You won't be here to miss me, Delia," he answered, sadly.
The hand on his palm trembled slightly and her eyes faltered under his gaze.
"I—think it—is possible I shall live in Delisleville," she whispered.
His heart bounded as if it would burst his side. He knew what she meant in an instant, though he had never suspected it before.
"Oh! Oh!" he groaned. "Oh, Delia! which—which of them is it? It's De Courcy, I could swear. It's De Courcy!"
"Yes," she faltered, "it is De Courcy."
He drew his hand away and covered his face with it.
"I knew it was De Courcy," he cried. "He was always the kind of fellow to win. I suppose he deserves it. The Lord knows I hope he does, for your sake. Of course it's De Courcy. Who else?"
He did not stay long after this, and when he went away he wrung her hand in his in a desperate farewell.
"This is another reason for my going now," he said; "I couldn't stay. This—is—good-bye, Delia."
He went home and had a prolonged interview with his father. It was not an agreeable interview to recur to mentally in after time, but in the end Tom gained his point, and a portion of his future patrimony was handed over to him.
"I shall be no further trouble to you," he said. "You mayn't ever hear of me again. This is the end of me as far as you are concerned."
That night, with a valise in his hand, he took his place in the stage running towards the mountain regions of North Carolina, and from that day forward the place knew him no more. It was as he had known it would be: no one was very sorry to be rid of him, and even Delia's sadness was at length toned down by the excitement of preparation for and the festivities attendant upon her triumphant union with the most dashing De Willoughby of the flock.
When this event occurred, Tom's wanderings had ended temporarily in the farm-house referred to in the first chapter, and his appearance in this remote and usually undisturbed portion of his country had created some sensation. The news of the arrival of a stranger had spread itself abroad and aroused a slow-growing excitement.
They were a kindly, simple people who surrounded him—hospitable, ignorant, and curious beyond measure concerning the ways of the outside world of which they knew so little.
In the course of time, as the first keenness of his misery wore away, Tom began to discover the advantages of the change he had made. He no longer need contrast himself unfavourably with his neighbours. He knew more than they, and they found nothing in him to condemn or jeer at. To them he was a mine of worldly knowledge. He amused them and won their hearts. His natural indolence and lack of active ambition helped the healing of his wounds, perhaps; and then he began to appreciate the humourous side of his position and his old tendency to ponderous joking came back, and assisted him to win a greater popularity than any mere practical quality could have done.
The novelty of his role was its chief attraction. He began to enjoy and give himself up to it, and make the most of his few gifts. Life was no longer without zest. His natural indolence increased with the size of his great body as the years passed, and his slow whimsical humour became his strongest characteristic. He felt it a fine point in the sarcasm of his destiny that he should at last have become a hero and be regarded with admiration for his conversational abilities, but he bore his honours discreetly, and found both moral and physical comfort in them.
He insensibly adopted the habits of his neighbours; he dressed with their primitive regard for ease; he dropped now and then into their slurring speech, and adopted one by one their arcadian customs.
Whether the change was the better or the worse for him might easily be a matter of opinion, and depend entirely on the standpoint from which it was viewed. At least he lived harmlessly and had no enemy.
And so existence stood with him when the second great change in his life took place.
Scarcely a month before the events described in the opening chapter took place, the stranger and a young woman, who was his companion, had appeared in the community. There was little that seemed mysterious about them at the outset. A long, uninhabited cabin, a score or so of yards from the mountain road, had been roughly patched up and taken possession of by them. There was nothing unusual in the circumstance except that they had appeared suddenly and entirely unheralded; but this in itself would have awakened no special comment. The mystery developed itself from their after reserve and seclusion. They guarded themselves from all advances by keeping out of sight when anyone approached their cabin. The young woman was rarely, if ever, seen. The man never called at the post-office for mail, and upon the few occasions on which a stray human being crossed his path, his manner was such as by no means encouraged the curious. Mr. Stamps was the only individual who had seen the woman face to face. There was an unmoved pertinacity in the character of Mr. Stamps which stood him in good stead upon all occasions. He was not easily abashed or rebuffed, the more especially when he held in view some practical object. Possibly he held some such object in view when he rode up to the tumbled down gateway and asked for the draught of water no woman of the region could refuse without some reasonable excuse.
"'Tain't airs they're puttin' on, Cindy," he said to the partner of his joys and sorrows the evening after his ride over the mountain. "Oh, no, 'tain't airs, it's somethin' more curi's than that!" And he bent over the fire in a comfortable lounging way, rubbing his hands a little, and blinked at the back log thoughtfully.
They were a friendly and sociable people, these mountaineers, all the more so because the opportunities for meeting sociably were limited. The men had their work and the women their always large families to attend to, and with a mile or so of rough road between themselves and their neighbours, there was not much chance for enjoyable gossip. When good fortune threw them together they usually made the best of their time. Consequently, the mystery of two human beings, who had shut themselves off with apparent intent from all intercourse with their kind, was a difficulty not readily disposed of. It was, perhaps, little to be wondered at that Mr. Stamps thought it over and gathered carefully together all the points presenting themselves to his notice. The subject had been frequently discussed at the Cross-roads post-office. The disposition to seclusion was generally spoken of as "curi'sness," and various theories had been advanced with a view to explaining the "curi'sness" in question. "Airs" had been suggested as a solution of the difficulty, but as time progressed, the theory of "airs" had been abandoned.
