SOMETIMES KNOWN AS THE BUTTERFLY MAN
BY MARIE CONWAY OEMLER
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1920
1917, by THE CENTURY CO.
Published, April, 1917. Reprinted, August, 1917; February, 1918; August, 1918; March, 1919; August, 1919; November, 1919; February, 1920.
TO ELIZABETH AND ALAN OEMLER
I have known life and love, I have known death and disaster; Foregathered with fools, succumbed to sin, been not unacquainted with shame; Doubted, and yet held fast to a faith no doubt could o'ermaster. Won and lost:—and I know it was all a part of the Game.
Youth and the dreams of youth, hope, and the triumph of sorrow: I took as they came, I played them all; and I trumped the trick when I could. And now, O Mover of Men, let the end be to-day or to-morrow— I have staked and played for Myself, and You and the Game were good!
I APPLEBORO 3 II THE COMING OF SLIPPY McGEE 19 III NEIGHBORS 37 IV UNDERWINGS 48 V ENTER KERRY 65 VI "THY SERVANT WILL GO AND FIGHT WITH THIS PHILISTINE." 1 SAM. 17-32 94 VII THE GOING OF SLIPPY McGEE 111 VIII THE BUTTERFLY MAN 131 IX NESTS 145 X THE BLUEJAY 172 XI A LITTLE GIRL GROWN UP 189 XII JOHN FLINT, GENTLEMAN 203 XIII "EACH IN HIS OWN COIN" 226 XIV THE WISHING CURL 258 XV IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT 283 XVI "WILL YOU WALK INTO MY PARLOR" 302 XVII "—SAID THE SPIDER TO THE FLY—" 319 XVIII ST. STANISLAUS CROOKS HIS ELBOW 343 XIX THE I O U OF SLIPPY McGEE 364 XX BETWEEN A BUTTERFLY'S WINGS 382
FATHER ARMAND JEAN DE RANCE, Catholic Priest of Appleboro, South Carolina MADAME DE RANCE, his Mother CLELIE, their Servant LAURENCE MAYNE, the Boy MARY VIRGINIA EUSTIS, the Girl JAMES EUSTIS, Man of the New South MRS. EUSTIS, a Lady DOCTOR WALTER WESTMORELAND, the Beloved Physician JIM DABNEY, Editor of the Appleboro "Clarion" MAJOR APPLEBY CARTWRIGHT } MISS SALLY RUTH DEXTER } Neighbors JUDGE HAMMOND MAYNE } GEORGE INGLESBY, the Boss of Appleboro J. HOWARD HUNTER, his Private Secretary KERRY, an Irish Setter PITACHE, the Parish House Dog THE MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES OF SOUTH CAROLINA THE CHILDREN, THE MILL-HANDS, THE FACTORY FOLKS, and SLIPPY MCGEE, sometimes known as the Butterfly Man
"Now there was my cousin Eliza," Miss Sally Ruth Dexter once said to me, "who was forced to make her home for thirty years in Vienna! She married an attache of the Austrian legation, you know; met him while she was visiting in Washington, and she was such a pretty girl and he was such a charming man that they fell in love with each other and got married. Afterward his family procured him a very influential post at court, and of course poor Cousin Eliza had to stay there with him. Dear mama often said she considered it a most touching proof of woman's willingness to sacrifice herself—for there's no doubt it must have been very hard on poor Cousin Eliza. She was born and raised right here in Appleboro, you see."
Do not think that Miss Sally Ruth was anything but most transparently sincere in thus sympathizing with the sad fate of poor Cousin Eliza, who was born and raised in Appleboro, South Carolina, and yet sacrificed herself by dragging out thirty years of exile in the court circles of Vienna! Any trueborn Appleboron would be equally sorry for Cousin Eliza for the same reason that Miss Sally Ruth was. Get yourself born in South Carolina and you will comprehend.
"What did you see in your travels that you liked most?" I was curious to discover from an estimable citizen who had spent a summer abroad.
"Why, General Lee's standin' statue in the Capitol an' his recumbent figure in Washington an' Lee chapel, of co'se!" said the colonel promptly. "An' listen hyuh, Father De Rance, I certainly needed him to take the bad taste out of my mouth an' the red out of my eye after viewin' Bill Sherman on a brass hawse in New York, with an angel that'd lost the grace of God prancin' on ahead of him!" He added reflectively: "I had my own ideah as to where any angel leadin' him was most likely headed for!"
"Oh, I meant in Europe!" hastily.
"Well, father, I saw pretty near everything in Europe, I reckon; likewise New York. But comin' home I ran up to Washington an' Lee to visit the general lyin' there asleep, an' it just needed one glance to assure me that the greatest an' grandest work of art in this round world was right there before me! What do folks want to rush off to foreign parts for, where they can't talk plain English an' a man can't get a satisfyin' meal of home cookin', when we've got the greatest work of art an' the best hams ever cured, right in Virginia? See America first, I say. Why, suh, I was so glad to get back to good old Appleboro that I let everybody else wait until I'd gone around to the monument an' looked up at our man standin' there on top of it, an' I found myself sayin' over the names he's guardin' as if I was sayin' my prayers: our names.
"Uh huh, Europe's good enough for Europeans an' the Nawth's a God's plenty good enough for Yankees, but Appleboro for me. Why, father, they haven't got anything like our monument to their names!"
They haven't. And I should hate to think that any Confederate living or dead ever even remotely resembled the gray granite one on our monument. He is a brigandish and bearded person in a foraging cap, leaning forward to rest himself on his gun. His long skirted coat is buckled tightly about his waist to form a neat bustle effect in the back, and the solidity of his granite shoes and the fell rigidity of his granite breeches are such as make the esthetic shudder; one has to admit that as a work of art he is almost as bad as the statues cluttering New York City. But in Appleboro folks are not critical; they see him not with the eyes of art but with the deeper vision of the heart. He stands for something that is gone on the wind and the names he guards are our names.
This is not irrelevant. It is merely to explain something that is inherent in the living spirit of all South Carolina; wherefore it explains my Appleboro, the real inside-Appleboro.
Outwardly Appleboro is just one of those quiet, conservative, old Carolina towns where, loyal to the customs and traditions of their fathers, they would as lief white-wash what they firmly believe to be the true and natural character of General William Tecumseh Sherman as they would their own front fences. Occasionally somebody will give a backyard henhouse a needed coat or two; but a front fence? Never! It isn't the thing. Nobody does it. All normal South Carolinians come into the world with a native horror of paint and whitewash and they depart hence even as they were born. In consequence, towns like Appleboro take on the venerable aspect of antiquity, peacefully drowsing among immemorial oaks draped with long, gray, melancholy moss.
Not that we are cut off from the world, or that we have escaped the clutch of commerce. We have the usual shops and stores, even an emporium or two, and street lights until twelve, and the mills and factory. We have the river trade, and two railroads tap our rich territory to fetch and carry what we take and give. And, except in the poor parish of which I, Armand De Rance, am pastor, and some few wealthy families like the Eustises, Agur's wise and noble prayer has been in part granted to us; for if it has not been possible to remove far from us all vanity and lies, yet we have been given neither poverty nor riches, and we are fed with food convenient for us.
