Mary E. Wilkins
Author of "A Humble Romance" "Jane Field" etc.
New York Harper & Brothers Publishers 1896
Love is the crown, and the crucifixion, of life, and proves thereby its own divinity.
There was a new snow over the village. Indeed, it had ceased to fall only at sunset, and it was now eight o'clock. It was heaped apparently with the lightness of foam on the windward sides of the roads, over the fences and the stone walls, and on the village roofs. Its weight was evident only on the branches of the evergreen-trees, which were bent low in their white shagginess, and lost their upward spring.
There were evergreens—Norway pines, spruces, and hemlocks—bordering the road along which Burr Gordon was coming. Now and then he jostled a low-hanging bough and shook off its load of snow upon his shoulders. Then he walked nearer the middle of the street, tramping steadily through the new snow. This was an old road, but little used of late years, and the forest seemed to be moving upon it with the unnoted swiftness of a procession endless from the beginning of the world. In places the branches of the opposite pines stretched to each other like white-draped arms across the road, and slender, snow-laden saplings stood out in young crowds well in advance of the old trees. At times the road was no more than a cart-path through the forest; but it was a short-cut to the Hautville place, and that was why Burr Gordon went that way.
Everything was very still. The new-fallen snow seemed to muffle silence itself, and do away with that wide susceptibility to sound which affects one as forcibly as the crashing of cannon.
There was no whisper of life from the village, which lay a half-mile back; no roll of wheels, or shout, or peal of bell. Burr Gordon kept on in utter silence until he came near the Hautville house. Then he began to hear music: the soaring sweetness of a soprano voice, the rich undertone of a bass, and the twang of stringed instruments.
When he came close to the house the low structure itself, overlaid with snow, and with snow clinging to its gray-shingled sides like shreds of wool, seemed to vibrate and pulse and shake, and wax fairly sonorous with music, like an organ.
Burr Gordon stood still in the road and listened. The constituents of the concert resolved themselves to his ear. There was a wonderful soprano, a tenor, a bass, one sweet boy's voice, a bass-viol, and a violin. They were practising a fugue. The soprano rang out like the invitation of an angel,
"Come, my beloved, haste away, Cut short the hours of thy delay,"
above all the others—even the shrill boy-treble. Then it followed, with noblest and sweetest order, the bass in—
"Fly like a youthful hart or roe, Over the hills where the spices grow."
The very breath of the spices of Arabia seemed borne into the young man's senses by that voice. He saw in vision the blue tops of those delectable hills where the myrtle and the cassia grew; he felt within his limbs the ardent impulse of the hart or roe. He stood with his head bent, listening, until the music ceased; the blue hills sank suddenly into the land of the past, and all the spice-plants withered away.
There was but a few minutes' interval; then there was a chorus—
"Strike the Timbrel."
Burr Gordon, listening, heard in that only the great soprano, and it was to him like the voice of Miriam of old, summoning him to battle and glory.
But when that music ceased he did not wait any longer nor enter the house, but stole away silently. This time he travelled the main road, which intersected the old one at the Hautville house. The village lights shone before him all the way. He was half-way to the village when he met his cousin, Lot Gordon. He knew he was coming through the pale darkness of the night some time before he was actually in sight by his cough. Lot Gordon had had for years a sharp cough which afflicted him particularly when he walked abroad in night air. It carried as far as the yelp of a dog; when Burr first heard it he stopped short, and looked irresolutely at the thicket beside the road. He had a half-impulse to slink in there among the snowy bushes and hide until his cousin passed by. Then he shook his head angrily and kept on.
However, when the two men drew near each other Burr kept well to his side of the road and strode on rapidly, hoping his cousin might not recognize him. But Lot, with a hoarse laugh and another cough, swerved after him and jostled him roughly.
"Can't cheat me, Burr Gordon," said he.
"I don't want to cheat you," returned Burr, in a surly tone.
"You can't if you do. Set me down anywhere in the woods when there's a wind, and I'll tell ye what the trees are if it's so dark you can't see a leaf by the way the boughs blow. The maples strike out stiff like dead men's arms, and the elms lash like live snakes, and the pines stir all together like women. I can tell the trees no matter how dark 'tis by the way they move, and I can tell a Gordon by the swing of his shoulders, no matter how fast he slinks by on the other side in the shadow. You don't set much by me, Burr, and I don't set any too much by you, but we've got to swing our shoulders one way, whether we will or no, because our father and our grandfather did before us. Good Lord, aren't men in leading-strings, no matter how high they kick!"
"I can't stand here in the snow talking," said Burr, and he tried to push past. But the other man stood before him with another laugh and cough. "You aren't talking, Burr; I'm the one that's talking, and I've heard stuff that was worse to listen to. You'd better stand still."
"I tell you I'm going," said Burr, with a thrust of his elbow in his cousin's side.
"Well," said Lot, "go if you want to, or go if you don't want to. That last is what you're doing, Burr Gordon."
"What do mean by that?"
"You're going to see Dorothy Fair when you want to see Madelon Hautville, because you don't want to do what you want to. Well, go on. I'm going to see Madelon and hear her sing. I've given up trying to work against my own motions. It's no use; when you think you've done it, you haven't. You never can get out of this one gait that you were born to except in your own looking-glass. Go and court Dorothy Fair, and in spite of yourself you'll kiss the other girl when you're kissing her. Well, I sha'n't cheat Madelon Hautville that way."
"You know—she will not—you know Madelon Hautville never—" stammered Burr Gordon, furiously.
Lot laughed again. "You think she sets so much by you she'll never kiss me," said he. "Don't be too sure, Burr. Nature's nature, and the best of us come under it. Madelon Hautville's got her place, like all the rest. There isn't a rose that's too good to take a bee in. Go do your own courting, and trust me to do mine. Courting's in our blood—I sha'n't disgrace the family."
Burr Gordon went past his cousin with a smothered ejaculation. Lot laughed again, and tramped, coughing, away to the Hautville house. When he drew near the house the chorus within were still practising "Strike the Timbrel." When he opened the door and entered there was no cessation in the music, but suddenly the girl's voice seemed to gain new impulse and hurl itself in his face like a war-trumpet.
Burr Gordon kept on to Minister Jonathan Fair's great house in the village, next the tavern. There was a light in the north parlor, and he knew Dorothy was expecting him. He raised the knocker, and knew when it fell that a girl's heart within responded to it with a wild beat.
He waited until there was a heavy shuffle of feet in the hall and the door opened, and Minister Fair's black servant-woman stood there flaring a candle before his eyes.
"Who be you?" said she, in her rich drone, which had yet a twang of hostility in it.
Burr Gordon ignored her question. "Is Miss Dorothy at home?" said he.
"Yes, she's at home, I s'pose," muttered the woman, grudgingly. She distrusted this young man as a suitor for Dorothy. The girl's mother had long been dead, and this old dark woman, whose very thoughts seemed to the village people to move on barbarian pivots of their own, had a jealous guardianship of her which exceeded that of her father.
Now she filled up the doorway before Burr Gordon with her majestic, palpitating bulk, her great black face stiffened back with obstinacy. It was said that she had been born in Africa, and had been a princess in her own country; and, indeed, she bore herself like one now, and held up her orange-turbaned head as if it were crowned, and bore her candle like a flaming sceptre which brought out strange gleams of color and metallic lustres from her garments and the rows of beads on her black neck.
Burr Gordon made an impatient yet deferential motion to enter. "I would like to see her a few minutes if she is at home," said he.
The woman muttered something which might have been in her native dialect, the words were so rolled into each other under her thick tongue. Her small, sharp eyes were fairly malicious upon the young man's handsome face.
"I don't know what you say," he said, half angrily. "Can't I see her?"
"She's in the north parlor, I s'pose," muttered the black woman; and she stood aside and let Burr Gordon pass in, following him with her hostile eyes as he opened the north-parlor door. Dorothy Fair sat with her embroidery-work at the mahogany table, whereon a whole branch of candles burned in silver sticks. She was working a muslin collar for her own adornment, and she set a fine stitch in a sprig before she rose up, either to prove her self-command to herself or to Burr Gordon. She had also held herself quiet during the delay in the hall.
Dorothy Fair came of a gentle and self-controlled race of New England ministers; but now her young heart carried her away. She stood up; her embroidery, with her scissors and bodkin, slid to the ground, and she came forward with her fair curls dropping around a face pink and smiling openly with love like a child's, and was, seemingly half of her own accord, in Burr Gordon's arms with her lips meeting his; and then they sat down side by side on the north-parlor sofa.
Dorothy Fair's face was very sweet to see; her blue eyes and her soft lips were innocent and fond under her lover's gaze. Her little white hand clung to his like a baby's. There was a sweet hollow under her chin, above her fine lace collar. Her soft, fair curls smelt in his face of roses and lavender. The utter daintiness of this maiden Dorothy Fair was a separate charm and a fascination full of subtle and innocent earthiness to the senses of a lover. She appealed to his selfish delight like a sweet-scented flower, like a pink or a rose.
Lot Gordon had been only half right in his analysis of his cousin's wooing. When Burr sat with his arm around this maiden's waist, with his face bent tenderly down towards the soft, pink cheek on his shoulder, this sweetness near at hand was wellnigh sufficient for him, and Dorothy's shy murmur of love in his ear overcame largely the memory of the other's wonderful song. A bee cares only for the honey and not for the flower, therefore one flower is as dear to him as another; and so it is with many a lover when he gets fairly to tasting love. The memory of the rose before fades, even if he never wore it. Then, too, Burr Gordon had a sense of approbation from his shrewder self which sustained him. This Dorothy Fair, the minister's daughter, of gentle New England lineage, the descendant of college-learned men, and of women who had held themselves with a fine dignity and mild reserve in the village society, the sole heiress of what seemed a goodly property to the simple needs of the day, appealed to his reason as well as his heart. He remained until near midnight, while the old black woman crouched with the patience of a watching animal outside the door, and he wooed Dorothy Fair with ardor and delight, although her softly affectionate kisses were to Madelon Hautville's as the fall of snow-flakes to drops of warm honey. And although after he had gone home and fallen asleep his dreams were mixed, still when he waked with the image of Madelon between himself and Dorothy, because sleep had set his heart free, it was still with that sense of approbation.
