BY GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
C. ALLAN GILBERT
I THE FORBIDDEN ROCK II THE STORY THE OLD MAN TOLD III COURTNEY THANE IV DOWD'S TAVERN V TRESPASS VI CHARLIE WEBSTER ENTERTAINS VII COURTNEY APPEARS IN PUBLIC VIII ALIX THE THIRD IX A MID-OCTOBER DAY X THE CHIMNEY CORNER XI THANE VISITS TWO HOUSES XII WORDS AND LETTERS XIII THE OLD INDIAN TRAIL XIV SUSPICION XV THE FACE AT THE WINDOW XVI ROSABEL XVII SHADOWS XVIII MR. GILFILLAN IS PUZZLED XIX BRINGING UP THE PAST XX THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ROSABEL VICK XXI OUT OF THE NIGHT XXII THE THROWER OF STONES XXIII A MESSAGE AND ITS ANSWER XXIV AT QUILL'S WINDOW
THE FORBIDDEN ROCK
A young man and an old one sat in the shade of the willows beside the wide, still river. The glare of a hot August sun failed to penetrate the shelter in which they idled; out upon the slow-gliding river it beat relentlessly, creating a pale, thin vapour that clung close to the shimmering surface and dazzled the eye with an ever-shifting glaze. The air was lifeless, sultry, stifling; not a leaf, not a twig in the tall, drooping willows moved unless stirred by the passage of some vagrant bird.
The older man sat on the ground, his back against the trunk of a tree that grew so near to the edge that it seemed on the point of toppling over to shatter the smooth, green mirror below. Some of its sturdy exposed roots reached down from the bank into the water, where they caught and held the drift from upstream,—reeds and twigs and matted grass,—a dirty, sickly mass that swished lazily on the flank of the slow-moving current.
The water here in the shade was deep and clear and limpid, contrasting sharply with the steel-white surface out beyond.
The young man occupied a decrepit camp stool, placed conveniently against the trunk of another tree hard by. A discarded bamboo rod lay beside him on the bank, the hook and line hopelessly tangled in the drift below. He smoked cigarettes.
His companion held a well-chewed black cigar in the vise-like corner of his mouth. His hook and line were far out in the placid water, an ordinary cork serving as a "bob" from which his dreary, unwavering gaze seldom shifted.
"I guess they're through bitin' for today," he remarked, after a long unbroken silence.
"How many have we got?" inquired the other languidly.
"Between us we've got twenty-four. That's a fair-sized mess. Sunfish don't make much of a showing unless you get a barrel of 'em."
"Good eating though," mused the young man.
"Fried in butter," supplemented the other. "What time is it?"
"Well, that's just about what I'd figured. I've been fishin' in this 'hole' for something like forty years, off and on, and I've found out that these here sunfish get through breakfast at exactly eighteen minutes past nine. I always allow about ten minutes' leeway in case one or two of 'em might have been out late the night before or something,—but as a general thing they're pretty dog-goned prompt for breakfast. Specially in August. Even a fish is lazy in August. Look at that fish-worm. By gosh, it's BOILED! That shows you how hot the water is."
He removed the worm from the hook and slowly began to twist the pole in the more or less perfunctory process of "winding up" the line. The young man looked on disinterestedly.
"Ain't you going to untangle that line?" inquired the old man, jerking his thumb.
"What's the use? The worm is dead by this time, and God knows I prefer to let him rest in peace. The quickest way to untangle a line is to do it like this."
He severed it with his pocket-knife.
"A line like that costs twenty-five cents," said the old man, a trace of dismay in his voice.
"That's what it cost when it was new," drawled the other. "You forget it's been a second-hand article since eight o'clock this morning,—and what's a second-hand fish-line worth?—tell me that. How much would you give, in the open market, or at an auction sale, for a second-hand fish-line?"
"I guess we'd better be gittin' back to the house," said the other, ignoring the question. "Got to clean these fish if we're expectin' to have 'em for dinner,—or lunch, as you fellers call it. I'll bet your grandfather never called it lunch. And as for him callin' supper DINNER,—why, by crickey, he NEVER got drunk enough for that."
"More than that," said the young man calmly, "he never saw a cigarette, or a telephone, or a Ford, or a safety-razor,—or a lot of other things that have sprung up since he cashed in his checks. To be sure, he did see a few things I've never seen,—such as clay-pipes, canal boats, horse-hair sofas, top-boots and rag-carpets,—and he probably saw Abraham Lincoln,—but, for all that, I'd rather be where I am today than where he is,—and I'm not saying he isn't in heaven, either."
The older man's eyes twinkled. "I don't think he's any nearer heaven than he was forty years ago,—and he's been dead just about that long. He wasn't what you'd call a far-seeing man,—and you've got to look a long ways ahead if you want to see heaven. Your grandma's in heaven all right,—and I'll bet she was the most surprised mortal that ever got inside the pearly gates if she found him there ahead of her. Like as not she would have backed out, thinking she'd got into the wrong place by mistake. And if he IS up there, I bet he's making the place an everlastin' hell for her. Yep, your grandpa was about as mean as they make 'em. As you say, he didn't know anything about cigarettes, but he made up for it by runnin' after women and fast horses,—or maybe it was hosses and, fast women,—and cheatin' the eye teeth out of everybody he had any dealings with."
"I don't understand how he happened to die young, If all these things were true about him," said the other, lighting a fresh cigarette and drawing in a deep, full breath of the pungent smoke. The old man waited a few seconds for the smoke to be expelled, and then, as it came out in a far-reaching volume, carrying far on the still air, his face betrayed not only relief but wonder.
"You don't actually swaller it, do you?" he inquired.
"Certainly not. I inhale, that's all. Any one can do it."
"I'd choke to death," said the old man, shifting his cigar hastily from one side of his mouth to the other, and taking a fresh grip on it with his teeth,—as if fearing the consequences of a momentary lapse of control.
"You've been chewing that cigar for nearly two hours," observed the young man. "I call that a filthy habit."
"I guess you're right," agreed the other, amiably. "The best you can say for it is that it's a man's job, and not a woman's," he added, with all the scorn that the cigar smoker has for the man who affects nothing but cigarettes.
"You can't make me sore by talking like that," said his companion, stretching himself lazily. "Approximately ten million men smoked cigarettes over in France for four years and more, and I submit that they had what you might call a man's job on their hands."
"How many of them things do you smoke in a day?"
"It depends entirely on how early I get up in the morning,—and how late I stay up at night. Good Lord, it's getting hotter every minute. For two cents, I'd strip and jump in there for a game of hide and seek with the fish. By the way, I don't suppose there are any mermaids in these parts, are there?"
"You stay out of that water," commanded the old man. "You ain't strong enough yet to be takin' any such chances. You're here to get well, and you got to be mighty all-fired careful. The bed of that river is full of cold springs,—and it's pretty deep along this stretch. Weak as you are,—and as hot as you are,—you'd get cramps in less'n a minute."
"I happen to be a good swimmer."
"So was Bart Edgecomb,—best swimmer I ever saw. He could swim back an' forth across this river half a dozen times,—and do you know what happened to him last September? He drowned in three foot of water up above the bend, that's what he did. Come on. Let's be movin'. It'll be hotter'n blazes by eleven o'clock, and you oughtn't to be walkin' in the sun."
The young man settled himself a little more comfortably against the tree.
"I think I'll stay here in the shade for a while longer. Don't be uneasy. I shan't go popping into the water the minute your back's turned. What was it you said early this morning about sniffing rain in the air?"
"Thunderstorms today, sure as my name's Brown. Been threatening rain for nearly a week. Got to come some time, and I figure today's—"
"Threats are all we get," growled the young man peevishly. "Lord, I never dreamed I could get so sick of white skies and what you call fresh air. You farmers go to bed every night praying for rain, and you get up in the morning still praying, and what's the result? Nothing except a whiter sky than the day before, and a greater shortage of fresh air. Don't talk to me about country air and country sunshine and country quiet. My God, it never was so hot and stifling as this in New York, and as for peace and quiet,—why, those rotten birds in the trees around the house make more noise than the elevated trains at the rush hour, and the rotten roosters begin crowing just about the time I'm going to sleep, and the dogs bark, and the cows,—the cows do whatever cows do to make a noise,—and then the crows begin to yawp. And all night long the katydids keep up their beastly racket, and the frogs in the pond back of the barns,—my God, man, the city is as silent as the grave compared to what you get in the country."
"I manage to sleep through it all," said the old man drily. "The frogs and katydids don't keep me awake."
"Yes, and that reminds me of another noise that makes the night hideous. It's the way you people sleep. At nine o'clock sharp, every night, the whole house begins to snore, and—Say, I've seen service in France, I've slept in barracks with scores of tired soldiers, I've walked through camps where thousands of able-bodied men were snoring their heads off,—but never have I heard anything so terrifying as the racket that lasts from nine to five in the land of my forefathers. Gad, it sometimes seems to me you're all trying to make my forefathers turn over in their graves up there on the hill."