In Appleboro the pleasant and prejudiced Old looks askance at the noisy and intruding New, before which, it is forced to retreat—always without undue or undignified haste, however, and always unpainted and unreconstructed. It is a town where families live in houses that have sheltered generations of the same name, using furniture that was not new when Marion's men hid in the swamps and the redcoats overran the country-side. Almost everybody has a garden, full of old-fashioned shrubs and flowers, and fine trees. In such a place men and women grow old serenely and delightfully, and youth flourishes all the fairer for the rich soil which has brought it forth.
One has twenty-four hours to the day in a South Carolina town—plenty of time to live in, so that one can afford to do things unhurriedly and has leisure to be neighborly. For you do have neighbors here. It is true that they know all your business and who and what your grandfather was and wasn't, and they are prone to discuss it with a frankness to make the scalp prickle. But then, you know theirs, too, and you are at liberty to employ the same fearsome frankness, provided you do it politely and are not speaking to an outsider. It is perfectly permissible for you to say exactly what you please about your own people to your own people, but should an outsider and an alien presume to do likewise, the Carolina code admits of but one course of conduct; borrowing the tactics of the goats against the wolf, they close in shoulder to shoulder and present to the audacious intruder an unbroken and formidable front of horns.
And it is the last place left in all America where decent poverty is in nowise penalized. You can be poor pleasantly—a much rarer and far finer art than being old gracefully. Because of this, life in South Carolina sometimes retains a simplicity as fine and sincere as it is charming.
I deplore the necessity, but I will be pardoned if I pause here to become somewhat personal, to explain who and what I am and how I came to be a pastor in Appleboro. To explain myself, then, I shall have to go back to a spring morning long ago, when I was not a poor parish priest, no, nor ever dreamed of becoming one, but was young Armand De Rance, a flower-crowned and singing pagan, holding up to the morning sun the chalice of spring; joyous because I was of a perishable beauty, dazzled because life gave me so much, proud of an old and honored name, secure in ancestral wealth, loving laughter so much that I looked with the raised eyebrow and the twisted lip at austerities and prayers.
If ever I reflected at all, it was to consider that I had nothing to pray for, save that things might ever remain as they were: that I should remain me, myself, young Armand De Rance, loving and above all beloved of that one sweet girl whom I loved with all my heart. Young, wealthy, strong, beautiful, loving, and beloved! To hold all that, crowded into the hollow of one boyish hand! Oh, it was too much!
I do not think I had ever felt my own happiness so exquisitely as I did upon that day which was to see the last of it. I was to go a-Maying with her who had ever been as my own soul, since we were children playing together. So I rode off to her home, an old house set in its walled inclosure by the river. At the door somebody met me, calling me by my name. I thought at first it had been a stranger. It was her mother. And while I stood staring at her changed face she took me by the hand and began to whisper in my ear ... what I had to know. Blindly, like one bludgeoned on the head, I followed her into a darkened room, and saw what lay there with closed eyes and hair still wet from the river into which my girl had cast herself.
No, I cannot put into words just what had happened; indeed, I never really knew all. There was no public scandal, only great sorrow. But I died that morning. The young and happy part of me died, and, only half-alive I walked about among the living, dragging about with me the corpse of what had been myself. Crushed by this horrible burden which none saw but I, I was blind to the beauties of earth and deaf to the mercies of heaven, until a great Voice called me to come out of the sepulcher of myself; and I came—alive again, and free, of a strong spirit, but with youth gone from it. Out of the void of an irremediable disaster God had called me to His service, chastened and humbled.
"Who is weak and I am not weak? who is offended and I burn not?"
And yet, although I knew my decision was irrevocable, I did not find it easy to tell my mother. Then:
"Little mother of my heart," I blurted, "my career is decided. I have been called. I am for the Church."
We were in her pleasant morning room, a beautiful room, and the lace curtains were pushed aside to allow free ingress of air and sunlight. Between the windows hung two objects my mother most greatly cherished—one an enameled Petitot miniature, gold-framed, of a man in the flower of his youth. His hair, beautiful as the hair of Absalom, falls about his haughty, high-bred face, and so magnificently is he clothed that when I was a child I used to associate him in my mind with those "captains and rulers, clothed most gorgeously, all of them desirable young men, ... girdled with a girdle upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to" ... whom Aholibah "doted upon when her eyes saw them portrayed upon the walls in vermilion."
The other is an Audran engraving of that same man grown old and stripped of beauty and of glory, as the leaf that falls and the flower that fades. The somber habit of an order has replaced scarlet and gold; and sackcloth, satin. Between the two pictures hangs an old crucifix. For that is Armand De Rance, glorious sinner, handsomest, wealthiest, most gifted man of his day—and his a day of glorious men; and this is Armand De Rance, become the sad austere reformer of La Trappe.
My mother rose, walked over to the Abbe's pictures, and looked long and with rather frightened eyes at him. Perhaps there was something in the similarity to his of the fate which had come upon me who bore his name, which caused her to turn so pale. I also am an Armand De Rance, of a cadet branch of that great house, which emigrated to the New World when we French were founding colonies on the banks of the Mississippi.
Her hand went to her heart. Turning, she regarded me pitifully.
"Oh, no, not that!" I reassured her. "I am at once too strong and not strong enough for solitude and silence. Surely there is room and work for one who would serve God through serving his fellow men, in the open, is there not?"
At that she kissed me. Not a whimper, although I am an only son and the name dies with me, the old name of which she was so beautifully proud! She had hoped to see my son wear my father's name and face and thus bring back the lost husband she had so greatly loved; she had prayed to see my children about her knees, and it must have cost her a frightful anguish to renounce these sweet and consoling dreams, these tender and human ambitions. Yet she did so, smiling, and kissed me on the brow.
Three months later I entered the Church; and because I was the last De Rance, and twenty four, and the day was to have been my wedding-day, there fell upon me, sorely against my will, the halo of sad romance.
Endeared thus to the young, I suppose I grew into what I might call a very popular preacher. Though I myself cannot see that I ever did much actual good, since my friends praised my sermons for their "fine Gallic flavor," and I made no enemies.
But there was no rest for my spirit, until the Call came again, the Call that may not be slighted, and bade me leave my sheltered place, my pleasant lines, and go among the poor, to save my own soul alive.
That is why and how the Bishop, my old and dear friend, after long argument and many protests, at length yielded and had me transferred from fashionable St. Jean Baptiste's to the poverty-stricken missionary parish of sodden laboring folk in a South Carolina coast-town: he meant to cure me, the good man! I should have the worst at the outset.
"And I hope you understand," said he, sorrowfully, "that this step practically closes your career. Such a pity, for you could have gone so far! You might even have worn the red hat. It is not hoping too much that the last De Rance, the namesake of the great Abbe, might have finished as an American cardinal! But God's will be done. If you must go, you must go."