Madelon Hautville was not considered a fair match for a young man who had claims to ambition. The Hautville family held a peculiar place in public estimation. They belonged not to any defined stratum of the village society, but formed rather a side ledge, a cropping, of quite another kind, at which people looked askance. One reason undoubtedly was the mixture of foreign blood which their name denoted. Anything of alien race was looked upon with a mixture of fear and aversion in this village of people whose blood had flowed in one course for generations. The Hautvilles were said to have French and Indian blood yet, in strong measure, in their veins; it was certain that they had both, although it was fairly back in history since the first Hautville, who, report said, was of a noble French family, had espoused an Iroquois Indian girl. The sturdy males of the family had handed down the name and the characteristics of the races through years of intermarriage with the English settlers. All the Hautvilles—the father, the four sons, and the daughter—were tall and dark, and straight as arrows, and they all had wondrous grace of manner, which abashed and half offended, while it charmed, the stiff village people. Not a young man in the village, no matter how finely attired in city-made clothing, had the courtly air of these Hautville sons, in their rude, half-woodland garb; not a girl, not even Dorothy Fair, could wear a gown of brocade with the grace, inherited from a far-away French grandmother, with which Madelon Hautville wore indigo cotton.
Moreover, the whole family was as musical as a band of troubadours, and while that brought them into constant requisition and gave them an importance in the town, it yet caused them to be held with a certain cheapness. Music as an end of existence and means of livelihood was lightly estimated by the followers of the learned professions, the wielders of weighty doctrines and drugs, and also by the tillers of the stern New England soil. The Hautvilles, furnishing the music in church, and for dances and funerals, were regarded much in the light of mountebanks, and jugglers with sweet sounds. People wondered that Lot and Burr Gordon should go to their house so much. Not a week all winter but Burr had been there once or twice, and Lot had been there nearly every night when his cousin was not. And he stayed late also—this night he outstayed Burr at Dorothy Fair's. The music was kept up until a late hour, for Madelon proposed tune after tune with nervous ardor when her father and brothers seemed to flag. Nobody paid much attention to Lot; he was too constant a visitor. He settled into a favorite chair of his near the fire, and listened with the firelight playing over his delicate, peaked face. Now and then he coughed.
Old David Hautville, the father, stood out in front of the hearth by his great bass-viol, leaning fondly over it like a lover over his mistress. David Hautville was a great, spare man—a body of muscles and sinews under dry, brown flesh, like an old oak-tree. His long, white mustache curved towards his ears with sharp sweeps, like doves' wings. His thick, white brows met over his keen, black eyes. He kept time with his head, jerking it impatiently now and then, when some one lagged or sped ahead in the musical race.
Three of the Hautville sons were men grown. One, Louis, laid his dark, smooth cheek caressingly against the violin which he played. Eugene sang the sonorous tenor, and Abner the bass, like an organ. The youngest son, Richard, small and slender as a girl, so like Madelon that he might have been taken for her had he been dressed in feminine gear, lifted his eager face at her side and raised his piercing, sweet treble, which seemed to pass beyond hearing into fancy. Madelon, her brown throat swelling above her lace tucker, like a bird's, stood in the midst of the men, and sang and sang, and her wonderful soprano flowed through the harmony like a river of honey; and yet now and then it came with a sudden fierce impetus, as if she would force some enemy to bay with music. Madelon was slender, but full of curves which were like the soft breast of a bird before an enemy. Sometimes as she sang she flung out her slender hands with a nervous gesture which had hostility in it. Truth was that she hated Lot Gordon both on his own account and because he came instead of his cousin Burr. She had expected Burr that night; she had taken his cousin's hand on the doorlatch for his. He had not been to see her for three weeks, and her heart was breaking as she sang. Any face which had appeared to her instead of his in the doorway that night would have been to her as the face of a bitter enemy or a black providence, but Lot Gordon was in himself hateful to her. She knew, too, by a curious revulsion of all her senses from unwelcome desire, that he loved her, and the love of any man except Burr Gordon was to her like a serpent.
She would not look at him, but somehow she knew that his eyes were upon her, and that they were full of love and malice, and she knew not which she dreaded more. She resolved that he should not have a word with her that night if she could help it, and so she urged on her father and her brothers with new tunes until they would have no more, and went off to bed—all except the boy Richard. She whispered in his ear, and he stayed behind with her while she mixed some bread and set it for rising on the hearth.
Lot Gordon sat watching her. There was a hungry look in his hollow blue eyes. Now and then he coughed painfully, and clapped his hand to his chest with an impatient movement.
"Well, whether I ever get to heaven or not, I've heard music," he said, when she passed him with the bread-bowl on her hip and her soft arm curved around it. He reached out his slender hand and caught hold of her dress-skirt; she jerked away with a haughty motion, and set the bowl on the hearth. "You'd better rake down the fire now, Richard," said she.
The boy jostled Lot roughly as he passed around him to get the fire-shovel. Lot looked at the clock, and the hand was near twelve. He arose slowly.
"I met Burr on his way down to Parson Fair's," he said.
Madelon covered up the bread closely with a linen towel. There was a surging in her ears, as if misery itself had a veritable sound, and her face was as white as the ashes on the hearth, but she kept it turned away from Lot.
"Well," said he, in his husky drawl, "a rose isn't a rose to a bee, she's only a honey-pot; and she's only one out of a shelfful to him; she can't complain, it's what she was born to. If she finds any fault it's got to be with creation, and what's one rose to face creation? There's nothing to do but to make the best of it. Good-night, Madelon."
"Good-night," said Madelon. The color had come back to her cheeks, and she looked back at him proudly, standing beside her bread-bowl on the hearth.
Lot passed out, turning his delicate face over his shoulder with a subtle smile as he went. Richard clapped the door to after him with a jar that shook the house, and shot the bolt viciously. "I'll get my gun and follow him if you say so, and then I'll find Burr Gordon," he said, turning a furious face to his sister.
"Would you make me a laughing-stock to the whole town?" said she. "Rake down the fire; it's time to go to bed."
She looked as proudly at her brother as she had done at Lot. The resemblance between the two faces faded a little as they confronted each other. A virile quality in the boy's anger made the difference of sex more apparent. He looked at her, holding his wrath, as it were, like a two-edged sword which must smite some one. "If I thought you cared about that man that has jilted you—and I've heard the talk about it," said he, "I'd feel like shooting you."
"You needn't shoot," returned Madelon.
The boy looked at her as angrily as if she were Burr Gordon. Suddenly her mouth quivered a little and her eyes fell. The boy flung both his arms around her. "I don't care," he said, brokenly, in his sweet treble—"I don't care, you're the handsomest girl in the town, and the best and the smartest, and not one can sing like you, and I'll kill any man that treats you ill—I will, I will!" He was sobbing on his sister's shoulder; she stood still, looking over his dark head at the snow-hung window and the night outside. Her lips and eyes were quite steady now; she had recovered self-control when her brother's failed him, as if by some curious mental seesaw.
"No man can treat me ill unless I take it ill," said she, "and that I'll do for no man. There's no killing to be done, and if there were I'd do it myself and ask nobody. Come, Richard, let me go; I'm going to bed." She gave the boy's head a firm pat. "There's a turnover in the pantry, under a bowl on the lowermost shelf," said she; and she laughed in his passionate, flushed face when he raised it.
"I don't care, I will!" he cried.
"Go and get your turnover; I saved it for you," said she, with a push.
Neither of them dreamed that Lot Gordon had been watching them, standing in a snow-drift under the south window, his eyes peering over the sill, his forehead wet with a snow-wreath, stifling back his cough. When at last the candlelight went out in the great kitchen he crept stiffly and wearily through the snow.
Lot Gordon lived about half a mile away in the old Gordon homestead alone, except for an old servant-woman and her husband, who managed his house for him and took care of the farm. Lot himself did not work in the common acceptance of the term. His father had left him quite a property, and he did not need to toil for his bread. People called him lazy. He owned nearly as many books as the parson and the lawyer. He often read all night it was said, and he roamed the woods in all seasons. Under low-hanging winter boughs and summer arches did Lot Gordon pry and slink and lie in wait, his fine, sharp face peering through snowy tunnels or white spring thickets like a white fox, hungrily intent upon the secrets of nature.
There was a deep mystery in this to the village people. They could not fathom the reason for a man's haunting wild places like a wild animal unless he hunted and trapped like the Hautville sons. They were suspicious of dark motives, upon which they exercised their imaginations.
Lot Gordon's talk, moreover, was an enigma to them. He was no favorite, and only his goodly property tempered his ill repute. People could not help identifying him, in a measure, with his noble old house, with the stately pillared portico, with his silver-plate and damask and mahogany, which his great-grandfather had brought from the old country, with his fine fields and his money in the bank. He held, moreover, a large mortgage on the house opposite, where Burr Gordon lived with his mother. Burr's father and Lot's, although sons of one shrewd father, had been of very different financial abilities. Lot's father kept his property intact, never wasting, but adding from others' waste. Burr's plunged into speculation, built a new house, for which he could not pay, married a wife who was not thrifty, and when his father died had anticipated the larger portion of his birthright. So Lot's father succeeded to nearly all the family estates, and in time absorbed the rest. Lot, at his father's death, had inherited the mortgage upon the estate of Burr and his mother. Burr's father had died some time before. Lot was rumored to be harder, in the matter of exacting heavy interest, than his father had been. It was said that Burr was far behind in his payments, and that Lot would foreclose. Burr had a better head than his father's, but he had terrible odds against him. There was only one chance for his release from difficulty, people thought. All the property, by a provision in the grandfather's will, was to fall to him if Lot died unmarried. Lot was twenty years older than Burr, and he coughed.