"You're kind of peevish today, ain't you?" inquired the other, grinning. "You'll get used to the way we snore before long, and you'll kind of enjoy it. I'd be scared to death if I got awake in the night and didn't hear everybody in the house snoring. It's kind of restful to know that everybody's asleep,—and not dead. If they wasn't snoring, I'd certainly think they was dead."
The young man smiled. "I'll say this much for you farmers,—you're a good-natured bunch. I ought to be ashamed of myself for grousing. I suppose it's because I've been sick. You're all so kind and thoughtful,—and so darned GENUINE,—even when you're asleep,—that I feel like a dog for finding fault. By the way, you said something awhile ago about that big black cliff over yonder having a history. I've been looking at that cliff or hill or rock, or whatever it is, and it doesn't look real. It doesn't look as though God had made it. It's more like the work of man. So far as I can see, there isn't another hill on either bank of the river, and yet that thing over there must be three or four hundred feet high, sticking up like a gigantic wart on the face of the earth. What is it? Solid rock?"
"Sort like slate rock, I guess. There's a stretch of about a mile on both sides of the river along here that's solid rock. This bank we're standin' on is rock, covered with six or eight foot of earth. You're right about that big rock over there being a queer thing. There's been college professors and all sorts of scientific men here, off and on, to examine it and to try to account for its being there. But, thunderation, if it's been there for a million years as they say, what's the sense of explaining it?"
"There's something positively forbidding about it. Gives you the willies. How did it come by the name you called it a while ago?"
"Quill's Window? Goes back to the days of the Indians. Long before the time of Tecumseh or The Prophet. They used to range up and down this river more than a hundred years ago. The old trail is over there on the other bank as plain as day, covered with grass but beaten down till it's like a macadam road. I suppose the Indians followed that trail for hundreds of years. There's still traces of their camps over there on that side, and a little ways down the river is a place where they had a regular village. Over here on this side, quite a little ways farther down, is the remains of an old earthwork fort used by the French long before the Revolution, and afterwards by American soldiers about the time of the War of 1812. We'll go and look at it some day if you like. Most people are interested in it, but for why, I can't see.
"There ain't nothing to see but some busted up breastworks and lunettes, covered with weeds, with here and there a sort of opening where they must have had a cannon sticking out to scare the squaws and papooses. You was askin' about the name of that rock. Well, it originally had an Indian name, which I always forget because it's the easiest way to keep from pronouncing it. Then the French came along and sort of Frenchified the name,—which made it worse, far as I'm concerned. I'm not much on French. About three-quarters of the way up the rock, facing the river, is a sort of cave. You can't see the opening from here, 'cause it faces north, looking up the river from the bend. There are a lot of little caves and cracks in the rock, but none of 'em amounts to anything except this one. It runs back something like twenty foot in the rock and is about as high as a man's head.
"Shortly after General Harrison licked The Prophet and his warriors up on the Tippecanoe, a man named Quill,—an Irishman from down the river some'eres towards Vincennes,—all this is hearsay so far as I'm concerned, mind you,—but as I was saying, this man Quill begin to make his home up in that cave. He was what you might call a hermit. There were no white people in these parts except a few scattered trappers and some people living in a settlement twenty-odd miles south of here. As the story goes, this man Quill lived up there in that cave for about four or five years, hunting and trapping all around the country. White people begin to get purty thick in these parts soon after that, Indiana having been made a state. There was a lot of coming and going up and down the river. A feller named Digby started a kind of settlement or trading-post further up, and clearings were made all around,—farms and all that, you see. Your great grandfather was one of the first men to settle in this section. Coming down the river by night you could see the light, up there in Quill's Cave. You could see it for miles, they say. People begin to speak of it as the light in Quill's window,—and that's how the name happened. I'm over seventy, and I've never heard that hill called anything but Quill's Window."
"What happened to Quill?"
"Well, that's something nobody seems to be quite certain about. Whether he hung himself or somebody else done the job for him, nobody knows. According to the story that was told when I was a boy, it seems he killed somebody down the river and come up here to hide. The relations of the man he killed never stopped hunting for him. A good many people were of the opinion they finally tracked him to that cave. In any case, his body was found hanging by the neck up there one day, on a sort of ridge-pole he had put in. This was after people had missed seeing the light in Quill's Window for quite a spell. There are some people who still say the cave is ha'nted. When I was a young boy, shortly before the Civil War, a couple of horse thieves were chased up to that cave and—ahem!—I reckon your grandfather, if he was alive, could tell you all about what became of 'em and who was in the party that stood 'em up against the back wall of the cave and shot 'em. There's another story that goes back even farther than the horse thieves. The skeleton of a woman was found up there, with the skull split wide open. That was back in 1830 or 1840. So, you see, when all of them ghosts get together and begin scrapping over property rights, it's enough to scare the gizzard out of 'most anybody that happens to be in the neighbourhood. But I guess old man Quill was the first white man to shuffle off, so it's generally understood that his ghost rules the roost. Come on now, let's be moving. It's gettin' hotter every minute, and you oughtn't to be out in all this heat. For the Lord's sake, you ain't going to light another one of them things, are you?"
"Sure. It's the only vice I'm capable of enjoying at present. Being gassed and shell-shocked, and then having the flu and pneumonia and rheumatism,—and God knows what else,—sort of purifies a chap, you see."
"Well, all I got to say is—I guess I'd better not say it, after all."
"You can't hurt my feelings."
"I'm not so sure about that," said the old man gruffly.
"How do you get up to that cave?"
"You ain't thinking of trying it, are you?" apprehensively.
"When I'm a bit huskier, yes."
The old man removed his cigar in order to obtain the full effect of a triumphant grin.
"Well, in the first place, you can't get up to it. You've got to come down to it. The only way to get to the mouth of that cave is to lower yourself from the top of the rock. And in the second place, you can't get DOWN to it because it ain't allowed. The owner of all the land along that side of the river has got 'no trespass' signs up, and NOBODY'S allowed to climb to the top of that rock. She's all-fired particular about it, too. The top of that rock is sacred to her. Nobody ever thinks of violatin' it. All around the bottom of the slope back of the hill she's got a white picket fence, and the gate to it is padlocked. You see it's her family buryin'-ground."
"Buryin'-ground. Her father and mother are buried right smack on top of that rock."
The young man lifted his eyebrows. "Does that mean there are a couple of married ghosts fighting on top of the rock every night, besides the gang down in the—"
"It ain't a joking matter," broke in the other sharply.
"Go on, tell me more. The monstrosity gets more and more interesting every minute."
The old man chewed his cigar energetically for a few seconds before responding.
"I'll tell you the story tonight after supper,—not now. The only thing I want to make clear to you is this. Everybody in this section respects her wishes about keeping off of that rock, and I want to ask you to respect 'em, too. It would be a dirty trick for you to go up there, knowin' it's dead against her wishes."
"A dirty trick, eh?" said the young man, fixing his gaze on the blue-black summit of the forbidden rock.
THE STORY THE OLD MAN TOLD
David Windom's daughter Alix ran away with and married Edward Crown in the spring of 1894.
Windom was one of the most prosperous farmers in the county. His lands were wide, his cattle were many, his fields were vast stretches of green and gold; his granaries, his cribs and his mows, filled and emptied each year, brought riches and dignity and power to this man of the soil.
Back when the state was young, his forefathers had fared westward from the tide-water reaches of Virginia, coming at length to the rich, unbroken region along the river with the harsh Indian name, and there they built their cabins and huts on lands that had cost them little more than a song and yet were of vast dimensions. They were of English stock. (Another branch of the family, closely related, remains English to this day, its men sitting sometime in Parliament and always in the councils of the nation, far removed in every way from the Windoms in the fertile valley once traversed by the war-like redskins.) But these Windoms of the valley were no longer English. There had been six generations of them, and those of the first two fought under General Washington against the red-coats and the Hessians in the War of '76.
David Windom, of the fourth generation, went to England for a wife, however,—a girl he had met on the locally celebrated trip to Europe in the early seventies. For years he was known from one end of the county to the other as "the man who has been across the Atlantic Ocean." The dauntless English bride had come unafraid to a land she had been taught to regard as wild, peopled by savages and overrun by ravenous beasts, and she had found it populated instead by the gentlest sort of men and equally gentle beasts.
She did a great deal for David Windom. He was a proud man and ambitious. He saw the wisdom of her teachings and he followed them, not reluctantly but with a fierce desire to refine what God had given him in the shape of raw material: a good brain, a sturdy sense of honour, and above all an imagination that lifted him safely,—if not always sanely,—above the narrow world in which the farmer of that day spent his entire life. Not that he was uncouth to begin with,—far from it. He had been irritatingly fastidious from boyhood up. His thoughts had wandered afar on frequent journeys, and when they came back to take up the dull occupation they had abandoned temporarily, they were broader than when they went out to gather wool. The strong, well-poised English wife found rich soil in which to work; he grew apace and flourished, and manifold were the innovations that stirred a complacent community into actual unrest. A majority of the farmers and virtually all of the farmers' wives were convinced that Dave Windom was losing his mind, the way he was letting that woman boss him around.
The women did not like her. She was not one of them and never could be one of them. Her "hired girls" became "servants" the day she entered the ugly old farmhouse on the ridge. They were no longer considered members of the family; they were made to feel something they had never felt before in their lives: that they were not their mistress's equals.