"Fur," said Uncle Jake Wooten, who was a patriarch and an authority, "when a man's a-gwine to put on airs, he kinder slicks up more. A man that's airy, he ain't a-gwine to shut hisself up and not show out more. Like as not he'd wear store-clothes an' hang round 'n' kinder blow; 'n' this feller don't do nary one. 'N' as to the woman, Lord! I should think all you'unses knows how womenfolks does that's airy. Ef this yere one wus that way, she'd be a-dressin' in starched calikers 'n' sunbonnets 'n' bress-pins, 'n' mebbe rings 'n' congrist-gaiters. She'd be to the meetin' every time there was meetin' a-showin' out 'n' lettin' on like she didn't know the rest on 'em wus seein'. It don't sound to reason that either on 'em is airy."
It had been suggested by a bold spirit capable of more extended flights of the imagination than the rest, that they were "Northerners" who for some unworthy object had taken up their abode within the bound of civilisation; but this idea was frowned down as being of a wild nature and not to be encouraged.
Finally the general interest in the subject had subsided somewhat, though it was ready to revive at any new comment or incident, which will explain the bodily awakening of the sleepers on the post-office porch when Mr. Stamps made his announcement of the approach of "thet thar feller."
Up to the moment when the impulse seized him which led him to take his place behind the counter as the stranger entered the store, Tom De Willoughby had taken little or no part in numerous discussions held around him. He had listened with impartiality to all sides of the question, his portion of the entertainment being to make comments of an inspiriting nature which should express in a marked manner his sarcastic approval of any special weakness in a line of argument.
Among the many agreeable things said of him in his past, it had never been said that he was curious; he was too indolent to be curious, and it may be simply asserted that he had felt little curiosity concerning the popular mystery. But when he found himself face to face with his customer, a new feeling suddenly took possession of him. The change came when, for one instant, the man, as if in momentary forgetfulness, looked up and met his eyes in speaking. Each moved involuntarily, and Tom turned aside, ostensibly, to pick up a sheet of wrapping paper. The only words exchanged were those relating to the courtesies and the brief remarks heard by the loungers outside. After this the stranger rode away and Tom lounged back to his chair. He made no reply to Stamps's explanatory aside, and no comment upon the remarks of the company whose curiosity had naturally received a new impetus which spurred them on to gossip a little in the usual vague manner. He gave himself up to speculation. The mere tone of a man's voice had set his mind to work. His past life had given him experience in which those about him were lacking, and at the instant he heard the stranger speak this experience revealed to him as by a flash of light, a thing which had never yet been even remotely guessed at.
"A gentleman, by thunder!" he said to himself. "That's it! A gentleman!"
He knew he could not be mistaken. Low and purposely muffled as the voice had been, he recognised in it that which marked it as the voice of a man trained to modulated speech. And even this was not all, though it had led him to look again, and more closely, at the face shadowed by the broad hat. It was not a handsome face, but it was one not likely to be readily forgotten. It was worn and haggard, the features strongly aquiline, the eyes somewhat sunken; it was the face of a man who had lived the life of an ascetic and who, with a capacity for sharp suffering, had suffered and was suffering still.
"But a gentleman and not a Southerner," Tom persisted to himself. "A Yankee, as I'm a sinner; and what is a Yankee doing hiding himself here for?"
It was such a startling thing under the circumstances, that he could not rid himself of the thought of it. It haunted him through the rest of the day, and when night came and the store being closed, he retired as usual to the back part of the house, he was brooding over it still.
He lived in a simple and primitive style. Three rooms built on to the store were quite enough for him. One was his sitting- and bedroom, another his dining-room and kitchen, the third the private apartment of his household goddess, a stout old mulatto woman who kept his house in order and prepared his meals.
When he opened the door to-night the little boarded rooms were illuminated with two tallow candles and made fragrant with the odour of fried chicken and hoe-cakes, to which Aunt Mornin was devoting all her energies, and for the first time perhaps in his life, he failed to greet these attractions with his usual air of good cheer.
He threw his hat into a chair, and, stretching himself out upon the bedstead, lay there, his hands clasped above his head and his eyes fixed upon the glow of the fire in the adjoining room, where Aunt Mornin was at work.
"A gentleman!" he said, half aloud. "That's it, by Jupiter, a gentleman!"
He remembered it afterwards as a curious coincidence that he should have busied his mind so actively with his subject in a manner so unusual with him.
His imagination not being sufficiently vivid to help him out of his difficulty to his own satisfaction, he laboured with it patiently, recurring to it again and again, and turning it over until it assumed a greater interest than at first. He only relinquished it with an effort when, going to bed later than usual, he made up his mind to compose himself to sleep.
"Good Lord!" he said, turning on his side and addressing some unseen presence representing the vexed question. "Don't keep a man awake: settle it yourself." And finally sank into unconsciousness in the midst of his mental struggle.
* * * * *
About the middle of the night he awakened. He felt that something had startled him from his sleep, but could not tell what it was. A few seconds he lay without moving, listening, and as he listened there came to his ear the sound of a horse's feet, treading the earth restlessly outside the door, the animal itself breathing heavily as if it had been ridden hard; and almost as soon as he aroused to recognition of this fact, there came a sharp tap on the door and a man's voice crying "Hallo!"
He knew the voice at once, and unexpected as the summons was, felt he was not altogether unprepared for it, though he could not have offered even the weakest explanation for the feeling.
"He's in trouble," he said, as he sat up quickly in bed. "Something's gone wrong." He rose and in a few seconds opened the door.