"Burr Gordon ain't makin' out much now," people said; "the paint's all off his house and his land's run down, but there's dead men's shoes with gold buckles in the path ahead of him."
Burr thought of it sometimes, although he turned his face from the thought, and Lot considered it when he took the mortgage note out of his desk and scored another installment of unpaid interest on it. "If a man's only his own debtor he won't be very hard on himself," he said aloud, and laughed. Old Margaret Bean, his housekeeper, looked at him over her spectacles, but she did not know what he meant. She prepared many a valuable remedy for his cough from herbs and roots, but Lot would never taste them, and she made her old husband swallow them all as preventatives of colds, that they should not be wasted. Lot was coughing harder lately. To-night, after he returned from the Hautvilles', he had one paroxysm after another. He did not go to bed, but huddled over the fire wrapped in a shawl, with a leather-bound book on his knees, all night, holding to his chest when he coughed, then turning to his book again.
When daylight was fully in the room he blew out the candle, and went over to the window and looked out across the road at the house opposite, which had always been called the "new house" to distinguish it from the old Gordon homestead. It was not so solid and noble as the other, but it had sundry little touches of later times, which his father had always characterized as wasteful follies. For one thing, it was elevated ostentatiously far above the road-level upon terraces surmounted by a flight of stone steps. It fairly looked down, like any spirit of a younger age, upon the older house, which might have been regarded in a way as its progenitor.
The smoke was coming out of the kitchen chimney in the ell. Lot Gordon looked across. Burr was clearing the snow from the stone steps over the terraces. There had never been any lack of energy and industry in Burr to account for his flagging fortunes. He arose betimes every morning. Lot, standing well behind the dimity curtain, watched him flinging the snow aside like spray, his handsome face glowing like a rose.
"I suppose he is going to the party at the tavern to-night," Lot murmured. Suddenly his face took on a piteous, wistful look like a woman's; tears stood in his blue eyes. He doubled over with a violent fit of coughing, then went back to his chair and his book.
This party had been the talk of the village for several weeks. It was to be an unusually large one. People were coming from all the towns roundabout. Burr Gordon had been one of the ringleaders of the enterprise. All day long he worked over the preparations, dragging out evergreen garlands from under the snow in the woods, cutting hemlock boughs, and trimming the ball-room in the tavern. Towards night he heard a piece of news which threatened to bring everything to a standstill. The dusk was thickening fast; Burr and the two young men who were working with him were hurrying to finish the decorations before candlelight when Richard Hautville came in. Burr started when he saw him. He looked so like his sister in the dim light that he thought for a moment she was there.
Richard did not notice him at all. He hustled by him roughly and approached the other two young men. "Louis can't fiddle to-night," he announced, curtly. The young men stared at him in dismay.
"What's the trouble?" asked Burr.
"He's hurt his arm," replied Richard; but he still addressed the other two, and made as if he were not answering Burr.
"Broke it?" asked one of the others.
"No; sprained it. He was clearing the snow off the barn roof and the ladder fell. It's all black-and-blue, and he can't lift it enough to fiddle to-night."
The three young men looked at each other.
"What's going to be done?" said one.
"I don't know," said Burr. "There's Davy Barrett, over to the Four Corners—I suppose we might get him if we sent right over."
"You can't get him," said Richard Hautville, still addressing the other two, as if they had spoken. "Louis said you couldn't. His wife's got the typhus-fever, and he's up nights watching with her—won't let anybody else. You can't get him."
"We can't have a ball without a fiddler," one young man said, soberly.
"Maybe Madelon would lilt for the dancing," Burr Gordon said; and then he colored furiously, as if he had startled himself in saying it.
The boy turned on him. "Maybe you think my sister will lilt for you to dance, Burr Gordon!" cried he, and his face blazed white in Burr's eyes, and he shook his slender brown fist.
"Nobody wants your sister to lilt if she isn't willing to," Burr returned, in a hard voice; and he snatched up a hemlock bough, and went away with it to the other side of the ball-room.
"My sister won't lilt for you, and you can have your ball the best way you can!" shouted the boy, his angry eyes following Burr. Then he went out of the ball-room with a leap, and slammed the door so that the tavern trembled.
The young men chuckled. "Injun blood is up," said one.
"You'll be scalped, Burr," called the other.
Burr came over to them with an angry stride. "Oh, quit fooling!" said he, impatiently. "What's going to be done?"
"Nothing can be done; we shall have to give the ball up for to-night unless you can get Madelon Hautville to lilt for the dancing," returned one, and the other nodded assent. "That's the state of the case," said he.
Burr scraped a foot impatiently on the waxed floor. "Go and ask her yourself, Daniel Plympton," said he. "I don't see why it has all got to come on to me."
"Can't," replied Daniel Plympton, with a laugh. "Remember the falling out Eugene and I had at the house-raising? I ain't going to his house to ask his sister to lilt for my dancing."
"You, then, Abner Little," said Burr, peremptorily, to the other young man. He had a fair, nervous face, and he was screwing his forehead anxiously over the situation.
"Can't nohow, Burr," said he. "I've got to drive four miles home, and milk, and take care of the horses, and shave, and get dressed, and then drive another three miles for my girl. I'm going to take one of the Morse girls, over at Summer Falls. I haven't got time to go down to the Hautvilles', and that's the truth, Burr."
"You'll have to go yourself, Burr," said Daniel Plympton, with a half-laugh.
"I can't," said Burr, "and I won't, if we give the ball up."
"What will all the out-of-town folks say?"
"I don't care what they say—they can play forfeits."
"Forfeits!" returned Daniel Plympton with scorn. "What's kissing to dancing?" Daniel Plympton was somewhat stout but curiously light of foot, and accounted the best dancer in town. As he spoke he sprang up on his toes as if he had winged heels. "Forfeits!" repeated he, jerking his great flaxen head.
"Well, you can go yourself, then, and ask Madelon Hautville to lilt," said Burr.
"I tell you I can't, Burr—I ain't mean enough."
"Well, I won't, and that's flat."
"I've got to go home, anyway," said Abner Little. "What I want to know is—is there going to be any ball?"
"Oh, get your girl anyhow, Ab," returned Daniel, with a great laugh; "there'll be something. If there ain't dancing, there'll be kissing, and that'll suit her just as well. And if she can't get enough here, why there's the ride home. Lord, I'd get a girl nearer home! You've got to drive six miles out of your way to Summer Falls and back. As for me, the quicker I get a girl off my hands the better. I'm going to take Nancy Blake because she lives next door to the tavern. Go along with ye, Ab; Burr and I will settle it some way."
But it looked for some time after Abner Little left as if there would be no ball that night. They could not have any dance unless Madelon Hautville would sing for it, and both Daniel Plympton and Burr Gordon were determined not to ask her.
At half-past seven Madelon was all dressed for the ball, and neither of them had come to see her about it. She and all her brothers except Louis were going. They wondered who would play for the dancing, but supposed some arrangements would be made. "Burr Gordon will put it through somehow," said Louis. "Maybe he'll ride over to Farnham Hollow and get Luke Corliss to fiddle." Louis sat discontentedly by the fire, with his arm soaking in cider-brandy and wormwood.
"Farnham Hollow is ten miles away," said Richard.
"His horse is fast; he'd get him here by eight o'clock," returned Louis.
Madelon was radiant. In spite of herself, she was full of hope in going to the ball. She knew Dorothy Fair would not be present, since her father was the orthodox parson, and she had seen her own face in her glass. With her rival away, what could not a face like that do with a heart that leaned towards it of its own nature? Madelon dimly felt that Burr Gordon had to resist himself as well as her in this matter. She had tended a monthly rose in the south window all winter, and she wore two red roses in her black braids. Her cheeks and her lips were fuller of warm red life than the roses. She lowered her black eyes before her father and her brothers, for there was a light in them which she could not subdue, which belonged to Burr Gordon only. No costly finery had Madelon Hautville, but she had done some cunning needle-work on an old black-satin gown of her mother's, and it was fitted as softly over her sweet curves as a leaf over a bud. A long garland of flowers after her own design had she wrought in bright-colored silks around the petticoat, and there were knots of red ribbon to fasten the loopings here and there. And she wore another red rose in her lace tucker against her soft brown bosom. Madelon wore, too, trim black-silk stockings with red clocks over her slender ankles, and little black-satin shoes with steel buckles and red rosettes. Every one of her brothers, except the youngest, Richard, must needs compare her in his own heart, to her disparagement, with some maid not his sister, but they all viewed her with pride. Old David Hautville's eyes, under his thick, white brows, followed her and dwelt upon her as she moved around the kitchen.
Madelon had got out her red cloak and her silk hood, and it was nearly time to start when there was a knock on the door. Madelon's face was pale in a second, then red again. She pushed Richard aside. "I'll go to the door," said she.
She knew somehow that it was Burr Gordon, and when she opened the door he stood there. He looked curiously embarrassed, but she did not notice that. His mere presence for the moment seemed to fill all her comprehension. She had no eye for shades of expression.
"Come in," said she, all blushing and trembling before him, and yet with a certain dignity which never quite deserted her.
"Can I see you a minute?" Burr said, awkwardly.
"Come this way."
Madelon led the way into the best room, where there was no fire. It had not been warmed all winter, except on nights when Burr had come courting her. In the midst of it the great curtained bedstead reared itself, holding its feather-bed like a drift of snow. The floor was sanded in a fine, small pattern, there were white tasselled curtains at the windows, and there was a tall chest of drawers that reached the ceiling. The room was just as Madelon's mother, who had been one of the village girls, had left it.
Madelon glanced at the hearth, where she had laid the wood symmetrically—all ready to be kindled at a moment's notice should Burr come. "I'll light the fire," said she, in a trembling voice.
"No, I can't stop," returned the young man. "I've got to go right up to the tavern. Look here, Madelon—"
"Well?" she murmured, trembling.
"I want to know if—look here, won't you lilt for the dancing to-night, Madelon?"