The "hired girl" of those days was an institution. As a rule, she moved in the same social circle as the lady of the house and it was customary for her to intimately address her mistress by her Christian name. She enjoyed the right to engage in all conversations; she was, in short, "as good as anybody." The new Mrs. Windom was not long in transporting the general housework "girl" into a totally unexampled state of astonishment. This "girl,"—aged forty-five and a prominent member of the Methodist Church,—announced to everybody in the community except to Mrs. Windom herself that she was going to leave. She did not leave. The calm serenity of the new mistress prevailed, even over the time-honoured independence in which the "girl" and her kind unconsciously gloried. Respect succeeded injury, and before the bride had been in the Windom house a month, Maria Bliss was telling the other "hired girls" of the neighbourhood that she wouldn't trade places with them for anything in the world.
Greatly to the consternation and disgust of other householders, a "second girl" was added to the Windom menage,—a parlour-maid she was called. This was too much. It was rank injustice. General housework girls began to complain of having too much work to do,—getting up at five in the morning, cooking for half a dozen "hands," doing all the washing and ironing, milking, sweeping and so on, and not getting to bed till nine or ten o'clock at night,—to say nothing of family dinners on Sunday and the preacher in every now and then, and all that. Moreover, Mrs. Windom herself never looked bedraggled. She took care of her hair, wore good clothes, went to the dentist regularly (whether she had a toothache or not), had meals served in what Maria Bliss loftily described as "courses," and saw to it that David Windom shaved once a day, dressed better than his neighbours, kept his "surrey" and "side-bar buggy" washed, his harness oiled and polished, and wore real riding-boots.
The barnyard took on an orderly appearance, the stables were repaired, the picket fences gleamed white in the sun, the roof of the house was painted red, the sides a shimmering white, and there were green window shutters and green window boxes filled with geraniums. The front yard was kept mowed, and there were great flower-beds encircled by snow-white boulders; a hammock was swung in the shade of two great oaks, and—worst of all! a tennis-court was laid out alongside the house.
Tennis! That was a game played only by "dudes"! Passers-by looked with scorn upon young David Windom and his flaxen-haired wife as they played at the silly game before supper every evening. And they went frequently to the "opera house" at the county seat, ten miles up the river; they did not wait for summer to come with its circus, as all the other farmers were content to do; whenever there was a good "show" at the theatre in town they sent up for reserved seats and drove in for supper at the principal hotel. Altogether, young Mrs. Windom was simply "raising Cain" with the conventions.
Strange to say, David did not "go to smash." To the intense chagrin of the wiseacres he prospered despite an unprecedented disregard for the teachings of his father and his grandfather before him. The wolf stayed a long way off from his door, the prophetic mortgage failed to lay its blight upon his lands, his crops were bountiful, his acreage spread as the years went by,—and so his uncles, his cousins and his aunts were never so happy as when wishing for the good old days when his father was alive and running the farm as it should be run! If David had married some good, sensible, thrifty, hard-working farmer's daughter,—Well, it might not have meant an improvement in the crops but it certainly would have spared him the expense of a tennis court, and theatre-going, and absolutely unnecessary trips to Chicago or Indianapolis whenever SHE took it into her head to go. Besides, it wasn't natural that they should deliberately put off having children. It wasn't what God and the country expected. After a year had passed and there were no symptoms of approaching motherhood, certain narrow-minded relatives began to blame Great Britain for the outrage and talked a great deal about a worn-out, deteriorating race.
Then, after two years, when a girl baby was born to David and his wife, they couldn't, for the life of them, understand how it came to pass that it wasn't a boy. There had been nothing but boys in the Windom family for years and years. It appeared to be a Windom custom. And here was this fair-haired outsider from across the sea breaking in with a girl! They could not believe it possible. David,—a great, strong, perfect specimen of a Windom,—the father of a girl! Why, they emphasized, he was over six feet tall, strong as an ox, broad-shouldered,—as fine a figure as you would see in a lifetime. There was something wrong,—radically wrong.
The district suffered another shock when a nurse maid was added to David's household,—a girl from the city who had nothing whatever to do, except to take care of the baby while the unnatural mother tinkered with the flower-beds, took long walks about the farm, rode horseback, and played tennis with David and a silly crowd of young people who had fallen into evil ways.
She died when her daughter was ten years old. Those who had misunderstood her and criticized her in the beginning, mourned her deeply, sincerely, earnestly in the end, for she had triumphed over prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and a certain form of malice. The whole district was the better for her once hateful innovations, and there was no one left who scoffed at David Windom for the choice he had made of a wife.
Her death wrought a remarkable, enduring change in Windom. He became a silent, brooding man who rarely smiled and whose heart lay up in the little graveyard on the ridge. The gay, larksome light fled from his eyes, his face grew stern and sometimes forbidding. She had taken with her the one great thing she had brought into his life: ineffable buoyancy. He no longer played, for there was no one with whom he would play; he no longer sang, for the music had gone out of his soul; he no longer whistled the merry tunes, for his lips were stiff and unyielding. Only when he looked upon his little daughter did the soft light of love well up into his eyes and the rigid mouth grow tender.
She was like her mother. She was joyous, brave and fair to look upon. She had the same heart of sunshine, the same heart of iron, and the blue in her eyes was like the blue of the darkening skies. She adored the grim, silent man who was her father, and she was the breath of life to him.
And then, when she was nineteen, she broke the heart of David Windom. For two years she had been a student in the University situated but half a score of miles from the place where she was born, a co-educational institution of considerable size and importance. Windom did not believe in women's colleges. He believed in the free school with its broadening influence, its commingling of the sexes in the search for learning, and in the divine right of woman to develop her mind through the channels that lead ultimately and inevitably to superiority of man. He believed that the girl trained and educated in schools devoted exclusively to the finer sex fails to achieve understanding as well as education. The only way to give a girl a practical education,—and he believed that every woman should have one,—was to start her off even with the boy who was training to become her master in all respects.
During her second year at the University she met Edward Crown, a senior. He was the son of a blacksmith in the city, and he was working his way through college with small assistance from his parent, who held to the conviction that a man was far better off if he developed his muscles by hard work and allowed the brain to take care of itself. Young Crown was a good-looking fellow of twenty-three, clean-minded, ambitious, dogged in work and dogged in play. He had "made" the football team in his sophomore year. Customary snobbishness had kept him out of the fraternities and college societies. He may have been a good fellow, a fine student, and a cracking end on the eleven, and all that, but he was not acceptable material for any one of the half dozen fraternities.
When he left college with his hard-earned degree it was to accept a position with a big engineering company, a job which called him out to the far Northwest. Alix Windom was his promised wife. They were deeply, madly in love with each other. Separation seemed unendurable. She was willing to go into the wilderness with him, willing to endure the hardships and the discomforts of life in a construction camp up in the mountains of Montana. She would share his poverty and his trials as she would later share his triumphs. But when they went to David Windom with their beautiful dream, the world fell about their ears.
David Windom, recovering from the shock of surprise, ordered Edward from the house. He would sooner see his child dead than the wife of Nick Crown's son,—Nick Crown, a drunken rascal who had been known to beat his wife,—Nick Crown who was not even fit to lick the feet of the horses he shod!
One dark, rainy night in late June, Alix stole out of the old farmhouse on the ridge and met her lover at the abandoned tollgate half a mile up the road. He waited there with a buggy and a fast team of horses. Out of a ramshackle cupboard built in the wall of the toll-house, they withdrew the bundles surreptitiously placed there by Alix in anticipation of this great and daring event, and made off toward the city at a break-neck, reckless speed. They were married before midnight, and the next day saw them on their way to the Far West. But not before Alix had despatched a messenger to her father, telling him of her act and asking his forgiveness for the sake of the love she bore him. The same courier carried back to the city a brief response from David Windom. In a shaken, sprawling hand he informed her that if she ever decided to return to her home ALONE, he would receive her and forgive her for the sake of the love he bore her, but if she came with the coward who stole her away from him, he would kill him before her eyes.
The summer and fall and part of the winter passed, and in early March Alix came home.
David Windom, then a man of fifty, gaunt and grey and powerful, seldom had left the farm in all these months. He rode about his far-spread estate, grim and silent, his eyes clouded, his voice almost metallic, his manner cold and repellent. His tenants, his labourers, his neighbours, fearing him, rarely broke in upon his reserve. Only his animals loved him and were glad to see him,—his dogs, his horses, even his cattle. He loved them, for they were staunch and faithful. Never had he uttered his daughter's name in all these months, nor was there a soul in the community possessed of the hardihood to inquire about her or to sympathize with him.
It was a fierce, cruel night in March that saw the return of Alix. A fine, biting snow blew across the wide, open farmlands; the beasts of the field were snugly under cover; no man stirred abroad unless driven by necessity; the cold, wind-swept roads were deserted. So no one witnessed the return of Alix Crown and her husband. They came out of the bleak, unfriendly night and knocked at David Windom's door. There were lights in his sitting-room windows; through them they could see the logs blazing in the big fireplace, beside which sat the lonely, brooding figure of Alix's father. It was late,—nearly midnight,—and the house was still. Old Maria Bliss and the one other servant had been in bed for hours. The farmhands slept in a cottage Windom had erected years before, acting upon his wife's suggestion. It stood some two or three hundred yards from the main house.