He had guessed rightly; it was the stranger. The moonlight fell full upon the side of the house and the road, and the panting horse stood revealed in a bright light which gave the man's face a ghostly look added to his natural pallor. As he leaned forward, Tom saw that he was as much exhausted as was the animal he had ridden.
"I want to find a doctor, or a woman who can give help to another," he said.
"There ain't a doctor within fifteen miles from here," began Tom. He stopped short. What he saw in the man's face checked him.
"Look here," he said, "is it your wife?"
The man made a sharp gesture of despair.
"She's dying, I think," he said, hoarsely, "and there's not a human being near her."
"Good Lord!" cried Tom, "Good Lord!" The sweat started out on his forehead. He remembered what Stamps had said of her youth and her pale face, and he thought of Delia Vanuxem, and from this thought sprang a sudden recollection of the deserted medical career in which he had been regarded as so ignominious a failure. He had never mentioned it since he had cut himself off from the old life, and the women for whose children he had prescribed with some success now and then had considered the ends achieved only the natural results of his multitudinous gifts. But the thought of the desolate young creature lying there alone struck deep. He listened one moment, then made his resolve.
"Go to the stable," he said, "and throw a saddle over the horse you will find there. I know something of such matters myself, and I shall be better than nothing, with a woman's help. I have a woman here who will follow us."
He went into the back room and awakened Aunt Mornin.
"Get up," he said, "and saddle the mule and follow me as soon as you can to the cabin in Blair's Hollow. The wife of a man who lives there needs a woman with her. Come quickly."
When he returned to the door his horse stood there saddled, the stranger sitting on his own and holding the bridle.
Tom mounted in silence, but once finally seated, he turned to his companion.
"Now strike out," he said.
There were four miles of road before them, but they scarcely slackened rein until they were within sight of the Hollow, and the few words they exchanged were the barest questions and answers.
The cabin was built away from the road on the side of the hill, and leaving their horses tethered at the foot of the slope, they climbed it together.
When they reached the door, the stranger stopped and turned to Tom.
"There is no sound inside," he faltered; "I dare not go in."
Tom strode by him and pushed the door open.
In one corner of the room was a roughly made bedstead, and upon it lay a girl, her deathly pale face turned sideways upon the pillow. It was as if she lay prostrated by some wave of agony which had just passed over her; her breath was faint and rapid, and great drops of sweat stood out upon her young drawn face.
Tom drew a chair forward and sat down beside her. He lifted one of her hands, touching it gently, but save for a slight quiver of the eyelids she did not stir. A sense of awe fell upon him.
"It's Death," he said to himself. He had experience enough to teach him that. He turned to the man.
"You had better go out of the room; I will do my best."
* * * * *
In a little over an hour Aunt Mornin dismounted from her mule and tethered it to a sapling at the side of the road below. She looked up at the light gleaming faintly through the pines on the hillside.
"I cum 's fas' 's I could," she said, "but I reckon I'd orter been here afore. De Lord knows dis is a curi's 'casion."
When she crossed the threshold of the cabin, her master pointed to a small faintly moving bundle lying at the foot of the bed over which he was bending.
"Take it into the other room and tell the man to come here," he said. "There's no time to lose."
He still held the weak hand; but the girl's eyes were no longer closed; they were open and fixed on his face. The great fellow was trembling like a leaf. The past hour had been almost more than he could bear. He was entirely unstrung.
"I wasn't cut out for this kind of thing," he had groaned more than once, and for the first time in his life thanked Fate for making him a failure.
As he looked down at his patient, a mist rose before his eyes, blurring his sight, and he hurriedly brushed it away.
She was perhaps nineteen years old, and had the very young look a simple trusting nature and innocent untried life bring. She was small, fragile, and fair, with the pure fairness born of a cold climate. Her large blue-gray eyes had in them the piteous appeal sometimes to be seen in the eyes of a timid child.
Tom had laid his big hand on her forehead and stroked it, scarcely knowing what he did.
"Don't be frightened," he said, with a tremor in his voice. "Close your eyes and try to be quiet for a few moments, and then——"
He stooped to bend his ear to her lips which were moving faintly.
"He'll come directly," he answered, though he did not hear her; "—directly. It's all right."
And then he stroked her hair again because he knew not what else to do, seeing, as he did, that the end was so very near, and that no earthly power, however far beyond his own poor efforts, could ward it off.
Just at that moment the door opened and the man came in.
That he too read the awful truth at his first glance, Tom saw. All attempts at disguise had dropped away. His thin, scholarly face was as colourless as the fairer one on the pillow, his brows were knit into rigid lines and his lips were working. He approached the bed, and for a few moments stood looking down as if trying to give himself time to gain self-control. Tom saw the girl's soft eyes fixed in anguished entreaty; there was a struggle, and from the slowly moving lips came a few faint and broken words.
The man flung himself upon his knees and burst into an agony of such weeping that, seeing it, Tom turned away shuddering.
"No," he said, "they will never know, they who loved you—who loved you—will never know! God forgive me if I have done wrong. I have been false that they might be spared. God forgive me for the sin!"
The poor child shivered; she had become still paler, and the breath came in sharp little puffs through her nostrils.
"God—God!—God!" she panted. But the man did not seem to hear her. He was praying aloud, a struggling, disjointed prayer.
"O God of sinners," he cried, "Thou who forgivest, Thou who hast died, forgive—forgive in this hour of death!"