I said, respectfully, that I had to go.
"Well, then, go and try it out to the uttermost," said the Bishop. "And it may be that, if you do not kill yourself with overwork, you may return to me cured, when you see the futility of the task you wish to undertake." But I was never again to see his kind face in this world.
And then, as if to cut me off yet more completely from all ties, as if to render my decision irrevocable, it was permitted of Providence that the wheel of my fortune should take one last revolution. Henri Dupuis of the banking house which bore his name shot himself through the head one fine morning, and as he had been my guardian and was still the executor of my father's estate, the whole De Rance fortune went down with him. All of it. Even the old house went, the old house which had sheltered so many of the name these two hundred years. If I could have grieved for anything it would have been that. Nothing was left except the modest private fortune long since secured to my mother by my father's affection. It had been a bridal gift, intended to cover her personal expenses, her charities, and her pretty whims. Now it was to stand between her and want.
Stripped all but bare, and with one servant left of all our staff, we turned our backs upon our old life, our old home, and faced the world anew, in a strange place where nothing was familiar, and where I who had begun so differently was destined to grow into what I have since become—just an old priest, with but small reputation outside of his few friends and poor working-folks. There! That is quite enough of me!
There was one pleasant feature of our new home that rejoiced me for my mother's sake. From the very first she found neighbors who were friendly and charming. Now my mother, when we came to Appleboro, was still a beautiful woman, fair and rosy, with a profusion of blonde cendre curls just beginning to whiten, a sweet and arch face, and eyes of clearest hazel, valanced with jet. She had been perhaps the loveliest and most beloved woman of that proud and select circle which is composed of families descended from the old noblesse, the most exclusive circle of New Orleans society. And, as she said, nothing could change nor alter the fact that no matter what happened to us, we were still De Rances!
"Ah! And was it, then, a De Rance who had the holy Mother of God painted in a family picture, with a scroll issuing from her lips addressing him as 'My Cousin'?" I asked, slyly.
"If it was, nobody in the world had a better right!" said she stoutly.
Thus the serene and unquestioning faith of their estimate of themselves in the scheme of things, as evidenced by these Carolina folk around her, caused Madame De Rance neither surprise nor amusement. She understood. She shared many of their prejudices, and she of all women could appreciate a pride that was almost equal to her own. When they initiated her into the inevitable and inescapable Carolina game of Matching Grandfathers, she always had a Roland for their Oliver; and as they generally came back with an Oliver to match her Roland, all the players retired with equal honors and mutual respect. Every door in Appleboro at once opened wide to Madame De Rance. The difference in religion was obviated by the similarity of Family.
Fortunately, too, the Church and Parish House were not in the mill district itself, a place shoved aside, full of sordid hideousness, ribboned with railroad tracks, squalid with boarding-houses never free from the smell of bad cooking, sinister with pawnshops, miserable with depressingly ugly rows of small houses where the hands herded, and all of it darkened by the grim shadow of the great red brick mills themselves. Instead, our Church sits on a tree-shaded corner in the old town, and the roomy white-piazza'd Parish House is next door, embowered in the pleasantest of all gardens.
That garden reconciled my mother to her exile, for I am afraid she had regarded Appleboro with somewhat of the attitude of the castaway sailor toward a desert island—a refuge after shipwreck, but a desert island nevertheless, a place which cuts off one from one's world. And when at first the poor, uncouth, sullen creatures who were a part of my new charge, frightened and dismayed her, there was always the garden to fly to for consolation. If she couldn't plant seeds of order and cleanliness and morality and thrift in the sterile soil of poor folks' minds, she could always plant seeds of color and beauty and fragrance in her garden and be surer of the result. That garden was my delight, too. I am sure no other equal space ever harbored so many birds and bees and butterflies; and its scented dusks was the paradise of moths. Great wonderful fellows clothed in kings' raiment, little chaps colored like flowers and seashells and rainbows, there the airy cohorts of the People of the Sky wheeled and danced and fluttered. Now my grandfather and my father had been the friends of Audubon and of Agassiz, and I myself had been the correspondent of Riley and Scudder and Henry Edwards, for I love the People of the Sky more than all created things. And when I watched them in my garden, I am sure it was they who lent my heart their wings to lift it above the misery and overwork and grief which surrounded me; I am sure I should have sunk at times, if God had not sent me my little friends, the moths and butterflies.
Our grounds join Miss Sally Ruth Dexter's on one side and Judge Hammond Mayne's are just behind us; so that the Judge's black Daddy January can court our yellow Clelie over one fence, with coy and delicate love-gifts of sugar-cane and sweet-potato pone in season; and Miss Sally Ruth's roosters and ours can wholeheartedly pick each other's eyes out through the other all the year round. These are fowls with so firm a faith in the Mosaic code of an eye for an eye that when Miss Sally Ruth has six blind of the right eye we have five blind of the left. We are at times stung by the Mayne bees, but freely and bountifully supplied with the Mayne honey, a product of fine flavor. And our little dog Pitache made it the serious business of his life to keep the Mayne cats in what he considered their proper bounds.
Major Appleby Cartwright, our neighbor to the other side of Miss Sally Ruth, has a theory that not alone by our fruits, but by our animals, shall we be known for what we are. He insists that Pitache wags his tail and barks in French and considers all cats Protestants, and that Miss Sally Ruth's hens are all Presbyterians at heart, in spite of the fact that her roosters are Mormons. The Major likewise insists that you couldn't possibly hope to know the real Judge Hammond Mayne unless you knew his pet cats. You admire that calm and imperturbable dignity, that sphinxlike and yet vigilant poise of bearing which has made Judge Mayne so notable an ornament of the bench? It is purely feline: "He caught it from his cats, suh: he caught every God-blessed bit of it from his cats!"
As one may perceive, we have delicious neighbors!
When we had been settled in Appleboro a little more than a year, and I had gotten the parish wheels running fairly smooth, we discovered that by my mother's French house-keeping, that exquisitely careful house-keeping which uses everything and wastes nothing, my salary was going to be quite sufficient to cover our modest menage, thus leaving my mother's own income practically intact. We could use it in the parish; but there was so much to be done for that parish that we were rather at a loss where to begin, or what one thing to accomplish among so many things crying aloud. But finally, tackling what seemed to us the worst of these crying evils, we were able to turn the two empty rooms upstairs into what Madame pleasantly called Guest Rooms, thus remedying, to the best of our ability, the absolute lack of any accommodation for the sick and injured poor. And as time passed, these Guest Rooms, so greatly needed, proved not how much but how little we could do. We could only afford to maintain two beds on our small allowance, for they had to be absolutely free, to help those for whom they were intended—poor folks in immediate and dire need, for whom the town had no other place except an insanitary room in the jail. You could be born and baptized in the Guest Rooms, or shriven and sent thence in hope. More often you were coaxed back to health under my mother's nursing and Clelie's cooking and the skill of Doctor Walter Westmoreland.