A dog in the stables barked, first in anger and then with unmistakable joy. David's favourite, a big collie, sprang up from his place on the rug before the fire and looked uneasily toward the door opening onto the hall. Then came a rapping at the front door. The collie growled softly as he moved toward the door. He sniffed the air in the hall and suddenly began to whine joyously, wagging his tail as he bounded back and forth between his master and the door.
David Windom knew then that his daughter had come home.
He sprang to his feet and took two long strides toward the door. Abruptly, as if suddenly turned to stone, he stopped. For a long time he stood immovable in the middle of the room. The rapping was repeated, louder, heavier than before. He turned slowly, retraced his steps to the fireplace and took from its rack in the corner a great iron poker. His face was ashen grey, his eyes were wide and staring and terrible. Then he strode toward the door, absolutely unconscious of the glad, prancing dog at his side.
In the poor shelter of the little porch stood Alix, bent and shivering, and, behind her, Edward Crown, at whose feet rested two huge "telescope satchels." The light from within fell dimly upon the white, upturned face of the girl. She held out her hands to the man who towered above her on the doorstep.
"Daddy! Daddy!" she cried brokenly. "Oh, my daddy! Let me come in—let me,—I—I am freezing."
But David Windom was peering over her head at the indistinct face of the man beyond. He wanted to be sure. Lifting his powerful arm, he struck.
Edward Crown, stiff and numb with cold and weak from an illness of some duration, did not raise an arm to ward off the blow, nor was he even prepared to dodge. The iron rod crashed down upon his head. His legs crumpled up; he dropped in a heap at the top of the steps and rolled heavily to the bottom, sprawling out on the snow-covered brick walk.
The long night wore on. Windom had carried his daughter into the sitting-room, where he placed her on a lounge drawn up before the fire. She had fainted. After an hour he left her and went out into the night. The body of Edward Crown was lying where it had fallen. It was covered by a thin blanket of snow. For a long time he stood gazing down upon the lifeless shape. The snow cut his face, the wind threshed about his coatless figure, but he heeded them not. He was muttering to himself. At last he turned to re-enter the house. His daughter was standing in the open doorway.
"Is—is that Edward down there?" she asked, in weak, lifeless tones. She seemed dull, witless, utterly without realization.
"Go back in the house," he whispered, as he drew back from her in a sort of horror,—horror that had not struck him in the presence of the dead.
"Is that Edward?" she insisted, her voice rising to a queer, monotonous wail.
"I told you to stay in the house," he said. "I told you I would look after him, didn't I? Go back, Alix,—that's a good girl. Your—your daddy will—Oh, my God! Don't look at me like that!"
"Is he dead?" she whispered, still standing very straight in the middle of the doorway. She was not looking at the inert thing on the walk below, but into her father's eyes. He did not, could not answer. He seemed frozen stiff. She went on in the same dull, whispered monotone. "I begged him to let me come alone. I begged him to let me see you first. But he would come. He brought me all the way from the West and he—he was not afraid of you. You have done what you said you would do. You did not give him a chance. And always,—always I have loved you so. You will never know how I longed to come back and have you kiss me, and pet me, and call me those silly names you used—"
"What's done, is done," he broke in heavily. "He is dead. It had to be. I was insane,—mad with all these months of hatred. It is done. Come,—there is nothing you can do. Come back into the house. I will carry him in—and wake somebody. Tomorrow they will come and take me away. They will hang me. I am ready. Let them come. You must not stand there in the cold, my child."
She toppled forward into his arms, and he lifted her as if she were a babe and carried her into the house. The collie was whining in the corner. Windom sat down in the big armchair before the fire, still holding the girl in his arms. She was moaning weakly. Suddenly a great, overwhelming fear seized him,—the fear of being hanged!
A long time afterward,—it was after two,—he arose from his knees beside the lounge and prepared to go out into the night once more. Alix had promised not to send her father to the gallows. She was almost in a stupor after the complete physical and mental collapse, but she knew what she was doing, she realized what she was promising in return for the blow that had robbed her of the man she loved.
No one will ever know just what took place in that darkened sitting-room, for the story as afterwards related was significantly lacking in details. The light had been extinguished and the doors silently closed by the slayer. The stiffening body of Edward Crown out in the snow was not more silent than the interior of the old farmhouse, apart from the room in which David Windom pleaded with his stricken daughter.
And all the while he was begging her to save him from the consequences of his crime, his brain was searching for the means to dispose of the body of Edward Crown and to provide an explanation for the return of Alix without her husband.
Circumstances favoured him in a surprising manner. Young Crown and his wife had travelled down from Chicago in a day coach, and they had left the train at a small way station some five miles west of the Windom farm. Crown was penniless. He did not possess the means to engage a vehicle to transport them from the city to the farm, nor the money to secure lodging for the night in the cheapest hotel. Alix's pride stood in the way of an appeal to her husband's father or to any one of his friends for assistance. It was she who insisted that they leave the train at Hawkins station and walk to Windom's house. They had encountered no one who knew them, either on the train or at the station; while on their cold, tortuous journey along the dark highway they did not meet a solitary human being.
No one, therefore, was aware of their return.
Edward Crown's presence in the neighbourhood was unknown. If David Windom's plan succeeded, the fact that Crown had returned with his wife never would be known. To all inquirers both he and his daughter were to return the flat but evasive answer: "It is something I cannot discuss at present," leaving the world to arrive at the obvious conclusion that Alix's husband had abandoned her. And presently people, from sheer delicacy, would cease to inquire. No one would know that Crown had been ill up in the mountains for weeks, had lost his position, and had spent his last penny in getting his wife back to the house in which she was born,—and where her own child was soon to be born.
Windom went about the task of secreting his son-in-law's body in a most systematic, careful manner. He first carried the two "telescopes" into the house and hid them in a closet. Then he put on an old overcoat and cap, his riding boots and gloves. Stealing out to the rear of the house, he found a lantern and secured it to his person by means of a strap. A few minutes later he was ready to start off on his ghastly mission. Alix nodded her head dumbly when he commanded her to remain in the sitting-room and to make no sound that might arouse Maria Bliss. He promised to return in less than an hour.
"Your father's life depends on your silence, my child, from this moment on," he whispered in her ear.
She started up. "And how about my husband's life?" she moaned. "What of him? Why do you put yourself—"
"Sh! Your husband is dead. You cannot bring him to life. It is your duty,—do your hear?—your duty to spare the living. Remember what I said to you awhile ago. Never forget it, my child."
"Yes," she muttered. "'Blood is thicker than water.' I remember."
He went out into the night, closing the door softly behind him. The collie was at his heels. He was afraid to go alone. Grimly, resolutely he lifted the body of Edward Crown from the ground and slung it across his shoulder, the head and arms hanging down his back. Desperation added strength to his powerful frame. As if his burden were a sack of meal, he strode swiftly down the walk, through the gate and across the gravel road. The night was as black as ink, yet he went unerringly to the pasture gate a few rods down the road. Unlatching it, he passed through and struck out across the open, wind-swept meadow. The dog slunk along close behind him, growling softly. Snow was still falling, but the gale from the north was sweeping it into drifts, obliterating his tracks almost as soon as they were made.
Straight ahead lay the towering, invisible rock, a quarter of a mile away. He descended the ridge slope, swung tirelessly across the swales and mounds in the little valley, and then bent his back to the climb up the steep incline to Quill's Window. Picking his way through a fringe of trees, he came to the tortuous path that led to the crest of the great rock. Panting, dogged, straining every ounce of his prodigious strength, he struggled upward, afraid to stop for rest, afraid to lower his burden. The sides and the flat summit of the rock were full of treacherous fissures, but he knew them well. He had climbed the sides of Quill's Window scores of times as a boy, to sit at the top and gaze off over the small world below, there to dream of the great world outside, and of love, adventure, travel. Many a night, after the death of his beloved Alix, he had gone up there to mourn alone, to be nearer to the heaven which she had entered, to be closer to her. He knew well of the narrow fissure at the top,—six feet deep and the length of a grave! Filled only with the leaves of long dead years!
He lowered his burden to the bare surface of the rock. The wind had swept it clean. Under the protecting screen of his overcoat he struck a match and lighted the lantern. Then for the first time he studied closely the grey, still face of the youth he had slain. The skull was crushed. There was frozen blood down the back of the head and neck—He started up in sudden consternation. There would be blood-stains where the body had lain so long,—tell-tale, convicting stains! He must be swift with the work in hand. Those stains must be wiped out before the break of day.
Lowering himself into the opening, he began digging at one end with his hands, scooping back quantities of wet leaves. There was snow down there in the pit,—a foot or more of it. After a few minutes of vigorous clawing, a hole in the side of the fissure was revealed,—an aperture large enough for a man to crawl into. He knew where it led to: down into Quill's cave twenty feet below.