Tom heard no more. He could only listen to the soft, panting breath sinking lower and lower.
Suddenly the piteous eyes turned towards him—the stranger—as if in great dread: perhaps they saw in the mere human pity of his face what met some sharp last need.
He went to his old place as if in answer to the look, and took the poor little hand once more, closing the warmth of his own over its coldness. He was weeping like a child.
"Don't be afraid," he said; "—not afraid. It's—it's all right."
And almost as he said it, with her eyes still fixed upon his own, and with her hand in his, she gave a low sob—and died.
Tom touched the kneeling man upon the shoulder.
"There's no need of that now," he said; "it's over."
When a few minutes later he went into the back room, he found Aunt Mornin sitting before the big fireplace in which burned a few logs of wood. The light the snapping sticks gave fell full upon her black face, and upon the small bundle upon her spacious knee.
As he entered she turned sharply towards him.
"Don't nobody keer nothin' for this yere?" she said, "ain't nobody comin' nigh? Whar's he? Don't he take no int'rus' in the pore little lonesome child? I 'spect yo'll haf to take it ye'self, Mars' De Willerby, while I goes in dar."
Tom stopped short, stricken with a pang of remorse. He looked down at the small face helplessly.
"Yes," he said, "you'll have to go in there; you're needed."
The woman looked at him in startled questioning.
"Mars De Willerby," she said, "does dat ar mean she's cl'ar gone?"
"Yes," answered Tom. "She's gone, Mornin."
With the emotional readiness of her race, the comfortable creature burst into weeping, clasping the child to her broad bosom.
"Pore chile!" she said, "an' poor chile lef behin'! De Lord help 'em bofe."
With manifest fear Tom stooped and took the little red flannel bundle from her arms.
"Never mind crying," he said. "Go into the room and do what's to be done."
When left alone with his charge, he sat down and held it balanced carefully in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. He was used to carrying his customers' children, a great part of his popularity being based upon his jovial fondness for them. But he had never held so small a creature as this in his arms before. He regarded it with a respectful timidity.
"It wasn't thought of," he said, reflectively. "Even she—poor thing, poor thing—" he ended, hurriedly, "there was no time."
He was still holding his small burden with awkward kindliness when the door opened and the man he had left in the room beyond came in. He approached the hearth and stood for a few seconds staring at the fire in a stupefied, abstracted way. He did not seem to see the child. At last he spoke.
"Where shall I lay her?" he asked. "Where is the nearest churchyard?"
"Fifteen miles away," Tom answered. "Most of the people like to have their dead near them and lay them on the hillsides."
The man turned to him with a touch of horror in his face.
"In unconsecrated ground?" he said.
"It doesn't trouble them," said Tom. "They sleep well enough."
The man turned to the fire again—he had not looked at the child yet—and made a despairing gesture with his hands.
"That she—" he said, "that she should lie so far from them, and in unconsecrated ground!"
"There is the place I told you of," said Tom.
"I cannot go there," with the gesture again. "There is no time. I must go away."
He made no pretence at concealing that he had a secret to hide. He seemed to have given up the effort.
Tom looked up at him.
"What are you going to do with this?" he asked.
Then for the first time he seemed to become conscious of the child's presence. He turned and gave it a startled sidelong glance, as if he had suddenly been struck with a new fear.
"I—do not know," he stammered. "I—no! I do not know. What have I been doing?"
He sank into a chair and buried his face in his trembling hands.
"God's curse is upon it," he cried. "There is no place for it on earth."
Tom rose with a sudden movement and began to pace the floor with his charge in his arms.
"It's a little chap to lay a curse on," he said. "And helpless enough, by Gad!"
He looked down at the diminutive face, and as he did so, a wild thought flashed through his mind. It had the suddenness and force of a revelation. His big body trembled with some feeling it would have gone hard with him to express, and his heart warmed within him as he felt the light weight lying against it.
"No place for it!" he cried. "By God, there is! There is a place here—and a man to stand by and see fair-play!"
"Give her to me," he said, "give her to me, and if there is no place for her, I'll find one."
"What do you mean?" faltered the man.
"I mean what I say," said Tom. "I'll take her and stand by her as long as there is breath in me; and if the day should ever come in spite of me when wrong befalls her, as it befell her mother, some man shall die, so help me God!"
The warm Southern blood which gave to his brothers' love-songs the grace of passion, and which made them renowned for their picturesque eloquence of speech, fired him to greater fluency than was usual with him, when he thought of the helplessness of the tiny being he held.
"I never betrayed a woman yet, or did one a wrong," he went on. "I'm not one of the lucky fellows who win their hearts," with a great gulp in his throat. "Perhaps if there's no one to come between us, she may—may be fond of me."
The man gave him a long look, as if he was asking himself a question.
"Yes," he said at last, "she will be fond of you. You will be worthy of it. There is no one to lay claim to her. Her mother lies dead among strangers, and her father——"
For a few moments he seemed to be falling into a reverie, but suddenly a tremour seized him and he struck one clenched hand against the other.
"If a man vowed to the service of God may make an oath," he said, "I swear that if the day ever dawns when we stand face to face, knowing each other, I will not spare him!"
The child stirred in Tom's arms and uttered its first sharp little cry, and as if in answer to the summons, Aunt Mornin opened the door.
"It's all done," she said. "Gib me de chile, Mars De Willerby, and go in an' look at her."