No bill ever came to the Parish House from Dr. Walter Westmoreland, whom my poor people look upon as a direct act of Providence in their behalf. He is an enormous man, big and ruddy and baldheaded and clean-shaven, with the shoulders of a coal-heaver and legs like a pair of twin oaks. He is rather absent-minded, but he never forgets the down-and-out Guest Roomers, and he has a genius for remembering the mill-children. These are his dear and special charge.
Westmoreland is a great doctor who chooses to live in a small town; he says you can save as many lives in a little town as a big one, and folks need you more. He is a socialist who looks upon rich people as being merely poor people with money; an idealist, who will tell you bluntly that revelations haven't ceased; they've only changed for the better.
Westmoreland has the courage of a gambler and the heart of a little child. He likes to lay a huge hand upon my shoulder and tell me to my teeth that heaven is a habit of heart and hell a condition of liver. I do not always agree with him; but along with everybody else in Appleboro, I love him. Of all the many goodnesses that God has shown me, I do not count it least that this good and kind man was sent in our need, to heal and befriend the broken and friendless waifs and strays who found for a little space a resting place in our Guest Rooms.
And when I look back I know now that not lightly nor fortuitously was I uprooted from my place and my people and sent hither to impinge upon the lives of many who were to be dearer to me than all that had gone before; I was not idly sent to know and love Westmoreland, and Mary Virginia, and Laurence; and, above all, Slippy McGee, whom we of Appleboro call the Butterfly Man.
THE COMING OF SLIPPY MCGEE
On a cold gray morning in December two members of my flock, Poles who spoke but little English and that little very badly, were on their way to their daily toil in the canning factory. It is a long walk from the Poles' quarters to the factory, and the workpeople must start early, for one is fined half an hour's time if one is five minutes late. The short-cut is down the railroad tracks that run through the mill district—for which cause we bury a yearly toll of the children of the poor.
Just beyond the freight sheds, signal tower, and water tank, is a grade crossing where so many terrible things have happened that the colored people call that place Dead Man's Crossin' and warn you not to go by there of nights because the signal tower is haunted and Things lurk in the rank growth behind the water tank, coming out to show themselves after dark. If you must pass it then you would better turn your coat inside out, pull down your sleeves over your hands, and be very careful to keep three fingers twisted for a Sign. This is a specific against most ha'nts, though by no means able to scare away all of them. Those at Dead Man's Crossin' are peculiarly malignant and hard to scare. Maum Jinkey Delette saw one there once, coming down the track faster than an express train, bigger than a cow, and waving both his legs in his hands. Poor old Maum Jinkey was so scared that she chattered her new false teeth out of her mouth, and she never found those teeth to the day of her death, but had to mumble along as best she could without them.
Hurrying by Dead Man's Crossin', the workmen stumbled over a man lying beside the tracks; his clothing was torn to shreds, he was wet with the heavy night dew and covered with dirt, cinders, and partly congealed blood, for his right leg had been ground to pulp. Peering at this horrible object in the wan dusk of the early morning, they thought he was dead like most of the others found there.
For a moment the men hesitated, wondering whether it wouldn't be better to leave him there to be found and removed by folks with more time at their disposal. One doesn't like to lose time and be consequently fined, on account of stopping to pick up a dead tramp; particularly when Christmas is drawing near and money so much needed that every penny counts.
The thing on the ground, regaining for a fraction of a second a glint of half-consciousness, quivered, moaned feebly, and lay still again. Humanity prevailing, the Poles looked about for help, but as yet the place was quite deserted. Grumbling, they wrenched a shutter off the Agent's window, lifted the mangled tramp upon it, and made straight for the Parish House; when accidents such as this happened to men such as this, weren't the victims incontinently turned over to the Parish House people? Indeed, there wasn't any place else for them, unless one excepted the rough room at the jail; and the average small town jail—ours wasn't any exception to the rule—is a place where a decent veterinary would scruple to put a sick cur. With him the Poles brought his sole luggage, a package tied up in oilskin, which they had found lying partly under him.
We had become accustomed to these sudden inroads of misfortune, so he was carried upstairs to the front Guest Room, fortunately just then empty. The Poles turned over to me the heavy package found with him, stolidly requested a note to the Boss explaining their necessary tardiness, and hurried away. They had done what they had to do, and they had no further interest in him. Nobody had any interest in one of the unknown tramps who got themselves killed or crippled at Dead Man's Crossin'.
The fellow was shockingly injured and we had some strenuous days and nights with him, for that which had been a leg had to come off at the knee; he had lain in the cold for some hours, he had sustained a frightful shock, and he had lost considerable blood. I am sure that in the hands of any physician less skilled and determined than Westmoreland he must have gone out. But Westmoreland, with his jaw set, followed his code and fenced with death for this apparently worthless and forfeited life, using all his skill and finesse to outwit the great Enemy; in spite of which, so attenuated was the man's chance that we were astonished when he turned the corner—very, very feebly—and we didn't have to place another pine box in the potter's field, alongside other unmarked mounds whose occupants were other unknown men, grim causes of Dead Man's Crossin's sinister name.
The effects of the merciful drugs that had kept him quiet in time wore away. Our man woke up one forenoon clear-headed, if hollow-eyed and mortally weak. He looked about the unfamiliar room with wan curiosity, then his eyes came to Clelie and myself, but he did not return the greetings of either. He just stared; he asked no questions. Presently, very feebly, he tried to move,—and found himself a cripple. He fell back upon his pillow, gasping. A horrible scream broke from his lips—a scream of brute rage and mortal fear, as of a trapped wild beast. He began to revile heaven and earth, the doctor, myself. Clelie, clapping her hands over her outraged ears, fled as if from fiends. Indeed, never before nor since have I heard such a frightful, inhuman power of profanity, such hideous oaths and threats. When breath failed him he lay spent and trembling, his chest rising and falling to his choking gasps.
"You had better be thankful your life is spared you, young man," I said a trifle sharply, my nerves being somewhat rasped; for I had helped Westmoreland through more than one dreadful night, and I had sat long hours by his pillow, waiting for what seemed the passing of a soul.
He glared. "Thankful?" he screamed, "Thankful, hell! I've got to have two good legs to make any sort of a getaway, haven't I? Well, have I got 'em? I'm down and out for fair, that's what! Thankful? You make me sick! Honest to God, when you gas like that I feel like bashing in your brain, if you've got any! You and your thankfulness!" He turned his quivering face and stared at the wall, winking. I wondered, heartsick, if I had ever seen a more hopelessly unprepossessing creature.