Some one,—perhaps an Indian long before the time of Quill, or it may have been Quill himself,—had chiselled hand and toe niches in the sides of this well and had used the strange shaft as means of getting into and out of the cave. Windom's father had closed this shaft when David was a small boy, after the venturesome youngster had gone down into the cave and, unable to climb out again, had been the cause of an all-day search by his distracted parent and every neighbour for miles around. The elder Windom had blocked the bottom of the hole with a huge boulder, shorn from the side of the cave by some remote wrench of nature. Then he had half filled the cavity from the top by casting in all of the loose stones to be found on the crest of the rock, together with a quantity of earth. The work had never been completed. There still remained a hole some ten feet deep.
David Windom clambered out, leaving his lantern below. Letting the dead man's body slide into the crevice, he followed, bent on at least partially finishing the job. When he climbed out a second time, Edward Crown was at the bottom of the hole and the wet, foul leaves again hid the opening. Tomorrow night, and the night after, he would come again to close the hole entirely with earth and stones, hiding forever the grewsome thing in Quill's "chimney," as the flue-like passage was called.
Extinguishing the lantern, he started down the hill at a reckless, break-neck speed. He had the uncanny feeling that he was being followed, that Edward Crown was dogging his footsteps. Halfway down, he stumbled and fell sprawling. As he started to rise, a sound smote his ears—the sound of footsteps. For many seconds he held his breath, terror clutching his throat. He WAS being followed! Some one was shuffling down the rock behind him. The collie! He had forgotten the dog. But even as he drew in the deep breath of relief, he felt his blood suddenly freeze in his veins. It was not the dog. Something approached that moaned and whimpered and was not mortal. It passed by him as he crouched to the earth,—a shadow blacker than the night itself. Suddenly the truth burst upon him.
"My God! Alix!"
Half an hour later he staggered into his house, bearing the form of his daughter,—tenderly, carefully, not as he had borne the despised dead.
She had followed him to the top of Quill's Window, she had witnessed the ghastly interment, and she had whispered a prayer for the boy who was gone.
The next day her baby was born and that night she died. Coming out of a stupor just before death claimed her, she said to David Windom:
"I am going to Edward. I do not forgive you, father. You must not ask that of me. You say it is my duty to save you from the gallows,—a child's duty to her parent. I have promised. I shall keep my promise. It is not in my heart to send you to the gallows. You are my father. You have always loved me. This is my baby,—mine and Edward's. She may live,—God knows I wish I might have died yesterday and spared her the accursed breath of life,—she may grow up to be a woman, just as I grew up. I do not ask much of you in return for what I have done for you, father. You have killed my Edward. I loved him with all my soul. I do not care to live. But my child must go on living, I suppose. My child and his. She is his daughter. I cannot expect you to love her, but I do expect you to take care of her. You say that blood is thicker than water. You are right. I cannot find it in my heart to betray you. You may tell the world whatever story you like about Edward. He is dead, and I shall soon be dead. You can hurt neither of us, no matter what you do. I ask two things of you. One is that you will be good to my baby as long as you may live, and the other is that you will bury me up there where you put Edward last night. I must lie near him always. Say to people that I have asked you to bury me in that pit at the top of Quill's Window,—that it was my whim, if you like. Close it up after you have placed me there and cover it with great rocks, so that Edward and I may never be disturbed. I want no headstone, no epitaph. Just the stones as they were hewn by God."
David Windom promised. He was alone in the room with her when she died.
Twenty years passed. Windom came at last to the end of his days. He had fulfilled his promises to Alix. He had taken good care of her daughter, he had given her everything in his power to give, and he had worshipped her because she was like both of the Alixes he had loved. She was Alix Crown,—Alix the Third, he called her.
On the day of his death, Windom confessed the crime of that far off night in March. In the presence of his lawyer, his doctor, his granddaughter and the prosecuting attorney of the county, he revealed the secret he had kept for a score of years. The mystery of Edward Crown's disappearance was cleared up, and for the first time in her young life Alix was shorn of the romantic notion that one day her missing father would appear in the flesh, out of the silences, to claim her as his own. From earliest childhood, her imagination had dealt with all manner of dramatic situations; she had existed in the glamour of uncertainty; she had looked upon herself as a character worthy of a place in some gripping tale of romance. The mound of rocks on the crest of Quill's Window, surrounded by a tall iron paling fence with its padlocked gate, covered only the body of the mother she had never seen. She did not know until this enlightening hour that her father was also there and had been throughout all the years in which fancy played so important a part.
Like all the rest of the world, she was given to understand that her father had cruelly abandoned her mother. In her soul she had always cherished the hope that this heartless monster might one day stand before her, pleading and penitent, only to be turned away with the scorn he so richly deserved. She even pictured him as rich and powerful, possessed of everything except the one great boon which she alone could give him,—a daughter's love. And she would point to the top of Quill's Window and tell him that he must first look there for forgiveness,—under the rocks where his broken-hearted victim slept.
The truth stunned her. She was a long time in realizing that her grandfather, whom she both loved and feared,—this grim, adoring old giant,—not only had murdered her father but undoubtedly had killed her mother as well. The story that David Windom had written out and signed at the certain approach of death, read aloud in his presence by the shocked and incredulous lawyer, and afterwards printed word for word in the newspapers at the old man's command, changed the whole course of life for her. In fact, her nature underwent a sharp but subtle change. There was nothing left to her of the old life, no thought, no purpose, no fancy; all had been swept up in a heap and destroyed in the short space of half an hour. Everything in her life had to be reconstructed, made-over to suit the new order. She could no longer harbour vengeful thoughts concerning her father, she could no longer charge him with the wanton destruction of her mother's happiness.
The grandfather she had loved all her life assumed another shape entirely; he was no longer the same, and never again could be the same. She did not hate him. That was impossible. She had never seen her parents, so she had not known the love of either. They did not belong in her life except through the sheerest imagination. Her grandfather was the only real thing she had had in life, and she had adored him. He had killed two people who were as nothing to her, but he had taken the place of both. How could she bring herself to hate this man who had destroyed what were no more than names to her? Father,—Mother! Two words,—that was all. And for twenty long years he had been paying,—Oh, how he must have paid!
She recalled his reason for taking her to England when she was less than eight years old and leaving her there until she was twelve. She remembered that he had said he wanted her to be like her grandmother, to grow up among her people, to absorb from them all that had made the first Alix so strong and fine and true. And then he had come to take her from them, back to the land of her birth, because, he said, he wanted her to be like her mother, the second Alix,—an American woman. She recalled his bitter antipathy to co-educational institutions and his unyielding resolve that she should complete her schooling in a Sacred Heart Convent. She remembered the commotion this decision created among his neighbours. In her presence they had assailed him with the charge that he was turning the girl over, body and soul, to the Catholic Church, and he had uttered in reply the never to be forgotten words:
"If I never do anything worse than that for her, I'll be damned well satisfied with my chance of getting into heaven as soon as the rest of you."
When David's will was read, it was found that except for a few small bequests, his entire estate, real and personal, was left to his granddaughter, Alix Crown, to have and to hold in perpetuity without condition or restriction of any sort or character.
The first thing she did was to have a strong picket fence constructed around the base of the hill leading up to Quill's Window, shutting off all accessible avenues of approach to the summit. Following close upon the publication of David Windom's confession, large numbers of people were urged by morbid curiosity to visit the strange burial-place of Edward and Alix Crown. The top of Quill's Window became the most interesting spot in the county. Alix the Third was likewise an object of vast interest, and the old, deserted farmhouse on the ridge came in for its share of curiosity.
Almost immediately after the double tragedy and the birth of little Alix, David Windom moved out of the house and took up his residence in the riverside village of Windomville, a mile to the south. The old house was closed, the window shutters nailed up, the doors barred, and all signs of occupancy removed. It was said that he never put foot inside the yard after his hasty, inexplicable departure. The place went to rack and ruin. In course of time he built a new and modern house nearer the village, and this was now one of the show places of the district.
The influence of Alix the First was expressed in the modelling of house and grounds, the result being a picturesque place with a distinctly English atmosphere, set well back from the highway in the heart of a grove of oaks,—a substantial house of brick with a steep red tile roof, white window casements, and a wide brick terrace guarded by a low ivy-draped wall. English ivy swathed the two corners of the house facing the road, mounting high upon the tall red chimneys at the ends. There were flower-beds below the terrace, and off to the right there was an old-fashioned garden. The stables were at the foot of the hill some distance to the rear of the house.
The village of Windomville lay below, hugging the river, a relic of the days when steamboats plied up and down the stream and railways were remote, a sleepy, insignificant, intensely rural hamlet of less than six hundred inhabitants. Its one claim to distinction was the venerable but still active ferry that laboured back and forth across the river. Of secondary importance was the ancient dock, once upon a time the stopping place of steamboats, but now a rotten, rickety obstruction upon which the downstream drift lodged in an unsightly mass.