* * * * *
When he entered the little square living room, Tom paused at the foot of the bed. All was straight and neat and cold. Among the few articles in the one small trunk, the woman had found a simple white dress and had put it on the dead girl. It was such a garment as almost every girl counts among her possessions. Tom remembered that his sisters had often worn such things.
"She looks very pretty," he said. "I dare say her mother made it and she wore it at home. O Lord! O Lord!" And with this helpless exclamation, half sigh, half groan, he turned away and walked out of the front door into the open air.
It was early morning by this time, and he passed into the dew and sunlight not knowing where he was going; but once outside, the sight of his horse tethered to a tree at the roadside brought to his mind the necessity of the occasion.
"I'll ride in and see Steven," he said. "It's got to be done, and it's no work for him!"
When he reached the Cross-roads there were already two or three early arrivals lounging on the store-porch and wondering why the doors were not opened.
The first man who saw him, opened upon him the usual course of elephantine witticisms.
"Look a yere, Tom," he drawled, "this ain't a-gwine to do. You a-gittin' up 'fore daybreak like the rest of us folks and ridin' off Goddlemighty knows whar. It ain't a-gwine to do now. Whar air ye from?"
But as he rode up and dismounted at the porch, each saw that something unusual had happened. He tied his horse and came up the steps in silence.
"Boys," he said, when he stood among them, "I want Steven. I've been out to the Hollow, and there's a job for him there. The—the woman's dead."
"Dead!" they echoed, drawing nearer to him in their excitement. "When, Tom?"
"Last night. Mornin's out there. There's a child."
"Thunder 'n' molasses!" ejaculated the only family man of the group, reflectively. "Thunder 'n' molasses!" And then he began to edge away, still with a reflective air, towards his mule.
"Boys," he explained, "there'd ought to be some women folks around. I'm gwine for Minty, and she'll start the rest on 'em. Women folks is what's needed. They kin kinder organize things whar thar's trouble."
"Well," said Tom, "perhaps you're right; but don't send too many of 'em, and let your wife tell 'em to talk as little as possible and leave the man alone. He's got enough to stand up under."
Before the day was over there were women enough in the hillside cabin. Half a dozen faded black calico riding-skirts hung over the saddles of half a dozen horses tethered in the wood round the house, while inside half a dozen excellent souls disposed themselves in sympathetic couples about the two rooms.
Three sat in the front room, their sunbonnets drawn well down over their faces in the true mourner's spirit, one at the head of the bed slowly moving a fan to and fro over the handkerchief-covered face upon the pillow. A dead silence pervaded the place, except when it was broken by occasional brief remarks made in a whisper.
"She was a mighty purty-lookin' young critter," they said. "A sight younger-lookin' than her man."
"What's the child?"
"Gal? That's a pity. Gals ain't much chance of bein' raised right whar they're left."
"Hain't they any folks, neither on 'em?"
"Nobody don't know. Nobody hain't heerd nothin' about 'em. They wus kinder curi's about keepin' to themselves."
"If either on 'em had any folks—even if they wus only sort o' kin—they might take the chile."
"Mebbe they will. Seems to reason they must have some kin—even if they ain't nigh."
Then the silence reigned again and the woman at the bed's head gave her undivided attention to the slow, regular motion of her palm-leaf fan.
In the room beyond a small fire burned in spite of the warmth of the day, and divers small tin cups and pipkins simmered before and upon the cinders of it, Aunt Mornin varying her other duties by moving them a shade nearer to the heat or farther from it, and stirring and tasting at intervals.
Upon a low rocking-chair before the hearth sat the wife of the family man before referred to. She was a tall, angular creature, the mother of fifteen, comprising in their number three sets of twins. She held her snuff-stick between her teeth and the child on her lap, with an easy professional air.
"I hain't never had to raise none o' mine by hand since Martin Luther," she remarked. "I've been mighty glad on it, for he was a sight o' trouble. Kinder colicky and weakly. Never done no good till we got him off the bottle. He'd one cow's milk, too, all the time. I was powerful partickerler 'bout that. I'd never have raised him if I hadn't bin. 'N' to this day Martin Luther hain't what 'Poleon and Orlando is."
"Dis yere chile ain't gwine to be no trouble to nobody," put in Aunt Mornin. "She's a powerful good chile to begin with, 'n' she's a chile that's gwine to thrive. She hain't done no cryin' uv no consequence yit, 'n' whar a chile starts out dat dar way it speaks well for her. If Mornin had de raisin' o' dat chile, dar wouldn't be no trouble 't all. Bile der milk well 'n' d'lute down right, 'n' a chile like dat ain't gwine to have no colick. My young Mistis Mars D'Willerby bought me from, I've raised three o' hern, an' I'm used to bilin' it right and d'lutin' it down right. Dar's a heap in de d'lutin'. Dis yere bottle's ready now, Mis' Doty, ef ye want it."
"It's the very bottle I raised Martin Luther on," said Mrs. Doty. "It brings back ole times to see it. She takes it purty well, don't she? Massy sakes! How f'erce she looks for sich a little thing!"
Later in the day there arose the question of how she should be disposed of for the night, and it was in the midst of this discussion that Tom De Willoughby entered.
"Thar ain't but one room; I s'pose he'll sleep in that," said Mrs. Doty, "'n' the Lord knows he don't look the kind o' critter to know what to do with a chile. We hain't none o' us seen him since this mornin'. I guess he's kinder wanderin' round. Does any of you know whar he is? We might ax what he 'lows to do."