It was not so much physical, his curious ugliness; the dreadful thing was that it seemed to be his spirit which informed his flesh, an inherent unloveliness of soul upon which the body was modeled, worked out faithfully, and so made visible. Figure to yourself one with the fine shape of the welter-weight, steel-muscled, lithe, powerful, springy, slim in the hips and waist, broad in the shoulders; the arms unusually long, giving him a terrible reach, the head round, well-shaped, covered with thick reddish hair; cold, light, and intelligent eyes, full of animosity and suspicion, reminding you unpleasantly of the rattlesnake's look, wary, deadly, and ready to strike. When he thought, his forehead wrinkled. His lips shut upon each other formidably and without softness, and the jaws thrust forward with the effect as of balled fists. One ear was slightly larger than the other, having the appearance of a swelling upon the lobe. In this unlovely visage, filled with distrust and concentrated venom, only the nose retained an incongruous and unexpected niceness. It was a good straight nose, yet it had something of the pleasant tiptiltedness of a child's. It was the sort of nose which should have complemented a mouth formed for spontaneous laughter. It looked lonesome and out of place in that set and lowering countenance, to which the red straggling stubble of beard sprouting over jaws and throat lent a more sinister note.
We had had many a sad and terrible case in our Guest Rooms, but somehow this seemed the saddest, hardest and most hopeless we had yet encountered.
For three weary weeks had we struggled with him, until the doctor, sighing with physical relief, said he was out of danger and needed only such nursing as he was sure to get.
"One does one's duty as one finds it, of course," said the big doctor, looking down at the unpromising face on the pillow, and shaking his head. "Yes, yes, yes, one must do what's right, on the face of it, come what will. There's no getting around that!" He glanced at me, a shadow in his kind gray eyes. "But there are times, my friend, when I wonder! Now, this morning I had to tell a working man his wife's got to die. There's no help and no hope—she's got to die, and she a mother of young children. So I have to try desperately," said the doctor, rubbing his nose, "to cling tooth and claw to the hope that there is Something behind the scenes that knows the forward-end of things—sin and sorrow and disease and suffering and death things—and uses them always for some beneficent purpose. But in the meantime the mother dies, and here you and I have been used to save alive a poor useless devil of a one-legged tramp, probably without his consent and against his will, because it had to be and we couldn't do anything else! Now, why? I can't help but wonder!"
We looked down again, the two of us, at the face on the pillow. And I wondered also, with even greater cause than the doctor; for I had opened the oilskin package the Poles found, and it had given me occasion for fear, reflection, and prayer. I was startled and alarmed beyond words, for it contained tools of a curious and unusual type,—not such tools as workmen carry abroad in the light of day.
There was no one to whom I might confide that unpleasant discovery. I simply could not terrify my mother, nor could I in common decency burden the already overburdened doctor. Nor is our sheriff one to turn to readily; he is not a man whose intelligence or heart one may admire, respect, or depend upon. My guest had come to me with empty pockets and a burglar's kit; a hint of that, and the sheriff had camped on the Parish House front porch with a Winchester across his knees and handcuffs jingling in his pockets. No, I couldn't consult the law.
I had yet a deeper and a better reason for waiting, which I find it rather hard to set down in cold words. It is this: that as I grow older I have grown more and more convinced that not fortuitously, not by chance, never without real and inner purposes, are we allowed to come vitally into each other's lives. I have walked up the steep sides of Calvary to find out that when another wayfarer pauses for a space beside us, it is because one has something to give, the other something to receive.
So, upon reflection, I took that oilskin package weighted down with the seven deadly sins over to the church, and hid it under the statue of St. Stanislaus, whom my Poles love, and before whom they come to kneel and pray for particular favors. I tilted the saint back upon his wooden stand, and thrust that package up to where his hands fold over the sheaf of lilies he carries. St. Stanislaus is a beautiful and most holy youth. No one would ever suspect him of hiding under his brown habit a burglar's kit!
When I had done this, and stopped to say three Hail Marys for guidance, I went back to the little room called my study, where my books and papers and my butterfly cabinets and collecting outfits were kept, and set myself seriously to studying my files of newspapers, beginning at a date a week preceding my man's appearance. Then:
Slippy McGee Makes Good His Name Once More. Slips One Over On The Police. Noted Burglar Escapes.
said the glaring headlines in the New York papers. The dispatches were dated from Atlanta, and when I turned to the Atlanta papers I found them, too, headlining the escape of "Slippy McGee."
I learned that "the slickest crook in America" finding himself somewhat hampered in his native haunts, the seething underworld of New York, because the police suspected him of certain daring and mysterious burglaries although they had no positive proof against him, had chosen to shift his base of operations South for awhile. But the Southern authorities had been urgently warned to look out for him; in consequence they had been so close upon his heels that he had been surrounded while "on a job." Half an hour later, and he would have gotten away with his plunder; but, although they were actually upon him, by what seemed a miracle of daring and of luck he slipped through their fingers, escaped under their very noses, leaving no clue to his whereabouts. He was supposed to be still in hiding in Atlanta, though as he had no known confederates and always worked alone and unaided, the police were at a loss for information. The man had simply vanished, after his wont, as if the earth had opened and swallowed him. The papers gave rather full accounts of some of his past exploits, from which one gathered that Slippy McGee was a very noted personage in his chosen field. I sat for a long time staring at those papers, and my thoughts were uneasy ones. What should I do?
I presently decided that I could and must question my guest. So far he had volunteered no information beyond the curt statement that his name was John Flint and he was a hobo because he liked the trade. He had been stealing a ride and he had slipped—and when he woke up we had him and he hadn't his leg. And if some people knew how to be obliging they'd make a noise like a hoop and roll away, so's other people could pound their ear in peace, like that big stiff of a doctor ordered them to do.
As I stood by the bed and studied his sullen, suspicious, unfriendly face, I came to the conclusion that if this were not McGee himself it could very well be some one quite as dangerous.
"Friend," said I, "we do not as a rule seek information about the guests in these rooms. We do not have to; they explain themselves. I should never question your assertion that your name is Flint, and I sincerely hope it is Flint; but—there are reasons why I must and do ask you for certain definite information about yourself."
The hand lying upon the coverlet balled into a fist.
"If John Flint's not fancy enough for you," he suggested truculently, "suppose you call me Percy? Some peach of a moniker, Percy, ain't it?"
"Sure, Percy," he grinned impudently. "But if you got a grouch against Percy, can it, and make me Algy. I don't mind. It's not me beefing about monikers; it's you."
"I am also," said I, regarding him steadily and ignoring his flippancy, "I am also obliged to ask you what is your occupation—when you are not stealing rides?"
"Looks like it might be answering questions just now, don't it? What you want to know for? Whatever it is, I'm not able to do it now, am I? But as you're so naturally bellyaching to know, why, I've been in the ring."
"So I presumed. Thank you," said I, politely. "And your name is John Flint, or Percy, or Algy, just as I choose. Percy and Algy are rather unusual names for a gentleman who has been in the ring, don't you think?"
"I think," he snarled, turned suddenly ferocious, "that I'm named what I dam' please to be named, and no squeals from skypilots about it, neither. Say! what you driving at, anyhow? If what I tell you ain't satisfying, suppose you slip over a moniker to suit yourself—and go away!"
"Oh! Suppose then," said I, without taking my eyes from his, "suppose, then, that I chose to call you—Slippy McGee?"