In the solid red-brick house among the oaks Alix the Third had spent her childhood days. She was taken to England when she was eight by her haunted grandfather, not only to receive the bringing-up of an English child, but because David Windom's courage was breaking down. As she grew older, the resemblance to Edward Crown became more and more startling. She had his dark, smiling eyes; his wavy brown hair; her very manner of speech was like his. To David Windom, she was the re-incarnation of the youth he had slain. Out of her eyes seemed to look the soul of Edward Crown. He could not stand it. She became an obsession, a curious source of fascination. He could not bear her out of his sight, and yet when she was with him, smiling up into his eyes,—he was deathly afraid of her. There were times when he was almost overcome by the impulse to drop to his knees and plead for forgiveness as he looked into the clear, friendly, questioning eyes of Edward Crown.
And her voice, her speech,—therein lay the true cause of his taking her to England. When she came home to him, after four years, there was no trace of Edward Crown in her voice or manner of speaking. She was almost as English as Alix the First. But her eyes had not changed; he was still a haunted man.
In the little graveyard on the outskirts of the village more than a score of Windoms lie. With them lies all that was mortal of fair Alix the First, and beside her is David Windom, the murderer.
"And what has become of Alix the Third?" inquired the young man, squinting at his wristwatch and making out in the semi-darkness that it was nearly half-past nine.
He had listened somewhat indulgently to the story of the three Alixes. The old man, prompted and sometimes disputed by other members of the family, had narrated in his own simple way the foregoing tale, arriving at the end in a far more expeditious and certainly in a less studied manner than the present chronicler employs in putting the facts before his readers. The night was hot. He was occasionally interrupted by various members of the little group on the front porch of the big old farmhouse, the interruption invariably taking the form of a conjecture concerning the significance of certain signs ordinarily infallible in denoting the approach of rain. Heat lightning had been playing for an hour or more in the gloomy west; a tree-toad in a nearby elm was prophesying thunder in unmelodious song: night-birds fluttered restlessly among the lofty branches; widely separated whiffs of a freshening wind came around the corner of the house. All of these had a barometric meaning to the wistful group. There was a thunderstorm on the way. It was sure to come before morning. The prayers inaugurated a month ago were at last to be answered.
As old man Brown drily remarked: "There's one satisfaction about prayin' for rain. If you keep at it long enough, you're bound to get what you're askin' for. Works the same way when you're prayin' for it to stop rainin'. My grandfather once prayed for a solid two months before he got rain, and then, by gosh, he had to pray for nearly three weeks to get it to quit."
Supper over, the young man had reminded his venerable angling companion of his promise to relate the history of Quill's Window. Old Caleb Brown was the father of Mrs. Vick,—Lucinda Vick, wife of the farmer in whose house the young man was spending a month as a boarder.
The group on the porch included Amos Vick, anxious, preoccupied, and interested only in the prospect of rain; his daughter Rosabel, aged eighteen, a very pretty and vivacious girl, interested only in the young man from the far-off, mysterious city in the East; his son Caleb, a rugged youth of nineteen; Mrs. Vick, and a neighbour named White, who had come over for the sole purpose of finding out just what Amos Vick thought about the weather. Two dogs lay panting on the dry grass at the foot of the steps.
"Oh, she's living over there in the Windom house," said Mrs. Vick.
"Sort of running the place," explained Mr. Brown, a trace of irony in his voice.
"Well," put in Amos Vick, speaking for the first time in many minutes, "she's got a lot of sense, that girl has. She may be letting on that she's running the farm, but she ain't, you bet. That's where she's smart. She's got sense enough to know she don't know anything about running a farm, and while she puts on a lot of airs and acts kind of important like, the real truth is she leaves everything to old Jim Bagley. I guess you don't know who Jim Bagley is, do you, Courtney?"
"I can't say that I do," replied the young man.
"Well, he's about the slickest citizen you ever saw. From what father here says about your granddad, he must have been a purty hard customer to deal with, but, by ginger, if he was any worse than Jim Bagley in driving a bargain, I'm glad he died as long ago as he did."
"You're just sore, Amos," said his wife, "because Mr. Bagley got the best of you in that hog deal three years ago."
"Oh, Lord, ain't you ever going to get tired of throwin' that up to me?" groaned Mr. Vick. "I never mention Jim Bagley's name but what you up and say something about them hogs. Now, as a matter of fact, them hogs—"
"For goodness sake, Pa, you're not going to tell Mr. Thane about that hog business, are you?" cried Rosabel.
"Well, when your Ma begins to insinuate that I got the worst of—"
"I don't say that you got the worst of it, Amos," interrupted Mrs. Vick good-humouredly. "I only say that he got the best of it."
"Well, if that don't come to the same—"
"Looks to me, Amos, like we'd get her good and plenty before mornin'," broke in Mr. White. He was referring to the weather. "That ain't all heat lightnin' over there. Seems to me I heard a little thunder just now."
"Alix Crown is away a good part of the time, Courtney," said Mrs. Vick, taking up the thread where it had been severed by recrimination. "All through the war,—long before we went in,—she was up in town working for the Belgiums, and then, when we did go in, she went East some'eres to learn how to be a nurse or drive an ambulance or something,—New York, I believe. And as for money, she contributed quite a bit—how much do they say it was, Amos?"
"Well, all I know is that Mary Simmons says she gave ten thousand dollars and Josie Fiddler says it was three hundred,—so you can choose between 'em."
"She did her share, all right," said young Caleb defensively. "That's more'n a lot of people around here did."
"Gale's in love with her, Mr. Thane," explained Rosabel. "She's five years older than he is, and don't know he's on earth."
"Aw, cut that out," growled Caleb.
"Is she good-looking?" inquired Courtney Thane.
"I don't like 'em quite as tall as she is," said Mr. White.
"She's got a good pair of legs," said old Caleb Brown, shifting his cigar with his tongue.
"We're not talking about horses, father," said Mrs. Vick sharply.
"Who said we was?" demanded old Caleb.
"Most people think she's good-looking," said Rosabel, somewhat grudgingly. "And she isn't any taller than I am, Mr. White."
"Well, you ain't no dwarft, Rosie," exclaimed Farmer White, with a brave laugh. "You must be five foot seven or eight, but you ain't skinny like she is. She'd ought to weigh about a hunderd and sixty, for her height, and I'll bet she don't weigh more'n a hunderd and thirty."
"I wouldn't call that skinny," remarked Courtney.
"She wears these here new-fangled britches when she's on horseback," said old Caleb, justifying his observation. "Rides straddle, like a man. You can't help seeing what kind of—"
"That will do, Pa," broke in his wife. "It's no crime for a woman to wear pants when she's riding, although I must say I don't think it's very modest. I never rode any way except side-saddle,—and neither has Rosabel. I've brought her up—"
"Don't you be too sure of that, Ma," interrupted young Caleb maliciously.
"I never did it but once, and you know it, Cale Vick," cried Rosabel, blushing violently.
The subject was abruptly changed by Mr. White.
"Well, I guess I'll be moseyin' along home, Amos. That certainly did sound like thunder, didn't it? And that tree-toad has stopped signallin',—that's a sure sign. Like as not I'll get caught in the rain if I don't,—what say, Lucindy?"
"Do you want an umberell, Steve?"
"I should say not! What do you want me to do? Scare the rain off? No, sir! Rain's the funniest thing in the world. If it sees you got an umberell it won't come within a hunderd miles of you. That's why I got my Sunday clothes on, and my new straw hat. Sometimes that'll bring rain out of a clear sky,—that an' a Sunday-school picnic. It's a pity we couldn't have got up a Sunday-school picnic,—but then, of course, that wouldn't have done any good. You can't fool a rainstorm. So long, Amos. Night, everybody. Night, Courtney. As I was sayin' awhile ago, I used to go to school with your pa when him an' me was little shavers,—up yonder at the old Kennedy schoolhouse. Fifty odd years ago. Seems like yesterday. How old did you say you was?"
"Twenty-eight, Mr. White."
"And your pa's been dead—how long did you say?"
"He died when I was twenty-two."
"Funny your ma didn't bring him out here and bury him 'longside his father and all the rest of 'em up in the family burying-ground," was Mr. White's concluding observation as he ambled off down the gravel walk to the front gate.
"I wish you'd brought your croix de guerre along with you, Mr. Thane," said young Caleb, his eyes gleaming in the faint light from the open door. "I guess I don't pronounce it as it ought to be. I'm not much of a hand at French."
"You came pretty close to it," said Thane, with a smile. "You see, Cale, it's the sort of thing one puts away in a safe place. That's why I left it in New York. Mother likes to look at it occasionally. Mothers are queer creatures, you know. They like to be reminded of the good things their sons have done. It helps 'em to forget the bad things, I suppose."
"You're always joking," pouted Rosabel, leaning forward, ardour in her wide, young eyes. "If I was a boy and had been in the war, I'd never stop talking about it."
"And I'd have been in it, too, if pa hadn't up and told 'em I was only a little more than fifteen," said Cale, glowering at his father in the darkness.
"You mustn't blame your pa, Cale," rebuked his mother. "He knows what a soldier's life is better than you do. He was down in that camp at Chattanooga during the Spanish War, and almost died of typhoid, Courtney. And when I think of the way our boys died by the millions of the flu, I—well, I just know you would have died of it, sonny, and I wouldn't have had any cross or medal to look at, and—and—"
"Don't begin cryin', Lucindy," broke in old Caleb hastily. "He didn't die of the flu, so what's the sense of worryin' about it now? He didn't even ketch it, and gosh knows, the whole blamed country was full of it that winter."