Tom bent down over the child as it lay in the woman's lap. No one could see his face.
"I know what he's going to do," he said. "He's going away to-morrow after the funeral."
"'N' take the child?" in a chorus.
"No," said Tom, professing to be deeply interested in the unclosing of the small red fist. "I'm going to take the child."
There were four sharp exclamations, and for a second or so all four women gazed at him with open mouths. It was Mrs. Doty who first recovered herself sufficiently to speak. She gave him a lively dig with her elbow.
"Now, Tom D'Willerby," she said, "none of your foolin'. This yere ain't no time for it."
"Mars D'Willerby," said Aunt Mornin, "dis chile's mother's a-lyin' dead in the nex' room."
Tom stooped a trifle lower. He put out both his hands and took the baby in them.
"I'm not foolin'," he said, rather uncertainly. "I'm in earnest, ladies. The mother is dead and the man's going away. There's nobody else to claim her, he tells me, and so I'll claim her. There's enough of me to take care of her, and I mean to do it."
It was so extraordinary a sensation, that for a few moments there was another silence, broken as before by Mrs. Doty.
"Waal," she remarked, removing her snuff-stick and expectorating into the fire. "Ye've allus been kinder fond o' chillun, Tom, and mebbe she ain't as colicky by natur' as Martin Luther was, but I mus' say it's the curi'sest thing I ever heern—him a-gwine away an' givin' her cl'ar up as ef he hadn't no sort o' nat'ral feelin's—I do say it's curi's."
"He's a queer fellow," said Tom, "a queer fellow! There's no denying that."
That this was true was proven by his conduct during the time in which it was liable to public comment. Until night he was not seen, and then he came in at a late hour and, walking in silence through the roomful of watchers, shut himself up in an inner chamber and remained there alone.
"He's takin' it mighty hard," they said. "Seems like it's kinder onsettled his mind. He hain't never looked at the child once."
He did not appear at all the next day until all was ready and Tom De Willoughby went to him.
He found him lying on the bed, his haggard face turned towards the window. He did not move until Tom touched him on the shoulder.
"If you want to see her——" he said.
He started and shuddered.
"What, so soon?" he said. "So soon?"
"Now," Tom answered. "Get up and come with me."
He obeyed, following him mechanically, but when they reached the door, Tom stopped him.
"I've told them a story that suits well enough," he said. "I've told them that you're poor and have no friends, and can't care for the child, and I've a fancy for keeping it. The mother is to lie out here on the hillside until you can afford to find a better place for her—perhaps at your own home. I've told the tale my own way. I'm not much of a hand at that kind of thing, but it'll do. I've asked you no questions."
"No," said the man, drearily. "You've asked me no questions."
Then they went together into the other room. There were twenty or thirty people in it, or standing about the door. It was like all mountain funerals, but for an air of desolateness even deeper than usual. The slender pine coffin was supported upon two chairs in the middle of the room, and the women stood or sat about, the more easily moved weeping a little under the shadow of their calico sunbonnets. The men leaned against the door-posts, or sat on the wooden steps, bare-headed, silent, and rather restless.
When Tom led his charge into the apartment, there was a slight stir and moving back of chairs to make way for him. He made his way straight to the coffin. When he reached it and looked down, he started. Perhaps the sight of the white dress with its simple girlish frills and homelike prettiness brought back to him some memory of happier days when he had seen it worn before.
The pure, childlike face had settled into utter calm, and across the breast and in the hands were long, slender branches of the thickly flowering wild white clematis. Half an hour before Tom had gone into the woods and returned with these branches, which he gave to one of the younger women.
"Put them on her," he said, awkwardly; "there ought to be some flowers about her."
For a few moments there reigned in the room a dead silence. All eyes were fixed upon the man who stood at the coffin side. He simply looked down at the fair dead face. He bestowed no caresses upon it, and shed no tears, though now and then there was to be seen a muscular contraction of his throat.
At length he turned towards those surrounding him and raised his hand, speaking in a low voice.
"Let us pray."
It was the manner of a man trained to rigid religious observances, and when the words were uttered, something like an electric shock passed through his hearers. The circuit-riders who stopped once or twice a month at the log churches on the roadside were seldom within reach on such an occasion as this, and at such times it was their custom to depend on any good soul who was considered to have the gift of prayer. Perhaps some of them had been wondering who would speak the last words now, as there was no such person on the spot; but the trained manner and gesture, even while it startled them by its unexpectedness, set their minds at rest.
They settled themselves in the conventional posture, the women retiring into their bonnets, the men hanging their heads, and the prayer began.
It was a strange appeal—one which only one man among them could grasp the meaning of, though all regarded its outpouring words with wonder and admiration. It was an outcry full of passion, dread, and anguish which was like despair. It was a prayer for mercy—mercy for those who suffered, for the innocent who might suffer—for loving hearts too tender to bear the bitter blows of life.
"The loving hearts, O God!" he cried, "the loving hearts who wait—who——"
More than one woman looked up from under her bonnet; his body began to tremble—he staggered and fell into a chair, hiding his face, shaking from head to foot in an agony of weeping. Tom made his way to him and bent over him.
"Come with me," he said, his great voice broken. "Come with me into the air, it will quiet you, and we can wait until—until they come."
He put his arm under his and supported him out of the house.
Two or three women began to rock themselves to and fro and weep aloud hysterically. It was only the stronger ones who could control themselves. He was standing at Tom's side then; when they came out a short time afterwards, walking slowly and carrying the light burden, which they lowered into its resting-place beneath the pines.