I am sure that only his bodily weakness kept him from flying at my throat. As it was, his long arms with the hands upon them outstretched like a beast's claws, shot out ferociously. His face contracted horribly, and of a sudden the sweat burst out upon it so blindingly that he had to put up an arm and wipe it away. For a moment he lay still, glaring, panting, helpless; while I stood and watched him unmoved.
"Ain't you the real little Sherlock Holmes, though?" he jeered presently. "Got Old Sleuth skinned for fair and Nick Carter eating out of your hand! You damned skypilot!" His voice cracked. "You're all alike! Get a man on his back and then put the screws on him!"
I made no reply; only a great compassion for this mistaken and miserable creature surged like a wave over my heart.
"For God's sake don't stand there staring like a bughouse owl!" he gritted. "Well, what you going to do? Bawl for the bulls? What put you wise?"
"Help you to get well. No. I opened your bag—and looked up the newspapers," I answered succinctly.
"Huh! A fat lot of good it'll do me to get well now, won't it? You think I ought to thank you for butting in and keeping me from dying without knowing anything about it, don't you? Well, you got another think coming. I don't. Ever hear of a pegleg in the ring? Ever hear of a one-hoofed dip! A long time I'd be Slippy McGee playing cat-and-mouse with the bulls, if I had to leave some of my legs home when I needed them right there on the job, wouldn't I? Oh, sure!"
"And was it," I wondered, "such a fine thing to be Slippy McGee, flying from the police, that one should lament his—er—disappearance?"
His eyes widened. He regarded me with pity as well as astonishment.
"Didn't you read the papers?" he wondered in his turn. "There don't many travel in my class, skypilot! Why, I haven't got any equals—the best of them trail a mile behind. Ask the bulls, if you want to know about Slippy McGee! And I let the happy dust alone. Most dips are dopes, but I was too slick; I cut it out. I knew if the dope once gets you, then the bulls get next. Not for Slippy. I've kept my head clear, and that's how I've muddled theirs. They never get next to anything until I've cleaned up and dusted. Why, honest to God, I can open any box made, easy as easy, just like I can put it all over any bull alive! That is," a spasm twisted his face and into his voice crept the acute anguish of the artist deprived of all power to create, "that is, I could—until I made that last getaway on a freight, and this happened."
"I am sorry," said I soothingly, "that you have lost your leg, of course. But better to lose your leg than your soul, my son. Why, how do you know—"
He writhed. "Can it!" he implored. "Cut it out! Ain't I up against enough now, for God's sake? Down and out—and nothing to do but have my soul curry-combed and mashfed by a skypilot with both his legs and all his mouth on him! Ain't it hell, though? Say, you better send for the cops. I'd rather stand for the pen than the preaching. What'd you do with my bag, anyway?"
"But I really have no idea of preaching to you; and I would rather not send for the police—afterwards, when you are better, you may do so if you choose. You are a free agent. As for your bag, why—it is—it is—in the keeping of the Church."
"Huh!" said he, and twisted his mouth cynically. "Huh! Then it's good-bye tools, I suppose. I'm no churchmember, thank God, but I've heard that once the Church gets her clamps on anything worth while all hell can't pry her loose."
Now I don't know why, but at that, suddenly and inexplicably, as if I had glimpsed a ray of light, I felt cheered.
"Why, that's it exactly!" said I, smiling. "Once the Church gets real hold of a thing—or a man—worth while, she holds on so fast that all hell can't pry her loose. Won't you try to remember that, my son!"
"If it's a joke, suck the marrow out of it yourself," said he sourly. "It don't listen so horrible funny to me. And you haven't peeped yet about what you're going to do. I'm waiting to hear. I'm real interested."
"Why, I really don't know yet," said I, still cheerfully. "Suppose we wait and see? Here you are, safe and harmless enough for the present. And God is good; perhaps He knows that you and I may need each other more than you and the police need each other—who can tell? I should simply set myself strictly to the task of getting entirely well, if I were you—and let it go at that."
He appeared to reflect; his forehead wrinkled painfully.
"Devil-dodger," said he, after a pause, "are you just making a noise with your face, or is that on the level?"
"That's on the level."
His hard and suspicious eyes bored into me. And as I held his glance, a hint of wonder and amazement crept into his face.
"God A'mighty! I believe him!" he gasped. And then, as if ashamed of that real feeling, he scowled.
"Say, if you're really on the level, I guess you'd better not be flashing the name of Slippy McGee around promiscuous," he suggested presently. "It won't do either you or me any good, see? And say, parson,—forget Percy and Algy. How was I to know you'd be so white? And look here: I did know a gink named John Flint, once. Only he was called Reddy, because he'd got such a blazing red head and whiskers. He's croaked, so he wouldn't mind me using his moniker, seeing it's not doing him any good now."
"Let us agree upon John Flint," I decided.
"Help yourself," he agreed, equably.
Clelie, with wrath and disapproval written upon every stiffened line, brought him his broth, which he took with a better grace than I had yet witnessed. He even added a muttered word of thanks.
"It's funny," he reflected, when the yellow woman had left the room with the empty bowl, "it's sure funny, but d'ye know, I'm lots easier in my mind, knowing you know, and not having to think up a hard-luck gag to hand out to you? I hate like hell to have to lie, except of course when I need a smooth spiel for the cops. I guess I'll snooze a bit now," he added, as I rose to leave the room. And as I reached the door:
"Why—er—come in a bit to-night, will you? That is, if you've got time. And look here: don't you get the notion in your bean I'm just some little old two-by-four guy of a yegg or some poor nut of a dip. I'm not. Why, I've been the whole show and manager besides. Yep, I'm Slippy McGee himself."
He paused, to let this sink into my consciousness. I must confess that I was more profoundly impressed than even he had any idea of. And then, magnanimously, he added: "You're sure some white man, parson."
"Thank you, John Flint," said I, with due modesty.
Heaven knows why I should have been pleased and hopeful, but I was. My guest was a criminal; he hadn't shown the slightest sign of compunction or of shame; instead, he had betrayed a brazen pride. And yet—I felt hopeful. Although I knew I was tacitly concealing a burglar, my conscience remained clear and unclouded, and I had a calm intuitive assurance of right. So deeply did I feel this that when I went over to the church I placed before St. Stanislaus a small lamp full of purest olive oil, which is expensive. I felt that he deserved some compensation for hiding that package under his sheaf of lilies.
The authorities of our small town knew, of course, that another forlorn wretch was being cared for at the Parish House. But had not the Parish House sheltered other such vagabonds? The sheriff saw no reason to give himself the least concern, beyond making the most casual inquiry. If I wanted the fellow, he was only too glad to let me keep him. And who, indeed, would look for a notorious criminal in a Parish House Guest Room? Who would connect that all too common occurrence, a tramp maimed by the railroad, with, the mysterious disappearance of the cracksman, Slippy McGee? So, for the present, I could feel sure that the man was safe.