"Well," began Mrs. Vick defensively, and then compressed her lips in silence.
"I think it was perfectly wonderful of you, Mr. Thane, to go over to France and fight in the American Ambulance so long before we went into the war." This from the adoring Rosabel. "I wish you'd tell us more about your experiences. They must have been terrible. You never talk about them, though. I think the real heroes were the fellows who went over when you did,—when you didn't really have to, because America wasn't in it."
"The American Ambulance wasn't over there to fight, you know," explained Courtney.
"What did you get the cross for if you weren't fighting?" demanded young Cale.
"For doing what a whole lot of other fellows did,—simply going out and getting a wounded man or two in No-Man's Land. We didn't think much about it at the time."
"Was it very dangerous?" asked Rosabel.
"I suppose it was,—more or less so," replied Thane indifferently. He even yawned. "I'd rather talk about Alix the Third, if it's all the same to you. Is she light or dark?"
"She's a brunette," said Rosabel shortly. "All except her eyes. They're blue. How long were you up at the front, Mr. Thane?"
"Oh, quite a while,—several months, in fact. At first we were in a place where there wasn't much fighting. Just before the first big Verdun drive we were transferred to that sector, and then we saw a lot of action."
"Some battle, wasn't it?" exclaimed young Cale, a thrill in his voice.
"Certainly was," said Courtney. "We used to work forty-eight hours at a stretch, taking 'em back by the thousands."
"How near did the shells ever come to you?"
"Oh, sometimes as close as twenty or thirty feet. I remember one that dropped in the road about fifty feet ahead of my car, and before I could stop we ran plunk into the hole it made and upset. I suppose the Windom estate must be a pretty big one, isn't it, Mr. Vick?"
"Taking everything into consideration, it amounts to nearly a million dollars. David Windom had quite a bit of property up in the city, aside from his farm, and he owned a big ranch out in Texas. The grain elevator in Windomville belonged to him,—still belongs to Alix Crown,—and there's a three mile railroad connecting with the main line over at Smith's Siding. Every foot of it is on his land. He built the railroad about twenty year ago, and the elevator, too,—out of spite, they say, for the men that run the elevator at Hawkins a little further up the road. Hawkins is the place where his daughter and Edward Crown got off the train the night of the murder."
"And this young girl owns all of it,—farms, ranch, railroad and everything?"
"Every cent's worth of it is her'n. There ain't a sign of a mortgage on any of it, either. It's as clear as a blank sheet of writin' paper."
"When was it you were gassed, Mr. Thane?" inquired young Caleb.
"Oh, that was when I was in the air service,—only a few weeks before the armistice."
"You left your wings at home, too, I suppose?"
"Yes. Mother likes to look at the only wings I'll probably ever have,—now or hereafter."
"How does it come, Court, that you went into the British air corpse, 'stead of in the U. S. A.?" inquired old Caleb.
"I joined the Royal Flying Corps, Mr. Brown, because the Americans wouldn't have me," replied Thane tersely. "I tried to get in, but they wouldn't pass me. Said I had a weak heart and a whole lot of rubbish like that. It's no wonder the American Air Service was punk. I went over to Toronto and they took me like a shot in the Royal British. They weren't so blamed finicky and old womanish. All they asked for in an applicant was any kind of a heart at all so long as it was with the cause. I don't suppose I ought to say it, but the American Air Service was a joke."
"I hope you ain't turning British in your feelings, Court," remarked Amos Vick. "It's purty difficult to be both, you know,—English and Yankee."
"I'm American through and through, Mr. Vick, even though I did serve under the British flag till I was gassed and invalided out."
"Affects the lungs, don't it?" inquired old Caleb.
"I don't like to talk about it, Mr. Brown. I'm trying to forget what hell was like. I was in hospital for four months. It took a lot more nerve to draw a breath then than it did to fly over the German lines with the Boches popping away from all sides. I didn't mind the wounds I sustained,—but the gas! Gee, it was horrible."
"Your ma said in her letter to me that you'd had pneumonia twice since you got back," said Mrs. Vick. "Was that due to the gas?"
"I suppose so. They thought I had tuberculosis for awhile, you see. Then, this spring, I had to go and have a bout with typhoid. I ought to be dead, with all I've had,—but here I am, alive and happy, and if you keep on feeding me as you have been for the past three days, I'll live forever."
"You mustn't overdo, Courtney," warned the farmer's wife. "Your ma sent you out here to get well, and I feel a kind of responsibility for you. I guess it's about time you was off to bed. Come on, Amos. It isn't going to bring rain any sooner for you to be setting out here watching for it."
Old Caleb had his say. "I suppose it was all right for you to serve with the British, Court, but if you'd waited a little while longer you might have carried a gun over there under the Stars and Stripes. But, as you say, you couldn't bear to wait. I give you credit for it. I'm derned glad to see one member of the Thane family that had the nerve to volunteer. At the time of the Civil War your grandpa was what we call a slacker in these days. He hired a feller to go in his place, and when that feller was killed and a second call for volunteers come up, dogged if he didn't up and hire another one. One of your grandpa's brothers skipped off to Canada so's he wouldn't have to serve, and the other,—his name was George Washington Thane, by the way,—accidentally shot two of his fingers off while his company was in camp down at Crawfordsville, gettin' ready to go down and meet Morgan's Riders,—and that let him out. I admit it takes right smart of courage to accidentally shoot your fingers off, specially when nobody is lookin', but at any rate he had a uniform on when he done it. Course, there wasn't any wars during your pa's day, so I don't know how he would have acted. He wasn't much of a feller for fightin', though,—I remember that. I mean fist fightin'. I'm glad to know you don't take after your granddad. I never had any use for a coward, and that's why I'm proud to shake hands with you, my boy. There was a derned bad streak in your family back in your granddad's day, and it certainly is good to see that you have wiped it out. It don't always happen so. Yeller streaks are purty hard to wipe out. Takes more than two generations to do it as a rule. I'm happy to know you ain't gun shy."
The young man laughed. "I don't mind telling you, Mr. Brown, that I never went into action without being scared half out of my boots. But I wasn't alone in that, you see. I never knew a man over there who wasn't scared when he went over the top. He went, just the same,—and that's what I call courage."
"So do I," cried Rosabel.
"Did you ever know for sure whether you got a German?" asked the intense young Caleb. "I mean,—did you ever KILL one?"
"That's pretty hard to say, Cale. We never knew, you see,—we fellows up in the clouds. I was in a bombing machine. I'd hate to think that we WASTED any bombs."
"Come now,—all of you,—off to bed," interposed Mrs. Vick. "I don't want to hear any more, Courtney. I wouldn't sleep a wink."
"Strikin' ten," said Amos, arising from his rocking-chair and turning it upside down at the back of the porch.
"Don't do that, Amos," protested old Caleb. "It'll NEVER rain if you—Why, dog-gone it, ain't you learned that it's bad luck to turn a chair bottom-side up when rain's needed? Turn it right-side up and put it right out here in front again where the rain can get at it. Nothin' tickles the weather more'n a chance to spoil something. That's right. Now we c'n go to bed. Better leave them cushions on the steps too, Rosie."
Courtney Thane went to his room,—the spare-room on the second floor,—and prepared to retire. The process was attended by the smoking of three cigarettes. Presently he was stretched out on the bed without even so much as a sheet over him. The heat was stifling. Not a breath of air came in through the wide-open windows. He lay awake for a long time, staring out into the night.
"So my precious granddad had a yellow streak in him, did he? And father wasn't much of a fighter either. Takes more than two generations to wipe out a yellow streak, does it? I wonder what the old boob meant by that rotten slam at my people."
The last week in August Courtney Thane left the Vick farm and, crossing the river, took lodgings at the boarding house conducted by the Misses Dowd in the town of Windomville.