Madelon's face changed. "That's all he came for," she thought. She turned away from him. "You'd better get Luke Corliss to fiddle," she said, coldly.
"We can't. I started to go over there, and I met a man that lives next door to him, and he said it was no use, for Luke had gone down to Winfield to fiddle at a ball there."
"I don't feel like lilting to-night," said Madelon.
The young man colored. "Well," said he, in a stiff, embarrassed voice, and he turned towards the door, "we won't have any ball to-night, that's all," he added.
"Well, you can go visiting instead," returned Madelon, suddenly.
"I'd rather go a-visiting—here!" cried Burr, with a quick fervor, and he turned back and came close to her.
Madelon looked at him sharply, steeling her heart against his tender tone, but he met her gaze with passionate eyes.
"Oh, Madelon, you look so beautiful to-night!" he whispered, hoarsely. Her eyes fell before his. She made, whether she would or not, a motion towards him, and he put his arms around her. They kissed again and again, lingering upon each kiss as if it were a foothold in heaven. A great rapture of faith in her lover and his love came over Madelon. She said to herself that they had lied—they had all lied! Burr had never courted Dorothy Fair. She believed, with her whole heart and soul, that he loved her and her alone. And, indeed, she was at that time, at that minute, right and not deceived; for Burr Gordon was one of those who can encompass love in one tense only, and that the present; and they who love only in the present, hampered by no memories and no dreams, yield out love's sweetness fully. All Burr Gordon's soul was in his kisses and his fond eyes, and her own crept out to meet it with perfect faith.
"I will lilt for the dancing," she whispered.
The Hautvilles were going to the ball on their wood-sled, drawn by oxen. David was to drive them, and take the team home. It was already before the door when Burr came out, and Madelon asked him to ride with them, but he refused. "I've got to go home first," he said, and plunged off quickly down the old road, the short-cut to his house.
Madelon Hautville, in her red cloak and her great silk hood, stood in the midst of her brothers on the wood-sled, and the oxen drew them ponderously to the ball. The tavern was all alight. Many other sleds were drawn up before the door; indeed, certain of the young men who had not their especial sweethearts took their ox-sleds and went from door to door collecting the young women. Many a jingling load slipped along the snowy road to the tavern that night, and the ball-room filled rapidly.
At eight o'clock the ball opened. Madelon stood up in the little gallery allotted to the violins and lilted, and the march began. Two and two, the young men and the girls swung around the room. Madelon lilted with her eyes upon the moving throng, gay as a garden in a wind; and suddenly her heart stood still, although she lilted on. Down on the floor below Burr Gordon led the march, with Dorothy Fair on his arm. Dorothy Fair, waving a great painted fan with the tremulous motion of a butterfly's wing, with her blue brocade petticoat tilting airily as she moved, like an inverted bell-flower, with a locket set in brilliants flashing on her white neck, with her pink-and-white face smiling out with gentle gayety from her fair curls, stepped delicately, pointing out her blue satin toes, around the ball-room, with one little white hand on Burr Gordon's arm.
Suddenly all Madelon's beauty was cheapened in her own eyes. She saw herself swart and harsh-faced as some old savage squaw beside this fair angel. She turned on herself as well as on her recreant lover with rage and disdain—and all the time she lilted without one break.
The ball swung on and on, and Madelon, up in the musicians' gallery, sang the old country-dances in the curious dissyllabic fashion termed lilting. It never occurred to her to wonder how it was that Dorothy Fair, the daughter of the orthodox minister, should be at the ball—she who had been brought up to believe in the sinful and hellward tendencies of the dance. Madelon only grasped the fact that she was there with Burr; but others wondered, and the surprise had been great when Dorothy in her blue brocade had appeared in the ball-room.
This had been largely of late years a liberal and Unitarian village, but Parson Fair had always held stanchly to his stern orthodox tenets, and promulgated them undiluted before his thinning congregations and in his own household. Dorothy could not only not play cards or dance, but she could not be present at a party where the cards were produced or the fiddle played. There was, indeed, a rumor that she had learned to dance when she was in Boston at school, but no one knew for certain.
Dorothy Fair was advancing daintily between the two long lines, holding up her blue brocade to clear her blue-satin shoes, to meet the young man from the opposite corner, flinging out gayly towards her, when suddenly, with no warning whatever, a great dark woman sped after her through the dance, like a wild animal of her native woods. She reached out her black hand and caught Dorothy by the white, lace-draped arm, and she whispered loud in her ear.
The people near, finding it hard to understand the African woman's thick tongue, could not exactly vouch for the words, but the purport of her hurried speech they did not mistake. Parson Fair had discovered Mistress Dorothy's absence, and home she must hasten at once. It was evident enough to everybody that staid and decorous Dorothy had run away to the ball with Burr Gordon, and a smothered titter ran down the files of the Virginia reel.
Burr Gordon cast a fierce glance around; then he sprang to Dorothy's side, and she looked palely and piteously up at him.
He pulled her hand through his arm and led her out of the ball-room, with the black woman following sulkily, muttering to herself. Burr bent closely down over Dorothy's drooping head as they passed out of the door. "Don't be frightened, sweetheart," whispered he. Madelon saw him as she lilted, and it seemed to her that she heard what he said.
It was not long after when she felt a touch on her shoulder as she sat resting between the dances, gazing with her proud, bright eyes down at the merry, chattering throng below. She turned, and her brother Richard stood there with a strange young man, and Richard held Louis's fiddle on his shoulder.
"This is Mr. Otis, Madelon," said Richard, "and he came up from Kingston to the ball, and he can fiddle as well as Louis, and he said 'twas a shame you should lilt all night and not have a chance to dance yourself; and so I ran home and got Louis's fiddle, and there are plenty down there to jump at the chance of you for a partner—and—" the boy leaned forward and whispered in his sister's ear: "Burr Gordon's gone—and Dorothy Fair."
Madelon turned her beautiful, proud face towards the stranger, and did not notice Richard at all. "Thank you, sir," said she, inclining her long neck; "but I care not to dance—I'd as lief lilt."
"But," said the strange young man, pressing forward impetuously and gazing into her black eyes, "you look tired; 'tis a shame to work you so."
"I rest between the dances, and I am not tired," said Madelon, coldly.
"I beg you to let me fiddle for the rest of the ball," pleaded the young man. "Let me fiddle while you dance; you may be sure I'll fiddle my best for you."
A tender note came into his voice, and, curiously enough, Madelon did not resent it, although she had never seen him before and he had no right. She looked up in his bright fair face with sudden hesitation, and his blue eyes bent half humorously, half lovingly upon her. She had a fierce desire to get away from this place, out into the night, and home. "I do not care to dance," said she, falteringly; "but I could go home, if you felt disposed to fiddle."
"Then go home and rest," cried the stranger, brightly. "'Tis a strain on the throat to lilt so long, and you cannot put in a new string as you can in a fiddle."
With that the young man came forward to the front of the little gallery, and Madelon yielded up her place hesitatingly.
"But you cannot dance yourself, sir," said she.
"I have danced all I want to to-night," he replied, and began tuning the fiddle.
"I'm sure I'm much obliged to you, sir," Madelon said, and got her hood and cloak from the back of the gallery with no more parley.
The young man cast admiring glances after her as she went out, with her young brother at her heels.
"I'm going home with you," Richard said to her as they went down the gallery stairs.
"Not a step," said she. "You've just been after the fiddle, and they're going to dance the Fisher's Hornpipe next."
"You'll be afraid in that lonesome stretch after you leave the village."
"Afraid!" There was a ring of despairing scorn in the girl's voice, as if she faced already such woe that the supposition of new terror was an absurdity.
They had come down to the ball-room floor, and were standing directly in front of the musicians' gallery. The young fiddler, Jim Otis, leaned over and looked at them.
"I don't care," said Richard, "I won't let you go alone unless you take my knife."
Madelon laughed. "What nonsense!" said she, and tried to pass her brother.
But Richard held her by the arm while he rummaged in his pocket for the great clasp-knife which he had earned himself by the sale of some rabbit-skins, and which was the pride of his heart and his dearest treasure, and opened it. "Here," said he, and he forced the clasp-knife into his sister's hand. Otis, leaning over the gallery, saw it all. Many of the dancers had gone to supper; there was no other person very near them. "If you should meet a bear, you could kill him with that knife—it's so strong," said the boy. "If you don't take it I'll go home with you, and it's so late father won't let me come out again to-night."
"Well, I'll take it," Madelon said, wearily, and she passed out of the ball-room with the knife in her hand, under her cloak.
When she got out in the cold night air she sped along fast over the creaking snow, still holding the knife clutched fast in her hand. She began to lilt again as she went, and again Burr and Dorothy danced together before her eyes. She passed Parson Fair's house, and the best-room windows were lighted. She thought that Burr was there, and she lilted more loudly the Virginia reel.
After Parson Fair's house was some time left behind, and she had come into the lengthy stretch of road, she saw a shadowy figure ahead. She could not at first tell whether it was moving towards or from her—whether it was a man or a woman; or, indeed, whether it were not a forest tree encroaching on the road and moving in the wind. She kept on swiftly, holding her knife under her cloak. She had stopped singing.
Presently she saw that the figure was a man, and coming her way; and then her heart stood still, for she knew by the swing of his shoulders that it was Burr Gordon. She threw back her proud head and sped along towards him, grasping her knife under her cloak and looking neither to the right nor left. She swerved not her eyes a hair's-breadth when she came close to him—so close that their shoulders almost touched in passing in the narrow path.
Suddenly there was a quick sigh in her ear—"Oh, Madelon!" Then an arm was flung around her waist and hot lips were pressed to her own.
The mixed blood of two races, in which action is quick to follow impulse, surged up to Madelon's head. She drew the hand which held the knife from under her cloak and struck. "Kiss me again, Burr Gordon, if you dare!" she cried out, and her cry was met by a groan as he fell away from her into the snow.