And in the meantime, in the orderly proceeding of everyday life, while he gained strength under my mother's wise and careful nursing and Westmoreland's wise and careful overseeing, there came to him those who were instruments for good—my mother first, whom, like Clelie, he never called anything but "Madame" and whom, like Clelie, he presently obeyed with unquestioning and childlike readiness. Now, Madame is a truly wonderful person when she deals with people like him. Never for a moment lowering her own natural and beautiful dignity, but without a hint of condescension, Madame manages to find the just level upon which both can stand as on common ground; then, without noise, she helps, and she conveys the impression that thus noiselessly to help is the only just, natural and beautiful thing for any decent person to do, unless, perhaps, it might be to receive in the like spirit.
Judge Mayne's son, Laurence, full of a fresh and boyish enthusiasm, was such another instrument. He had a handsome, intelligent face, a straight and beautiful body, and the pleasantest voice in the world. His mother in her last years had been a fretful invalid, and to meet her constant demands the judge and his son had developed an angelic patience with weakness. They were both rather quiet and undemonstrative, this father and son; the older man, in fact had a stern visage at first glance, until one learned to know it as the face of a man trained to restraint and endurance. As for the boy, no one could long resist the shrewd, kind youngster, who could spend an hour with the most unlikely invalid and leave him all the better for it. I was unusually busy just then, Clelie frankly hated and feared the man upstairs, my mother had her hands full, and there were many heavy and lonesome hours which Laurence set himself the task of filling. I left this to the boy himself, offering no suggestions.
"Padre," said the boy to me, some time later, "that chap upstairs is the hardest nut I ever tried to crack. There've been times when I felt tempted to crack him with a sledge-hammer, if you want the truth. You know, he always seemed to like me to read to him, but I've never been able to discover whether or not he liked what I read. He never asked me a single question, he never seemed interested enough to make a comment. But I think that I've made a dent in him at last."
"A dent! In Flint? With what adamantine pick, oh hardiest of miners!"
"With a book. Guess!"
"I couldn't. I give up."
"The Bible!" said Laurence.
The Bible! Had I chosen to read it to him, he would have resented it, been impervious, suspicious, hostile. I looked at the boy's laughing face, and wondered, and wondered.
"And how," said I, curious, "did you happen to pitch on the Bible?"
"Why, I got to studying about this chap. I wanted something that'd reach him. I was puzzled. And then I remembered hearing my father say that the Bible is the most interesting book in the world because it's the most personal. There's something in it for everybody. So I thought there'd be something in it for John Flint, and I tried it on him, without telling him what I was giving him. I just plunged right in, head over heels. Lord, Padre, it is a wonderful old book, isn't it? Why, I got so lost in it myself that I forgot all about John Flint, until I happened to glance up and see that he was up to the eyes in it, just like I was! He likes the fights and he gloats over the spoils. He's asking for more. I think of turning Paul loose on him."
"Well, if after the manner of men Paul fought with wild beasts at Ephesus," I said hopefully. "I dare say he'll be able to hold his own even with John Flint."
"I like Paul best of all, myself," said Laurence. "You see, Padre, my father and I have needed a dose of Paul more than once—to stiffen our backbones. So I'm going to turn the fighting old saint loose on John Flint. 'By, Padre;—I'll look in to-morrow—I left poor old Elijah up in a cave with no water, and the ravens overdue!"
He went down our garden path whistling, his cap on the back of his head, and I looked after him with the warm and comforting sense that the world is just that much better for such as he.
The boy was now, in his last high school year, planning to study law—all the Maynes took to law as a duck to water. Brave, simple-hearted, direct, clear-thinking, scrupulously honorable,—this was one of the diamonds used to cut the rough hard surface of Slippy McGee.
On a morning in late March, with a sweet and fresh wind blowing, a clear sun shining, and a sky so full of soft white woolly clouds that you might fancy the sky-people had turned their fleecy flock out to graze in the deep blue pastures, Laurence Mayne and I brought John Flint downstairs and rolled him out into the glad, green garden, in the comfortable wheel-chair that the mill-people had given us for a Christmas present; my mother and Clelie followed, and our little dog Pitache marched ahead, putting on ridiculous airs of responsibility; he being a dog with a great idea of his own importance and wholly given over to the notion that nothing could go right if he were not there to superintend and oversee it.
The wistaria was in her zenith, girdling the tree-tops with amethyst; the Cherokee rose had just begun to reign, all in snow-white velvet, with a gold crown and a green girdle for greater glory; the greedy brown grumbling bees came to her table in dusty cohorts, and over her green bowers floated her gayer lovers the early butterflies, clothed delicately as in kings' raiment. In the corners glowed the ruby-colored Japanese quince, and the long sprays of that flower I most dearly love, the spring-like spirea which the children call bridal wreath, brushed you gently as you passed the gate. I never see it deck itself in bridal white, I never inhale its shy, clean scent, without a tightening of the throat, a misting of the eyes, a melting of the heart.
Across our garden and across Miss Sally Ruth Dexter's you could see in Major Appleby Cartwright's yard the peach trees in pink party dresses, ruffled by the wind. Down the paths marched my mother's daffodils and hyacinths, with honey-breathing sweet alyssum in between. Robins and wrens, orioles and mocking-birds, blue jays and jackdaws, thrushes and blue-birds and cardinals, all were busy house-building; one heard calls and answers, saw flashes of painted wings, followed by outbursts of ecstasy. If one should lay one's ear to the ground on such a morning I think one might hear the heart of the world.
"Hallelujah! Risen! Risen!" breathed the glad, green things, pushing from the warm mother-mold.
"Living! Living! Loving! Loving!" flashed and fluted the flying things, joyously.
We wheeled our man out into this divine freshness of renewed life, stopping the chair under a glossy, stately magnolia. My mother and Clelie and Laurence and I bustled about to make him comfortable. Pitache stood stock still, his tail stuck up like a sternly admonishing forefinger, a-bossing everything and everybody. We spread a light shawl over the man's knees, for it is not easy to bear a cruel physical infirmity, to see oneself marred and crippled, in the growing spring. He looked about him, snuffed, and wrinkled his forehead; his eyes had something of the wistful, wondering satisfaction of an animal's. He had never sat in a garden before, in all his life! Think of it!
Whenever we bring one of our Guest Roomers downstairs, Miss Sally Ruth Dexter promptly comes to her side of the fence to look him over. She came this morning, looked at our man critically, and showed plain disapproval of him in every line of her face.
On principle Miss Sally Ruth disapproves of most men and many women. She does not believe in wasting too much sympathy upon people either; she says folks get no more than they deserve and generally not half as much.
Miss Sally Ruth Dexter is a rather important person in Appleboro. She is fifty-six years old, stout, brown-eyed, suffers from a congenital incapacity to refrain from telling the unwelcome truth when people are madly trying to save their faces,—she calls this being frank,—is tactless, independent, generous, and the possessor of what she herself complacently refers to as "a Figure."