In a letter to his mother, informing her of the change, he had said:
Of course, I appreciate the fact that you are paying the bills, old dear, and out of consideration for you I dare say I ought to stick it out with the Vicks till November as we arranged. But I simply cannot stand it any longer. The old woman almost puts me to bed, the girl almost sits on my lap, the boy drives me crazy with his infernal questions about the war, and old man Brown,—the one who went to school with father out in this gosh awful land of the grasshopper,—he is the limit. He never lets a day go by without some slur about my grandfather or some other member of the family who existed long before I was born. Thinks he's witty. He is always nagging at me about cigarette smoking. I wish you could see the way he mishandles a cigar. As you know, I seldom smoke more than a half dozen cigarettes a day, but he swears to God I am everlastingly ruining my health, and it has got on my nerves so that if I stay on here another week I'll call the old jay so hard he'll drop dead from the shock. And, my heavens, how lonesome it is here. I almost die of homesickness. I just had to find a place where there is some one to talk to besides the cows and sheep and people who never think of anything but crops and the weather, last Sunday's sermon and Theodore Roosevelt. They are honest, but, my God, how could they be anything else? It would not be right for me to deny that I have improved a great deal in the last couple of weeks. I am beginning to feel pretty fit, and I've put on four or five pounds. Still, I'm getting sick of fresh eggs and fresh milk and their everlasting bacon,—they call it side-meat,—and preserves. She simply stuffs me with them. The air is wonderful, even during that awful hot spell I wrote you about. I am sure that another month or two out here,—perhaps three,—will put me back on my pins stronger than ever, and then I'll be in condition to go back to work. I am eager to get at it as soon as possible in order to pay back all you have put up for me during this beastly year. If I did not know you can well afford to do what you have been doing for me, mother dear, I wouldn't allow you to spend another penny on me. But you will get it all back some day, not in cash, of course,—for that means nothing to you,—but in the joy of knowing that it was worth while to bring your only son into the world. Now, as to this change I am going to make. I've been across the river several times and I like it over there much better than here. I think the air is better and certainly the surroundings are pleasanter. Windomville is a funny little village of five or six hundred people, about the same number of dogs (exaggeration!), and the sleepiest place you've ever imagined. Old Caleb Brown says it was laid out back in 1830 or thereabouts by the first Windom to come to these parts. It has a public school, a town hall, a motion-picture house (with last year's reels), a drug store where you can get soda water, a grain elevator, and a wonderful old log hut that was built by the very first settler, making it nearly a hundred years old. Miss Alix Crown, who owns nearly everything in sight,—including the log hut,—has had the latter restored and turned into the quaintest little town library you've ever seen. But you ought to see the librarian! She is a dried-up, squinty old maid of some seventy summers, and so full of Jane Austen and the Bronte women and Mrs. Southworth that she hasn't an inch of room left in her for the modern writers. Her name caps the climax. It is Alaska Spigg. Can you beat it? No one ever calls her Miss Spigg,—not even the kids,—nor is she ever spoken of or to as Alaska. It is always Alaska Spigg. I wish you could see her. Miss Crown is the girl I wrote you about, the one with the dime novel history back of her. She has a house on the edge of the town,—a very attractive place. I have not seen her yet. She is up in Michigan,—Harbor Point, I believe,—but I hear she is expected home within a week or two. I am rather curious to see her. The place where I have taken a room is run by a couple of old maids named Dowd. It is really a sort of hotel. At least, you would insult them if you called it a boarding house. Their grandfather built the house and ran it as a tavern back before the Civil War. When he died his son carried on the business. And now his two daughters run the place. They have built on a couple of wings and it is really an interesting old shack. Clean as a pin, and they say the grub is good. It will be, as I said, a little more expensive living here than with the Vicks but not enough to amount to anything. The Dowds ask only fifteen dollars a week for room and board, which is cheaper than the Ritz-Carlton or the Commodore, isn't it?...Here is my new address in the Metropolis of Windomville-by-the-Crick: Dowd's Tavern, Main Street.
Her reply was prompt. She wrote from Bar Harbor, where she was spending the summer:
...perfectly silly of you, dearest, to speak of repaying me. All I possess will be yours some day, so why begrudge you a little of what should be yours now? Your dear father perhaps thought he was doing the right thing for both of us when he left everything to me during my lifetime, but I do not believe it was fair....There will not be a great deal, of course. You understand how heavy my expenses have been....In any case, you are in wretched health, my dear boy. Nothing must stand in the way of your complete recovery. When you are completely recovered, well and strong and eager to take up life where this cruel war cut it off, I shall be the happiest mother alive. I am sure you will have no difficulty in establishing yourself. They tell me the returned soldiers are not having an easy time finding satisfactory and lucrative positions. It is a shame the way certain concerns have treated a good many of them, after actually promising to hold their places open for them. But with you it will be different. I spoke to Mr. Roberts yesterday about you. He wants to have a talk with you. I have an idea he wants to put you in charge of one of their offices in Spain. At any rate, he asked if you spoke Spanish well....So I can easily afford to increase your allowance to one hundred and fifty a month. More, if you should ask for it, but you are so proud and self-reliant I can do absolutely nothing with you, dear boy. I quite understand your unwillingness to accept more than you actually need from me. It is splendid, and I am very proud of you....This girl you wrote me about, is she so very rich?...Your father used to speak of a young man named Windom and how he envied him because he was so tall and handsome. Of course, your dear father was a small boy then, and that is always one of the laments of small boys. That, and falling in love with women old enough to be their mothers....Do write me often. But don't be angry with me if I fail to answer all of your letters. I am so frightfully busy. I rarely ever have more than a minute to myself. How I have managed to find the time to write this long letter to you I cannot imagine. It is really quite a nice long one, isn't it?...and don't be writing home to me in a few weeks to say you are engaged to be married to her. It took me a great many years to convert your dear father into what he was as you knew him. I don't relish the thought at my time of life of transforming a crude farmer's daughter into a Fifth Avenue lady, no matter how pretty she may be in the rough. The days of Cinderella are long since past. One has so much to overcome in the way of a voice with these country girls, to say nothing of the letter r. Your poor father never quite got over being an Indiana farmer's son, but he did manage to subdue the aforesaid letter....And these country-girls take a harmless, amusing flirtation very seriously, dear boy.... Your adoring mother.
Courtney Thane's fame had preceded him to Windomville. By this time, the entire district had heard of the man who was gassed, and who had actually won two or three medals for bravery in the Great War. The young men from that section of the state who had seen fighting in France were still in New York City, looking for jobs. Most of them had "joined up" at the first call for volunteers. Some of them had been killed, many of them wounded, but not one of them had received a medal for bravery. The men who had been called by the draft into the great National Army were all home again, having got no nearer to the battle front than an embarkation camp in New Jersey,—and so this tall, slender young fellow from the East was an object not only of curiosity but of envy.
The Misses Dowd laid themselves out to make him comfortable,—as well as prominent. They gave him a corner room on the upper floor of Dowd's Tavern, dispossessing a tenant of twelve years' standing,—a photographer named Hatch, whose ability to keep from living too far in arrears depended on his luck in inveigling certain sentimental customers into taking "crayon portraits" of deceased loved ones, satisfaction guaranteed, frames extra. Two windows, looking out over the roof of the long front porch, gave him an unobstructed view of Main Street, including such edifices as the postoffice, the log-hut library, the ancient watering trough, the drug store, and the steeple of the Presbyterian Church rising proudly above the roofs of the houses in between.
Main Street ran almost parallel with the river. With commendable forethought, the first settlers had built their houses and stores some little distance back from the stream along the summit of a wooded ridge perhaps forty feet above the river at its midsummer low-water level. The tremendous, devastating floods that came annually with the breaking up of winter failed to reach the houses,—although in 1883,—according to the records,—the water came up to within a foot of Joe Roush's blacksmith shop, situated at that time halfway down the slope, compelling the smith to think seriously of "moving up a couple of hops," a precaution that was rendered unnecessary by a subsequent midsummer bolt of lightning that destroyed not only the forge but shocked Joe so severely that he "saw green" for a matter of six weeks and finally resulted in his falling off the dock into deep water in the middle of what was intended to be a protracted spree brought on by the discovery that his insurance policy did not cover "loss by lightning." To this day, the older inhabitants of Windomville will tell you about the way his widow "took on" until she couldn't stand it any longer,—and then married George Hooper, the butcher, four months after the shocking demise of Joseph.
Dowd's Tavern had few transient guests. "Drummers" from the city hard-by dropped in occasionally for a midday meal, but they never stayed the night. The guests were what the Misses Dowd called "regulars." They included Hatch, the photographer; an old and indigent couple, parents of a farmer whose wife objected so vehemently to their well-meant efforts to "run" her house for her that he was obliged to "board 'em" with the Dowd girls, an arrangement that seemed to satisfy every one concerned except the farmer himself, who never missed an opportunity to praise the food and the comforts to be enjoyed at the county "poorhouse" when he paid his semi-annual visit to the venerable dependents; Mr. Charlie Webster, the rotund manager of the grain elevator, who spent every Saturday night and Sunday in the city and showed up for duty on Monday with pinkish eyes and a rather tremulous whistle that was supposed to be reminiscent of ecclesiastical associations; Miss Flora Grady, the dress-maker; Doctor Simpson, the dentist, a pale young man with extremely bad teeth and a habit of smiling, even at funerals; Miss Miller, the principal of the school, who was content with a small room over the kitchen at ten dollars a week, thereby permitting her to save something out of her salary, which was fifty dollars a month; A. Lincoln Pollock, the editor, owner and printer of the Weekly Sun, and his wife, Maude Baggs Pollock, who besides contributing a poem to each and every issue of the paper, (over her own signature), collected news and society items, ran the postoffice for her husband, (he being the postmaster), and taught the Bible Class in the Presbyterian Sunday-school, as well as officiating as president and secretary of the Literary Society, secretary to the town board, secretary of the W. C. T. U., secretary of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society, secretary of the American Soldiers' and Sailors' Relief Fund, secretary of the Windomville Improvement Association, secretary of the Lady Maccabees, and, last but far from least, secretary of the local branch of the Society for the Preservation of the Redwood Forests of California. She was a born secretary.