Madelon stood for a second looking at the dark, prostrate form as one of her Iroquois ancestors might have looked at a fallen foe before he drew his scalping-knife; then suddenly the surging of the savage blood in her ears grew faint. She fell down on her knees beside him. "Have I killed you, Burr?" she said, and bent her face down to his—and it was not Burr, but Lot Gordon!
The white, peaked face smiled up at her out of the snow. "You haven't killed me if I die, since you took me for Burr," whispered Lot Gordon.
"Are you much hurt?"
"I—don't know. The knife has gone a little way into my side. It has not reached my heart, but that was hurt unto death already by life, so this matters not."
Madelon felt along his side and hit the handle of the clasp-knife, firmly fixed.
"Don't try to draw it out—you cannot," said Lot, and his pain forced a groan from him. "I'll live, if I can, till the wound is healed for the sake of your peace. I'd be content to die of it, since you gave it in vengeance for another man's kiss, if it were not for you. But they shall never know—they shall never—know." Lot's voice died away in a faint murmur between his parted lips; his eyes stared up with no meaning in them at the wintry stars.
Madelon ran back on the road to the village, taking great leaps through the snow, straining her eyes ahead. Now and then she cried out hoarsely, as if she really saw some one, "Hullo! hullo!" At the curve of the road she turned a headlong corner and ran roughly against a man who was hurrying towards her; and this time it was Burr Gordon.
Burr reeled back with the shock; then his face peered into hers with fear and wonder. "Is it you?" he stammered out. "What is the matter?"
But Madelon caught his arm in a hard grip. "Come, quick!" she gasped, and pulled him along the road after her.
"What is the matter?" Burr demanded, half yielding and half resisting.
Madelon faced him suddenly as they sped along. "I met your cousin Lot just below here and he kissed me, and I took him for you and stabbed him, if you must know," she sobbed out, dryly.
Burr gave a choking cry of horror.
"I think I—have killed him," said she, and pulled him on faster.
"And you meant to kill me?"
"Yes, I did."
"I wish to God you had!" Burr cried out, with a sudden fierce anger at himself and her; and now he hurried on faster than she.
Lot was quite motionless when they reached him. Burr threw himself down in the snow and leaned his ear to his cousin's heart. Madelon stood over them, panting. Suddenly a merry roulade of whistling broke the awful stillness. Two men were coming down the road whistling "Roy's Wife of Alidivalloch" as clearly soft and sweet as flutes, accented with human gayety and mirth.
On came the merry whistlers. Burr sprang up and grasped Madelon Hautville's arm. "He isn't dead," he whispered, hoarsely. "Somebody's coming. Go home, quick!"
But Madelon looked at him with despairing obstinacy. "I'll stay," said she.
"I tell you, go! Somebody is coming. I'll get help. I'll send for the doctor. Go home!"
"Oh, Madelon, if you have ever loved me, go home!"
Madelon turned away at that. "I'll be there when they come for me," said she, and went swiftly down the road and out of sight in the converging distance of trees, with the snow muffling her footsteps.
When she reached home she groped her way into the living-room, which was lighted only by the low, red gleam of the coals on the hearth. Her father's gruff voice called out from the bedroom beyond: "That you, Madelon?"
"Yes," said she, and lighted a candle at the coals.
"Have the boys come?"
Madelon went up the steep stairs to her chamber, but before she opened her door her brother Louis's voice, broken with pain, besought her to come into his room and bathe his sprained shoulder for him. She went in, set the candle on the table, and rubbed in the cider-brandy and wormwood without a word. Louis, in the midst of his pain, kept looking up wonderingly at his sister's face. It looked as if it were frozen. She did not seem to see him. Nothing about her seemed alive but her gently moving hands.
Suddenly he gave a startled cry. "What's that? Have you cut your hand, Madelon?" Madelon glanced at her hand, and there was a broad red stain over the palm and three of her fingers.
"No," said she, and went on rubbing.
"But it looks like blood!" cried Louis, knitting his pale brows at her.
Madelon made no reply.
"Madelon, what is that on your hand?"
"How came it there?"
"You'll know to-morrow." Madelon put the stopper in the cider-brandy and wormwood bottle; then she covered up the wounded arm and went out.
"Madelon, what is it? What is the matter? What ails you?" Louis called after her.
"You'll know to-morrow," said she, and shut her chamber door, which was nearly opposite Louis's. His youngest brother Richard occupied the same room, having his little cot at the other side, under the window. When he came in, an hour later, Louis turned to him eagerly.
"Has anything happened?" he demanded.
The boy's face, which was always so like his sister's, had the same despair in it now. "Don't know of anything that's happened," he returned, surlily.
"What ails Madelon?"
"I tell you I don't know." Richard would say no more. He blew out his candle and tumbled into bed, turned his face to the window and lay awake until and hour before dawn. Then he arose, dressed himself, and went down-stairs. He put more wood on the hearth fire, then knelt down before it, and puffed out his boyish cheeks at the bellows until the new flames crept through the smoke. Then he lighted the lantern, and went to the barn to milk and feed the stock. That was always Richard's morning task, and he always on his way thither replenished the hearth fire, that his sister Madelon might have a lighter and speedier task at preparing breakfast. Madelon usually arose a half-hour after Richard, and she was not behindhand this morning. She entered the great living-room, lit the candles, and went about getting breakfast. Human daily needs arise and set on tragedy as remorselessly as the sun.
Madelon Hautville, who had washed but a few hours ago the stain of murder from her hand, in whose heart was an unsounded depth of despair, mixed up the corn-meal daintily with cream, and baked the cakes which her father and brothers loved before the fire, and laid the table. She had always attended to the needs of the males of her family with the stern faithfulness of an Indian squaw. Now, as she worked, the wonder, softer than her other emotions, was upon her as to how they would get on when she was in prison and after she was dead; for she made no doubt that she had killed Lot Gordon and the sheriff would be there presently for her, and she felt plainly the fretting of the rope around her soft neck. She hoped they would not come for her until breakfast was prepared and eaten, the dishes cleared away, and the house tidied; but she listened like a savage for a foot-fall and a hand at the door. She had packed a little bundle ready to take with her before she left her chamber. Her cloak and hood were laid out on the bed.
When she sat down at the table with her father and brothers, all of them except Richard and Louis stared at her with open amazement and questioned her. Richard and Louis stared furtively at their sister's face, as stiff, set, and pale as if she were dead, but they asked no questions. Madelon said, in a voice that was not hers, that she was not sick, and put pieces of Indian cake into her untasting mouth and listened. But breakfast was well over and the dishes put away before anybody came. And then it was not the sheriff to hale her to prison on a charge of murder, but an old man from the village big with news.
He was a relative of the Hautvilles, an uncle on the mother's side, old and broken, scarcely able to find his feeble way on his shrunken legs through the snow; but, with the instinct of gossip, the sharp nose for his neighbors' affairs, still alert in him, he had arisen at dawn to canvass the village, and had come thither at first, since he anticipated that he might possibly have the delight of bringing the intelligence before any of the family had heard it elsewhere. He came in, dragging his old, snow-laden feet, tapping heavily with his stout stick, and settled, cackling, into a chair.
"Heard the news?" queried Uncle Luke basset, his eyes, like black sparks, twinkling rapidly at all their faces.
Madelon set the cups and saucers on the dresser.
"We don't have any time for anybody's business but our own," quoth David Hautville, gruffly. He did not like his wife's uncle. He was tightening a string in his bass-viol; he pulled it as he spoke, and it gave out a fierce twang. Louis sat moodily over the fire with his painful arm in wet bandages. Richard was whittling kindling-wood, with nervous speed, beside him. Eugene and Abner were cleaning their guns. They all looked at the eager old man except Richard and Louis and Madelon.
"Burr Gordon has killed Lot so's to get his property," proclaimed the old man, and his voice broke with eager delight and importance.
Madelon gave a cry and sprang forward in front of him. "It's a lie!" she shouted.
The old man laughed in her face. "No, 'tain't, Madelon. You're showin' a Christian sperrit to stan' up for him when he's jilted ye for another gal, but 'tain't a lie. His knife, with his name on to it, was a-stickin' out of Lot's side."
"It's a lie! I killed him with my brother Richard's knife!"
The old man shrank back before her in incredulous horror. The great bass-viol fell to the ground like a woman as David strode forward and Abner and Eugene turned their shocked, white faces from their guns.
"I killed him with Richard's knife," repeated Madelon.
Richard got up and came around before her, thrusting his hand in his pocket. He pulled out his own clasp-knife, and brandished it in her face. "Here is my knife," he cried, fiercely—"my knife, with my name cut in the handle. Say you killed Lot Gordon with it again!"
Madelon snatched the knife out of her brother's hand and looked at it with straining eyes. There, indeed, was a rude "R. H." cut in the horn handle. She gasped. "What does this mean?" she cried out.
"It means you have lost your wits," answered Richard, contemptuously; but his eyes on his sister's face were full of pleading agony.
"What knife did you give me when I started home last night?"
"I gave you no knife."
Old Luke Basset asserted himself again. "The gal's lost her balance," he said. "It was Burr Gordon's knife, with his name cut into it, that was stickin' out of Lot Gordon's side."
"Is Lot Gordon dead?" Louis demanded, hoarsely.
"No, he ain't dead, but the doctor thinks he can't live long. Ephraim Steele and Eleazer Hooper were a-goin' home from the ball when they come right on Lot layin' side of the road and Burr a-tryin' to draw his knife out, so it shouldn't testify against him."
"It's a lie!" Madelon groaned. "Burr Gordon did not kill him. It was I! He met me, and tried to—kiss me, and—the knife was in my hand—Richard made me take it because I was coming home alone, and there had been rumors of a bear."
"I did not," persisted Richard, doggedly. "I did not make her take my knife. Here is my knife, with my name cut in the handle."
Madelon turned on him fiercely. "You did, you know you did!" said she.
"Here is my knife, with my name cut on the handle."
"You gave me a knife as I was coming out of the tavern."
"No, I did not."