He was quite calm again, and made no sound or movement until all was over. Then he spoke to Tom.
"Tell them," he said, "that I thank them. I can do no more."
He walked back to the desolate house, and in a little while the people went their ways, each of them looking back a little wistfully at the cabin as he or she rode out of sight.
When the last one was lost to view, Tom, who had loitered about, went into the cabin.
The man was sitting in the empty room, his gaze fixed upon the two chairs left standing in the middle of it a few paces from each other.
Tom moved them away and then approached him.
"The child has been taken to my house," he said. "You don't want to see it?"
"Is there anything else I can do?"
"No, nothing else," monotonously.
"Are you going away?"
Tom glanced around him at the desolation of the poor, bare little place, at the empty bed, and the small trunk at the foot of it.
"You are not going to stay here alone, man?" he said.
"Yes," he was answered. "I have something to do; I must be alone."
Tom hesitated a moment.
"Well," he said, at length, "I suppose I've done, then. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," he was answered. "The Lord—the Lord will reward you."
And then Tom crossed the room slowly and reluctantly, passed out, and closed the door after him.
* * * * *
When he opened his own door, he struck his foot against something and stumbled over it. It was a primitive wooden cradle—somewhat like a box on rockers—a quilt of patchwork covered it, and upon the small pillow rested the round black head of his new possession. He stopped short to regard it. Aunt Mornin had left it there while she occupied herself with preparing supper in the kitchen. It really looked quite comfortable. Gradually a smile established itself upon Tom's countenance.
"By thunder!" he said, "here you are, youngster, ain't you? You've come to stay—that's what you've come for."
And, being answered by a slight stirring of the patchwork quilt, he put his foot out with much cautiousness, touched the rocker, and, finding to his great astonishment that he had accomplished this much safely, he drew up a chair, and, sitting down, devoted himself with laudable enthusiasm to engineering the small ark with a serious and domestic air.
In two days' time the whole country had heard the news. The mystery of Blair's Hollow was revived and became a greater mystery than ever. The woman was dead, the man had disappeared. The cabin stood deserted, save for the few household goods which had been left just as they were on the day of the funeral. Not an article had been moved, though the woman to whom Tom De Willoughby, as the person most concerned, handed over the discarded property, did not find the little trunk, and noticed that articles had been burned in the fireplace in the front room.
"Thar wus a big pile o' ashes on the ha'th," she said to her friends, "sorter like as if he'd been burnin' a heap a little things o' one sort or 'nother. It kinder give me cold chills, it looked so lonesome when I shut the door arter the truck was gone. I left the ashes a-lyin' thar. I kinder had a curi's feelin' about touchin' on 'em. Nothing wouldn't hire me to live thar. D'Willerby said he reckoned I could hev moved right in ef I wanted to, but, Lawsy! I wouldn't have done it fer nothin'."
But that which roused the greatest excitement in the community was Tom De Willoughby's course.
At first Mrs. Doty's story of Big Tom's adoption of the child was scarcely accepted as being a possibility. The first man who heard it received it with a grin of disbelief. This individual was naturally Mr. Doty himself.
"Minty," he said, "don't ye let him fool ye. Don't ye know Tom D'Willerby by this time? Ye'd orter. It's jest some o' his gas. Don't ye s'pose he hain't got no more sense? What'd he do with it?"
"Ye can believe it or not," replied Mrs. Doty, sharply, "but he's gwine to raise that young'n, as shore as your name's Job. Mornin's got her this minute."
Mr. Doty indulged in a subdued chuckle.
"A nice-lookin' feller he is to raise a infant babe!" he remarked. "Lord a massy! if thet thar ain't jest like one o' his doggoned tales! He is the derndest critter," with reflective delight, "the derndest! Thar ain't nothin' in Hamlin to come up to him."
But the next day even Mr. Doty was convinced. After his customary visit to the Cross-roads, he returned to his family wearing a bewildered expression. It became a sheepish expression when his wife confronted him on the doorstep.
"Wal, Job Doty," she remarked, "I guess you've found out by this time whether I was right or wrong."
"Wal," answered Mr. Doty, throwing his saddle down on the porch, "I reckon I hev. She's thar shore enough, 'n' it seems like he's gwine to keep her; but I wouldn't hev believed it ef I hadn't seen it, doggoned ef I would! But, Lord, it's like him, arter all." And he brightened up and chuckled again.
"I reckon he don't scarcely know what he's tuk in hand," said Mrs. Doty.
"Him!" answered Mr. Doty. "Tom! Lord! 'tain't a-gwine to trouble Tom. He'll get along, Tom will. Tom'd jus' as lief as she wus twins as not, mebbe liefer. It'd be a bigger thing for him to engineer 'n' gas about ef she wus. Ef you'd seen him bring her into the store to the boys 'n' brag on her 'n' spread hisself, I reckon ye wouldn't hev minded 'bout Tom. Why, he's set on her, Minty, a'reddy, as set as he kin be."
The Cross-roads post-office had indeed been the scene of a sort of informal levee held by the newcomer, who had been thus presented to her fellow-citizens. One man after another had dropped in to hear the truth of the story related, and each one had been dumfounded at the outset by Tom's simple statement of fact.
"Yes, I'm going to keep her, boys," he said. "She's in the back part of the house now. According to my calculations, she's drunk about three quarts of milk since morning, and seems to stand it pretty well, so I suppose she's all right."