"You did, and I killed him with it. It was not Burr! I ran for help, and I met Burr, and I told him what I had done, and he went back with me to Lot. Then he sent me home when he heard somebody coming. Ask Lot Gordon if I did not kill him; if he can speak he can tell you."
"There won't neither him nor Burr say a word," said the old man, "but there was Burr's knife a-stickin' into Lot's side, with his name cut into it."
Madelon turned sharply to Louis. "You saw the blood on my hand when I was rubbing your arm last night," she said.
He made no reply, but stared gloomily at the fire.
"Louis, you saw Lot Gordon's blood on my hand?"
Louis sprang up with an oath, and pushed past her out of the room.
"Louis," Madelon cried, "tell them!"
"She is trying to shield Burr Gordon!" Louis called back, fiercely, and the closing door shook the house like a cannon-shot.
"Where is Burr?" Madelon demanded of old Luke Basset.
"The sheriff took him to New Salem to jail this morning," he replied, grinning.
Madelon gave a great cry and started to rush out of the room, but her father stood in her way.
"Where are you going?" he asked, sternly.
"I am going to get my hood and cloak, and then I am going to Lot Gordon's." Her father stood aside, and she went out and up-stairs to her chamber. She took up the red cloak which lay on her bed, and examined it eagerly to see if by chance there was a blood stain thereon to prove her guilt and Burr Gordon's innocence, but she could find none. She had flung it back when she struck. She looked also carefully at her pretty ball gown, but the black fabric showed no stain.
When she went down-stairs with her cloak and hood on old Luke Basset was gone, and so were her brothers. Her father stood waiting for her, and he had on his fur cap and his heavy cloak. He came forward and took her firmly by the arm. "I'm going with you to Lot Gordon's," said he. And they went out together and up the road, he still keeping a firm hand on his daughter's arm, and neither spoke all the way to Lot Gordon's house.
When they reached it David Hautville opened the door without touching the knocker, and strode in with Madelon following. Old Margaret Bean was just passing through the entry with a great roll of linen cloths in her arms, and she stopped when she saw them.
"How is he?" whispered David, hoarsely.
"He's pretty low," returned Margaret Bean, at the same time nodding her head cautiously towards the door on her right. Long, smooth loops of sallow hair fell from Margaret Bean's clean white cap over her cheeks, which looked as if they had been scrubbed and rasped red with tears. Her own gray hair was strained back out of sight—not to be discovered, even when there was a murder in the house.
"Does he know anybody?" queried David Hautville.
"Just as well as ever he did." Margaret Bean rubbed a tear dry on her cheek with her starched apron.
"We've got to see him, then."
"I dunno as you can—the doctor—"
"I don't care anything about the doctor! We've got to see him!" David's voice rang out quite loud in the hush of murder and death which seemed to fill the house. Margaret Bean stood aside with a scared look. David Hautville threw open the door on the right, and he and Madelon went in.
Lot Gordon's eyes turned towards them, but not his head. He lay as still in bed as if he were already dead, and his long body raised the gay patchwork quilt in a stiff ridge like a grave.
Madelon went close to him and bent over him. "Tell who stabbed you," said she, in a sharp voice.
Lot looked up at her, and a red flush came over his livid face.
"Tell who stabbed you."
Lot smiled feebly, but he did not speak.
Margaret Bean came in, with her old husband shuffling at her heels. A great face, bristling with a yellow stubble of beard, appeared in the door. It belonged to the sheriff, Jonas Hapgood, who had just returned from taking Burr to New Salem. Madelon cast a desperate glance around at them. "Lot Gordon," she cried out, "tell them—tell them I was the one who stabbed you, and set Burr free!"
There was a chuckle from Jonas Hapgood in the door. "Likely story," he muttered to Margaret Bean's husband, and the old man nodded wisely.
"Tell them!" commanded Madelon. She reached out a hand as if she would shake Lot Gordon into obedience, wounded unto death although he was, but Lot only smiled up in her face.
Then David Hautville bent his stern face down to the sick man's. "Lot Gordon, tell the truth before God, daughter of mine or no daughter of mine," said he, in his deep voice. Lot only followed Madelon with his longing, smiling eyes.
"Speak, Lot Gordon!"
The wounded man turned his eyes on David and made a feeble motion, scarcely more than a quiver of his hand, which seemed to express negation.
"Can't you speak?"
Again Lot made that faint signal.
"He ain't spoke sence they brought him home," said Margaret Bean—"not a word to the doctor nor nobody."
"I couldn't get a word out of him," announced the sheriff, stepping farther into the room. "In course, there was Burr's knife and Burr himself over him when the others came up, and that was proof enough; but still we kinder thought we'd like to have Lot's word for it afore he died, in case it came to hangin' with Burr; but I guess he's past speakin'. I miss my guess if he can sense anything we say."
"Tell them—tell them I was the one who stabbed you, and Burr is innocent!" Madelon pleaded; but he smiled back at her unmoved.
Jonas Hapgood's great body shook with mirth. "Likely story a gal did it," he chuckled.
"I did do it!" returned Madelon, fiercely, turning to him.
"I guess you don't want your beau hung."
"I tell you I killed this man. I am the one to be hung!"
The sheriff turned to David Hautville. "Guess you'd better take your gal home," he said, his red, bristling cheeks broad with laughter. "Guess she's kind of off her balance, she feels so bad about her beau."
David's black eyes flashed haughtily at Jonas Hapgood, who straightened his face suddenly. He deigned not a word to him, but he turned to his daughter with a stern air. "Whether it is one way, or whether it is the other way," said he, "we go neither by staying here. Come home."
"I won't go!"
David looked sharply at his daughter's face. Jonas Hapgood's doubt was over him too. He wondered, with a great spasm of wrath, if she could be accusing herself to shield this man who had played her false.
He grasped her arm again. "Come," he said, "I'll have no more of this," and Madelon went out with her father. Full of spirit as she was, she had always been strangely docile with him. He had ruled all his children with a firm hand from their youth up, and tuned their wills to suit his ear as he did his viol strings.
"I'll have no foolery," he said to her, gruffly, when they were out on the road. "I'll have no putting yourself in the wrong to save a man that's given you the go-by. If ye be fooling me, ye can stop it now if you're a daughter of mine." He shook his head fiercely at her.
But Madelon answered him with a burst of wrath that equalled his own. "I stabbed him because I took him for the man who jilted me a-trying to kiss me, with Dorothy Fair's kiss on his lips. Me!" she cried; and she raised her hand as if she would have struck again had Burr Gordon and his false lips been there.
Her father looked at her gloomily, then strode on with his eyes on the snowy ground. He was still in doubt. David Hautville had that primitive order of mind which distrusts and holds in contempt that which it cannot clearly comprehend, and he could not comprehend womankind. His sons were to him as words of one syllable in straight lines; his daughter was written in compound and involved sentences, as her mother had been before her. Fond and proud of Madelon as he was, and in spite of his stern anxiety, her word had not the weight with him that one of his son's would have had. It was as if he had visions of endless twistings and complexities which might give it the lie, and rob it, at all events, of its direct force.
Indeed, Madelon strengthened this doubt by crying out passionately all at once, as they went on: "Father, you must believe me! I tell you I did it! I—don't let them hang him! Father!" All Madelon's proud fierceness was gone for a moment. She looked up at her father, choking with great sobs.
David smiled down at her convulsed face. "She's nothing but a woman," he thought to himself, and he thought also, with a throb of angry relief, that she had not killed Lot Gordon. "Come along home and red up the house, and let's have no more fooling," he said, roughly, and strode on faster and would not say another word, although Madelon besought him hard to assure her that he believed her, and that Burr should not be hanged, until they reached the Hautville house. Then he turned on her and said, with keen sarcasm that stung more than a whip-lash, "'Tis Parson Fair's daughter and not mine that should come down the road in broad daylight a-bawling for Burr Gordon."
Madelon started back, and her face stiffened and whitened. She shut her mouth hard and followed her father into the house. The great living-room was empty; indeed, not one of the Hautville sons was in the house; even Louis was gone. David took his axe out of the corner and set out for the woods to cut some cedar fire-logs. Madelon put the house in order, setting the kitchen and pantry to rights, going through the icy chambers and making the high feather beds. In her own room she paused long and searched again, holding up her red cloak and her ball dress to the window, where they caught the wintry light, for a stain of blood that might prove her guilt; but she could find none.
Madelon prepared dinner for her father and brothers as usual, and when it was ready to be dished she stood in the doorway, with the north wind buffeting her in the face, and blew the dinner-horn with a blast that could be heard far off in the woods.
Presently her father emerged from under the snowy boughs with his axe over his shoulder, and shortly afterwards Eugene and Abner came, in Indian file, with their guns. Eugene was carrying a fat rabbit by its long ears. Louis and Richard did not come at all. David asked sternly of their brothers where they were, but neither Eugene nor Abner knew. They had not seen them since David and Madelon left for Lot Gordon's that morning.
Madelon set the food before her father and her brothers, and took her place as usual, and ate as she might have filled a crock with milk or cakes, tasting nothing which she put into her mouth. She did not during the meal say another word concerning the tragedy in which she was living, but there was a strange silent vehemence and fire about her which seemed louder than speech. Now and then her father and her brothers started and stared at her as if she had cried out. Two red spots had come on her brown cheeks; her eyes were glittering with dark light; her lips were a firm red; her fingers stiffened with nervous clutches. She looked as if every muscle in her were strained and rigid for a leap.
After dinner Eugene and Abner went out again with their guns, and David smoked his old pipe by the fire, while Madelon put away the dishes and swept the floor. When her work was finished the pipe was smoked out, and David rose up slowly, clapped his fur cap over his white head, and took up his axe.
"Mind ye say what ye said this morning to nobody else," he said, as he went out the door.
"I'll say it with my dying breath," returned Madelon, and she caught her breath, as if it were indeed her last, as she spoke.
"Accuse yourself of murder, would ye, and be hung, and leave your own kith and kin with nobody to keep house for them, for the sake of a man that's left ye for another girl!"
"Father, I tell you that I did it!"
But David clapped to the door on her speech, and the awful truth of it seemed to smite her in her own face.
Madelon went up-stairs, and brushed and braided her black hair before her glass; but the face therein did not look like her own to her, and she felt all the time as if she were braiding and wreathing the hair around another's head. One of those deeds had she committed which lead a man to see suddenly the stranger that abides always in his flesh and in his own soul, and makes him realize that of all the millions of earth there is not one that he knows not better than his own self, nor whose face can look so strange to him in the light of his own actions.
Madelon put her red cloak over her shoulders as she might have put it on a lay-figure, and tied on her hood. Then she went down-stairs, out of the house to the barn, and put the side-saddle on the roan mare.
Not another woman in the village, and scarcely a man except the Hautville sons, would have dared to ride this roan, with the backward roll of her vicious eyes and her wicked, flat-laid ears; but Madelon Hautville could not be thrown.
The mare, when she was saddled, danced an iron-bound dance in the barn bay, but Madelon bade her stand still, and she obeyed, her nostrils quivering, the breath coming from them in a snort of smoke, and every muscle under her roan hide vibrating.
Then Madelon placed her foot in the stirrup, and was in the saddle, pulling the bit hard against the jaw, and the mare shot out of the barn with a fierce lash-out of her heels and an upheaval of her gaunt roan flanks that threatened to dash the girl's head against the lintel of the door.
But Madelon knew with what she had to do, and she bent low in the saddle and passed out in safety. Then she spared not the mare for nigh three miles on the New Salem road. It was ten miles to New Salem, and it did not take long to reach it, riding a horse who went at times as if all the fiends were in chase, and often sprang out like a bow into the wayside bushes, and was off with a new spurt of vicious terror. It was still far from sundown when Madelon Hautville tied the roan outside the jail where Burr Gordon lay.
Burr was sitting in his cell, which was nothing but a rough chamber with whitewashed walls and a grated window. It was furnished with a bed, a table, and a chair. He had an inkstand and a great sheet of paper on the table, and he was writing a letter when the bolt shot and the jailer entered with Madelon Hautville.
Burr looked at her with a white, incredulous face. Then he started up and came forward, but Madelon did not look at him. She turned to the jailer, Alvin Mead. "I want to see him alone," said she, imperatively.
"It's again my orders," said the jailer. He was a great man, with an arm like a crow-bar. He was reputed to have used it as one many a time at a house-raising.
"I've got to see him alone!"
"He's in here on a charge of murder, and it's again my orders," repeated Alvin Mead, like a parrot.
"I've got to see him alone!"
Alvin Mead looked at her irresolutely with his stupid light eyes; then all his great system of bone and muscle seemed to back out of the room before her. He shut the door after him, and they heard the bolt slide.
Madelon turned to Burr. "Tell them," she gasped out—"tell them it was—I!"
Burr did not speak for a minute; he stood looking at her. "Perhaps I am not any too much of a man," he said, slowly, at length, "but you ask me to be a good deal less of a man than I am."
Madelon did not seem to hear him. "I have told them I did it! I have told them all," said she, "but they won't believe me—they won't believe me! You must tell them."
"I will die before I will tell them," said Burr Gordon.
Madelon looked at his white face, which was set against hers like a rock; then she gave a great cry and fell down on her knees before him. "Tell them," she moaned, "or they will hang you—they will hang you, Burr!"
"Let them hang me, then!"
"Tell them; they won't believe me!"
Burr caught hold of her two arms and raised her to her feet. "See here, Madelon," said he, "don't you know—"
She looked at him dumbly.
"Don't you know—I would not tell them if they would, but—I might tell them until I was gray, and they would not believe me!"
Madelon cried out sharply, as if she in her turn had been struck to the heart.
"It is true," Burr said, quietly.
"Then if he dies without telling, there is no way of—saving you—"
Burr shook his head.
"The knife—how—came your knife there instead of Richard's?"
Bluish shadows came around Madelon's dark eyes and her mouth. She gasped for breath as she spoke. "I—have—killed you, then," said she. Suddenly she put up her white, stiffly quivering lips to Burr's. "Kiss me!" she cried out. "I beg you to give me the kiss that I might have killed you for last night!"
Burr bent down and kissed her, and she threw her arms around him and pressed his head to her bosom. "They shall not," she cried out, fiercely—"they shall not hang you! I will make them believe me! Don't be afraid, don't be afraid, Burr."
"Madelon," Burr said, huskily, "I have been double-faced and false to you, but, as God is my witness, I'm glad I've got the chance to suffer in your stead."
"You shall not! They shall believe I did it. I will make Lot Gordon tell. He shall tell before he dies!"
The bolt slid back, and Alvin Mead's great bulk darkened the doorway. Madelon turned her face towards him, with her arms still clasping Burr and holding his head to her bosom. "This man is innocent!" she cried out, with a fierce gesture of protection, as if she were defending her young instead of her false lover. "I tell you he is innocent—you must let him go! I am the one who stabbed Lot Gordon!"
Alvin Mead stared; his heavy pink jaw lopped.
"I tell you, you must let him go!" She released Burr from her arms and gave him a push towards the door. "Go out," she said; "I am the one to stay here."
But Alvin Mead collected and brought about his great body with a show of lumbering fists. "Come," said he, "this ain't a-goin to do. We can't have no sech work as this, young woman. It's time you went."
"Let him go, I tell you!" commanded Madelon, confronting him fiercely. "I am going to stay."
"They won't let you come again if you don't go quietly now," Burr whispered, and he laid his hand on her nervous shoulder.
"I ruther guess we won't have no sech doin's again," said Alvin Mead, with sulky assent.
"You must go, Madelon."
Madelon tied on her hood. Her white face had its rigid, desperate look again.
"I will make them believe me yet, and you shall be set free," she said to Burr, with a stern nod, and passed out, while Alvin Mead stood back to give her passage, watching her with sullen and wary eyes. He was, in truth, half afraid of her.
When Madelon, returning from New Salem, came in sight of her home the first thing which she noticed was her father in the yard in front of the house.
David Hautville's great figure stood out in the dusk of the snowy landscape like a giant's. He was motionless. The roan mare's gallop had evidently struck his ear some time before, and he knew that Madelon was returning. He did not even look her way as she drew nearer, but when she rode into the yard he made a swift movement forward and seized the mare by the bridle. She reared, but Madelon sat firm, with wretched, undaunted eyes upon her father. David Hautville's eyes blazed back at her out of the whiteness of his wrath.
"Where have you been?" he demanded, in a thick voice.
"To New Salem."
"To see Burr, and beg him to confess that I killed Lot."
"Fool!" David Hautville jerked the bridle so fiercely that the mare reared far back again. He jerked her down to her feet, and she made a vicious lunge at him, but he shunted her away.
"I'll fasten you into your chamber," he shouted, "if this work goes on! I'll stop your making a fool of yourself."
"It is Lot Gordon that is making fools of you all," said Madelon, in a hard, quiet voice.
"Did Burr Gordon say he didn't stab him?" cried her father.
"No; he wouldn't own it. He is trying to shield me."
"He did it himself, and he'll hang for it."
"No, he won't hang for what I did while I draw the breath of life. I've got the strength of ten in me. You don't know me, if I am your daughter." Madelon freed her bridle with a quick movement, and the mare flew forward into the barn.
David Hautville stood looking after her in utter fury and bewilderment. Her last words rang in his ears and seemed true to him. He felt as if he did not know his own daughter. This awakening and lashing into action, by the terrible pressure of circumstances, of strange ancestral traits which he had himself transmitted was beyond his simple comprehension. He shook his head with a fierce helplessness and went into the barn.
"Go in and get the supper," he ordered, "and I'll take care of the mare."
As Madelon came out of the stall he grasped her roughly by the arm and peered sharply into her face. The thought seized him that she must surely not be in her right mind—that Burr's treatment of her and his danger had turned her brain. "Be you crazy, Madelon?" he asked, in his straightforward simplicity, and there was an accent of doubt and pity in his voice.
"No, father," she replied, "I am not crazy. Let me go."
She broke away from him and was out of the barn door, but suddenly she turned and came running back. The sudden softness in his voice had stirred the woman in her to weakness. She went close to her father, and threw up her arms around his great neck, and clung to him, and sobbed as if she would sob her soul away, and pleaded with him as for her life.
"Father!" she cried—"father, help me! Believe me! Tell them I did it! Tell them it is true! Don't let them hang Burr. Help me to save him, father! Don't let them! Save him! Oh, you will save him, father? You will? Tell me, father—tell me, tell me!" Madelon's voice rose into a wild shriek.
A sudden conviction of his solution of the matter and of his own astuteness came over David Hautville's primitive masculine intelligence. His daughter was wellnigh distraught with her lover's faithlessness and his awful crime and danger. She was to be watched and guarded lest she make a further spectacle of herself; but treated softly as might be, for she was naught but a woman, and liable to mischievous ailments of nerve and brain. David pressed his daughter's dark head with his hard, tender hand against his shoulder, then forced her gently away from him.
"It'll be all right," said he, soothingly—"it'll be all right. Don't you worry."
"Father, you will?"
"I'll fix it all right. Don't you worry."
"Father, you promise?"
"I'll do everything I can. Don't you worry, Madelon. You'd better go in and get supper now. I'll go along to the house with you and get the lantern. It's getting too dark to do the work here."
David drew his daughter along, out of the barn, across the snowy yard to the house, she pleading frantically all the way, he soothing her with his sudden wisdom of assent and evasion.
The hearth fire was blazing high when Madelon entered the kitchen. The red glare of it was on her white face, upturned to her father's with one last pleading of despair. She clutched his arm and shook his great frame to and fro.
"Father, promise me you'll go over to New Salem to-night and tell them to set him free and take me instead! Father!"