There were a great many jokes made at first, and a general spirit of hilariousness reigned, but it was observed by one of the keener witted ones that, despite his jocular tone, there was an underlying seriousness in Tom's air which might argue that he felt the weight of his responsibility. When the women began to come in, as they did later in the day, he received them with much cordiality, rising from his chair to shake hands with each matron as she appeared.
"Come in to see her, have you?" he said. "That's right. She's in the back room. Walk right in. Mis' Simpson and Mis' Lyle, I'd like some of you ladies to have a look at her. I'll go with you myself and hear what you have to say."
He made the journey each time with a slight air of anxiety, leading the way to the wooden cradle, and standing over it like a Herculean guardian angel, listening attentively to all the comments made and all the advice given.
"She seems to be getting on pretty well, doesn't she?" he enquired.
"Lor', yes!" said one matron; "jest keep her kivered up 'n' don't let no air strike her, 'n' ye won't hev no trouble with her, I reckon."
"No air?" enquired Tom, in some trepidation; "none at all?"
"Wal, thet's my way," was the answer. "Some folks does diff'rent, but I didn't never expose 'em none till they was more'n amonth old. New-born babies is tender things!"
"Yes," said Tom. "Good Lord, yes!"
His visitor started at him perplexedly for a moment.
"Wal," she said. "My man allus used to say they kinder skeered him 'long at the first—he kinder felt as if they'd mebbe come apart, or sumthin'. They allus sorter 'minded me o' young mice. Wal, you jest tell Mornin to giv' her es much milk as she calls fer, an' don't let it bile too long, 'n' she'll come on fine."
The next visitor that entered uttered an exclamation of dismay.
"Ye're gwine ter kill her!" she said. "Thar ain't a breath o' air in the room, 'n' thar ain't nothin' a new-born baby wants more 'n plenty o' air. They're tender critters, 'n' they cayn't stand to be smothered up. Ye'll hev her in spasms afore the day's over."
Tom flung the doors and windows open in great alarm.
"It is hot," he said. "It's hot enough out of doors, but Mis' Simpson told me to keep her shut up, and I thought she'd had experience enough to know."
"Jane Simpson!" with ill-concealed scorn. "She'd orter! She's had six to die in their second summer. I reckon she told ye to give her half-b'iled milk as often as she wanted it?"
Tom reflected in manifest trepidation.
"She did tell me not to boil it too much, and to give it to her when she called for it," he said, slowly.
"Wal, if ye don't want ter kill her, take my advice an' bile it a good half hour, 'n' don't give it to her oftener than once in three hours. She'll cry fur it, but ye needn't mind. Ye'll get used ter it. I don't believe in lettin' young uns hev nuthin' out o' their reg'lar time."
The next caller found Tom somewhat discouraged. He preceded her into the reception-chamber with less alacrity than he had shown in his previous visits.
She was a younger woman than the rest, and when she reached the cradle's side, she bent down and rearranged the cover with a soft touch.
"She's gwine to be a purty little thing," she said; "she'll be sorter dark-complected, but she's gwine to hev purty hair 'n' eyes. Ye'll be right proud of her, Tom, when she's grown, 'n' I guess she'll be a heap o' company to you. Lord!" with a motherly sigh, "it seems sorter curi's her bein' left to a man; but you'll do well by her, Tom, you'll do well by her. I hain't no doubt o' that. You was always mighty clever with children."
"I'll do all I can for her," said Tom, "though I suppose that isn't much."
The young woman—she had left her own baby in the store with her husband—patted the little pillow lightly into shape.
"Ye'll larn a heap by watchin' her," she said. "Jest watch her close 'n' she'll teach you herself. What do you do about her milk?" anxiously.
"I've been told to do several things," said Tom. "I've been told to boil it half an hour and not to boil it at all, and to give her all she wanted and not to give her all she wanted. I'm a little mixed about it."
"Wal, I hain't had but five, but I've allus let it come to a bile an' then kinder used my reason about givin' it. Seems like the mejumer ye air with children, the better. But, Lordy! I guess Mornin knows. She raised her young mistress's."
She kissed the child before she left it, and when she reentered the store, hurriedly took her own struggling offspring from its father's arms, settled its pink dress and sunbonnet with a nervous, caressing motion, and, carrying it to the door, stood with it pressed against her breast while she seemed to be looking out at the distant mountains. She did not move until her husband had completed his purchases and came to her. And when she followed him out to take her place in the waggon, her eyes were bright and moist.
"Don't ye take the Blair's Holler road, Dave," she said, as he touched up his horses. "Go round by Jones's."
"What's yer notion, Louizy?" he asked.
"'Tain't nothin' but a notion, I reckon," she answered; "but I don't—I don't want to hev to pass by that thar grave jest to-day. Take the other road."
And being an easy-going, kindly fellow, he humoured her and went the other way.
In the store itself the spirit of hilariousness increased as the day advanced. By mail-time the porch was crowded and Tom had some slight difficulty in maintaining order.
"Say, boys," he said, "there's got to be quiet here. If we can't carry on the establishment without disturbing the head of the household at present asleep in the back room, this post-office has to close and you can get a new postmaster. That'd suit you, I daresay. Some fellow, now, that wouldn't half'tend to his business, not more than half, and that hadn't legislative ability enough to carry on a precinct, let alone a county. You want a man of that kind, I suppose. That's what you're working for."