"We'll see about it, Madelon," answered David Hautville. There was a tone in his voice which she had never heard before. It might have come unconsciously to himself from some memory, so old that it was itself forgotten, of his dead wife's voice over the child in her cradle. Some echo of it might have yet lingered in the old father's soul, through something finer than his instinct for sweet sounds from human throat and viol—through his ear for love.
"Get the supper now, and we'll see about it," said David Hautville. He began fumbling with clumsy fingers, all unused to women's gear, at the string of this daughter's cloak; but she pulled herself away from him suddenly, and the old hard lines came into her face. "We'll say no more about it," said she. She lit a candle quickly at the hearth fire, and was out of the room to put away her cloak and hood. Her father lighted his lantern slowly and went back to the barn, plodding meditatively through the snowy track, with the melting mood still strong upon him. He was disposed to carry matters now with a high and tender hand with the girl to bring her to reason, and he brought all his crude diplomacy to bear upon the matter.
When he reached the barn his son Eugene stood in the doorway. He had just come from the woods, and the smell of wounded cedar-trees was strong about him. He stood leaning upon his axe as if it were a staff. "Who's been out with the mare?" he asked.
"To New Salem."
"To see him?"
David nodded grimly. His lantern cast a pale circle of light on the snow about them.
"To get him to own up she did it."
Eugene Hautville stared at his father, scowling his handsome dark brows. He was the most graceful mannered of all the Hautville sons, and by some accounted the best-looking.
"Is she crazy?" he said.
"No, she's a woman," returned his father, with a strange accent of contempt and toleration.
"Did the coward lay it to her when she gave him the chance?" demanded Eugene.
"No; she said he wouldn't, to shield her."
Eugene moved his axe suddenly; the lantern-light struck it, and there was a bright flash of sharp steel in their eyes. "Shield her!" he cried out, with an oath. "I wish I could meet him in the path once. I'd give him a taste before they put the rope 'round his neck, the lying murderer!"
David nodded his head in savage assent.
"What's going to be done with Madelon?" cried Eugene, fiercely.
"I've been thinking—" said his father, slowly.
"No sister of mine shall go about rolling herself in the dust at that fellow's feet if I can help it."
"I've been thinking—would you lock her in her chamber a spell?"
"Lock Madelon in her chamber! She'd get out or she'd beat her brains out against the wall."
"I don't know but she would," assented David, perplexedly. "You can't count on a woman when they rise up. She might go away a spell."
"We might send her somewhere."
Eugene laughed. The roan mare was pawing in her stall. Now and then she pounded the floor with a clattering thud like an iron flail.
"How far do you suppose that mare would go if you tried to send her anywhere?" he asked.
"Maybe Madelon wouldn't go."
"You'd have to halter the mare," said Eugene, "and drag her half the way and stand from under, or she'd trample you down the other." Eugene, although his words were strong, spoke quite softly, lowering his sweet tenor. From where they stood they could see Madelon moving to and fro behind the kitchen windows preparing supper.
"I don't know what to do," said David, after a pause.
"Watch her," returned Eugene, quietly.
"Yes. I've been under cover days before now watching for a pretty white fox or a deer I wanted." Eugene laughed pleasantly.
"I'll stay by the house to-morrow. She sha'n't go about accusing herself of murder to save the man that's jilted her if I can help it." As he spoke Eugene's handsome face darkened again vindictively. He hated Burr Gordon for another reason of his own that nobody suspected.
Suddenly Abner Hautville came running into the yard. "Who is it there?" he called out. "Is that you, father? That you, Eugene? Hello!"
"Hello!" Eugene called back. "What's the matter?"
Abner come panting alongside. He had run from the village, and, vigorous as he was, breath came hard in the thin air. It was a very cold night.
"Where have they gone?" he demanded.
"Louis and Richard. Where have they gone?"
There was a ghastly look in Abner's face, in spite of the glowing red which the cold wind had brought to it. The other man seemed to catch it and reflect it in their own faces as they stared at him.
Eugene turned quickly to his father. "Aren't they in the house?" he asked.
"No, they ain't," returned David, with his eyes still on Abner's face.
"Sure they ain't up chamber?"
"No; I was home a good half-hour before Madelon came. There wasn't a soul in the house, and nobody could have come home since without my knowing it."
"They didn't come home this noon either," said Eugene.
"Thought you said they'd gone to see to their traps on West Mountain?" David rejoined.
"Thought they had when they didn't come." Eugene turned impatiently on Abner. "Where do you think they've gone—what do you mean by looking so?" he cried.
Abner dug his heel into the snow. "Don't know," he returned, in a surly voice.
"What do you suspect, then? Good God! can't you speak out?"
Abner's features were heavier than his brother's—his speech and manner slower. He paused a second, even then; then he turned towards the house, and spoke, with his face away from them, with a curious directness and taciturnity. "Didn't go to the traps on West Mountain," he said, then; "went there myself. They hadn't been there—no tracks; was home before father was to-night. Louis and Richard hadn't come. Went down to the village; hadn't been there."
"You don't mean Louis and Richard have run away?" demanded David.
"Both their guns and their powder-horns and shot-bags are gone," said Abner.
"They would have taken them anyway," said Louis.
"The chest in Louis's chamber is unlocked and the money he kept in the till is gone, and his fiddle is gone, and the cider-brandy and wormwood bottle to bathe his arm with, and two shoulders of pork out of the cellar, and a sack of potatoes, and the blankets off his and Richard's beds are gone too," said Abner. He began to move towards the house.
His father made a bound after him and grasped his arm. "What do you mean?" he cried out. "What do you think they've run away for?"
"Know as much as I do," replied Abner. He wrenched his arm away and strode on towards the house. Then David Hautville and his son Eugene stood looking at each other with a surmise of horror growing in their eyes.
"What does he mean?" David whispered, hoarsely.
Eugene shook his head.
Presently Eugene went into the barn and fell to feeding the roan mare, and David plunged heavily back to the house. He and Abner sat one on each side of the fire and furtively watched Madelon preparing supper.
She spoke never a word. Her red lips were a red line of resolution. Her despairing eyes were fixed upon her work without a glance for either of them.
However, when supper was set on the table, and she had blown the horn at the door and waited, and nobody else came, she turned with sudden life upon her father and her brothers, who had already begun to taste the smoking hasty-pudding. "Where are the others?" she cried out, shrilly. "Where are Louis and Richard?"
The men glanced at one another under sullen eyelids, but nobody answered. "Where are they?" she repeated.
"You know as much about it as we do," Eugene said, then, in his soft voice.
Madelon stood with wild eyes flashing from one to another. Then she gave a sudden spring out of the room, and they heard her swift feet on the chamber-stairs. The men ate their hasty-pudding, bending their brows over it as if it were a witches' mess instead of their ordinary home fare.
Madelon came back so rapidly that she seemed to fly over the stairs. They scarcely heard the separate taps of her feet. She burst into the room and faced them in a sort of fury. "They have gone!" she gasped out. "Louis and Richard have gone! Where are they?"
David Hautville slowly shook his head. Then he took another spoonful of pudding. The brothers bent with stern assiduity over their bowls.
"You have hid them away!" shrieked Madelon. "You have hid them away lest Louis own that he saw blood on my hand, and Richard that he gave me his knife! What have you done with them?"
Not one of the three men spoke. They swallowed their pudding.
"Father! Abner! Eugene!" said Madelon, "tell me what you have done with my brothers, who can testify that I killed Lot Gordon, and save Burr?"
David Hautville wiped his mouth on his sleeve, rose up, and took his daughter firmly by the arm.
"We know no more what has become of your brothers than you do," said he. "If they have gone away for the reason you say, your old father would be the first to bring them back, if you were guilty as you say, daughter of mine though you be. But we know well enough, wherever your brothers have gone, and for whatever cause they have gone, that you have done nothing worse then go daft, as women will, to shield a fellow that's used you ill. You shall put us to no more shame while I am your father and you under my roof. Abner, fill up a bowl with the pudding."
Madelon's face was deathly white and full of rebellion as she looked up in her father's, but she held herself still with a stern dignity and did not struggle. David Hautville's will was up. His hand on her soft arm was like a vise of steel. The memories of her childhood were strong upon her. She knew of old that there was no appeal, and was too proud to contend where she must yield.
"Take the bowl," said her father, when Abner extended it filled with the steaming pudding—"take the bowl, and go you to your chamber. Eat your supper, and get in to your bed and stay there till morning."
Madelon still looked at her father with that same look of speechless but unyielding rebellion. She did not stir to take the bowl or go to her chamber.
"Do as I bid ye!" ordered her father, in a great voice.
Madelon took the bowl from her brother's hand and went out of the room as she was bid; and yet as she went they all knew that there was no yielding in her.
The next morning Madelon came down-stairs as usual and prepared breakfast. When it was ready the family sat up to the table and ate silently and swiftly. No one addressed a word to Madelon. After breakfast David and his son Abner put on their leather jackets and their fur caps, and set forth for the woods with their axes, but Eugene lounged gracefully over to the hearth and sat down on the settle, and began reading his Shakespeare book. Eugene was the only one of the Hautvilles who ever read books. He studied faithfully the few in the house—the Shakespeare, the Pilgrim's Progress, Milton, and Gulliver's Travels. The others wondered at him. They could not understand how any one who could handle a gun or a musical instrument could lay finger on a book. "Made-up things," said Abner once, with a scornful motion towards Shakespeare.
"No more made-up than fugue," retorted Eugene, hotly; but they all cried out on him.
This morning Madelon cast one quick glance at him as he sauntered over to the settle with his book. Then she did not look his way again. She worked quietly, setting the kitchen to rights.
The day was very cold; the light in the room was dim and white, the windows were coated so thickly with the hoar-frost. Eugene kept stirring the fire and adding sticks as he read.
Finally, Madelon had finished her work in the kitchen, and went up-stairs. Then Eugene arose reluctantly, went out into the cold entry, and stood by the door with his book in hand. Madelon, passing across the landing above, looked down and saw him standing there, and knew that what she suspected was true—that her brother was mounting guard over her lest she leave the house.