For a woman so convinced we're all full of natural and total depravity, unoriginal sinners, worms of the dust, and the devil's natural fire-fodder, Miss Sally Ruth manages to retain a simple and unaffected goodness of practical charity toward the unelect, such as makes one marvel. You may be predestined to be lost, but while you're here you shall lack no jelly, wine, soup, chicken-with-cream, preserves, gumbo, neither such marvelous raised bread as Miss Sally Ruth knows how to make with a perfection beyond all praise.
She has a tiny house and a tiny income, which satisfies her; she has never married. She told my mother once, cheerfully, that she guessed she must be one of those born eunuchs of the spirit the Bible mentions—it was intended for her, and she was glad of it, for it had certainly saved her a sight of worry and trouble.
There is a cherished legend in our town that Major Appleby Cartwright once went over to Savannah on a festive occasion and was there joyously entertained by the honorable the Chatham Artillery. The Chatham Artillery brews a Punch; insidious, delectable, deceptive, but withal a pernicious strong drink that is raging, a wine that mocketh and maketh mad. And they gave it to Major Appleby Cartwright in copious draughts.
Coming home upon the heels of this, the major arose, put on his Prince Albert, donned his top hat, picked a huge bunch of zinnias, and at nine o'clock in the morning marched over to Miss Sally Ruth Dexter's.
We differ as to certain unimportant details of that historic call, but we are in the main agreed upon the conversation that ensued.
"Sally Ruth," said the major, depositing his bulky person in a rocking chair, his hat upon the floor, and wiping his forehead with a spotless handkerchief the size of a respectable sheet, "Sally Ruth, you like Old Maids?" Here he presented the zinnias.
"Why, I've got a yard full of 'em myself, Major. Whatever made you bother to pick 'em? But to whom much hath more shall be given, I suppose," said she, resignedly, and put them on the whatnot.
"Sally Ruth," said the major solemnly, ignoring this indifferent reception of his offering. "Sally Ruth, come to think of it, an Old Maid's a miserable, stiff, scentless sort of a flower. You might think, when you first glance at 'em, that they're just like any other flowers, but they're not; they're without one single, solitary redeemin' particle of sweetness! The Lord made 'em for a warnin' to women.
"What good under God's sky does it do you to be an old maid, Sally Ruth? You're flyin' in the face of Providence. No lady should fly in the face of Providence—she'd a sight better fly to the bosom of some man, where she belongs. This mawnin' I looked out of my window and my eye fell upon these unfortunate flowers. Right away I thought of you, livin' over here all alone and by yourself, with no man's bosom to lean on—you haven't really got anything but a few fowls and the Lord to love, have you? And, Sally Ruth, tears came to my eyes. Talk not of tears till you have seen the tears of warlike men! I believe it would almost scare you to death to see me cryin', Sally Ruth! I got to thinkin', and I said to myself: 'Appleby Cartwright, you have always done your duty like a man. You charged up to the very muzzle of Yankee guns once, and you weren't scared wu'th a damn! Are you goin' to be scared now? There's a plain duty ahead of you; Sally Ruth's a fine figure of a woman, and she ought to have a man's bosom to lean on. Go offer Sally Ruth yours!' So here I am, Sally Ruth!" said the major valiantly.
Miss Sally Ruth regarded him critically; then:
"You're drunk, Appleby Cartwright, that's what's the matter with you. You and your bosom! Why, it's not respectable to talk like that! At your age, too! I'm ashamed of you!"
"I was a little upset, over in Savannah," admitted the major. "Those fellows must have gotten me to swallow over a gallon of their infernal brew—and it goes down like silk, too. Listen at me: don't you ever let 'em make you drink a gallon of that punch, Sally Ruth."
"I've seen its effects before. Go home and sleep it off," said Miss Sally Ruth, not unkindly. "If you came over to warn me about filling up on Artillery Punch, your duty's done—I've never been entertained by the Chatham Artillery, and I don't ever expect to be. I suppose it was intended for you to be a born goose, Appleby, so it'd be a waste of time for me to fuss with you about it. Go on home, now, do, and let Caesar put you to bed. Tell him to tie a wet rag about your head and to keep it wet. That'll help to cool you off."
"Sally Ruth," said the major, laying his hand upon his heart and trying desperately to focus her with an eye that would waver in spite of him, "Sally Ruth, somebody's got to do something for you, and it might as well be me. My God, Sally Ruth, you're settin' like clabber! It's a shame; it's a cryin' shame, for you're a fine woman. I don't mean to scare or flutter you, Sally Ruth,—no gentleman ought to scare or flutter a lady—but I'm offerin' you my hand and heart; here's my bosom for you to lean on."
"That Savannah brew is worse even than I thought—it's run the man stark crazy," said Miss Sally Ruth, viewing him with growing concern.
"Me crazy! Why, I'm askin' you," said the major with awful dignity, "I'm askin' you to marry me!"
"Marry you? Marry fiddlesticks! Shucks!" said the lady.
"You won't?" Amazement made him sag down in his chair. He stared at her owl-like. "Woman," said he solemnly, "when I see my duty I try to do it. But I warn you—it's your last chance."
"I hope," said Miss Sally Ruth tartly, "that it's my last chance to make a born fool of myself. Why, you old gasbag, if I had to stay in the same house with you I'd be tempted to stick a darning needle in you to hear you explode! Appleby, I'm like that woman that had a chimney that smoked, a dog that growled, a parrot that swore, and a cat that stayed out nights; she didn't need a man—and no more do I."
"Sally Ruth," said the major feelingly, "when I came here this mawnin' it wasn't for my own good—it was for yours. And to think this is all the thanks I get for bein' willin' to sacrifice myself! My God! The ingratitude of women!"
He looked at Miss Sally Ruth, and Miss Sally Ruth looked at him. And then suddenly, without a moment's warning, Miss Sally Ruth rose, and took Major Appleby Cartwright, who on a time had charged Yankee guns and hadn't been scared wu'th a damn, by the ear. She tugged, and the major rose, as one pulled upward by his bootstraps.
"Ouch! Turn loose! I take it back! The devil! It wasn't intended for any mortal man to marry you—Sally Ruth, I wouldn't marry you now for forty billion dollars and a mule! Turn loose, you hussy! Turn loose!" screeched the major.
Unheeding his anguished protests, which brought Judge Hammond Mayne on the run, thinking somebody was being murdered, Miss Sally Ruth marched her suitor out of her house and led him to her front gate. Here she paused, jaws firmly set, eyes glittering, and, as with hooks of steel, took firm hold upon the gallant major's other ear. Then she shook him; his big crimson countenance, resembling a huge overripe tomato, waggled deliriously to and fro.
"I was born"—shake—"an old maid,"—shake, shake, shake—"I have lived—by the grace of God"—shake, shake, shake—"an old maid, and I expect"—shake—"to die an old maid! I don't propose to have"—shake—"an old windbag offering me his blubbery old bosom"—shake, shake, SHAKE—"at this time of my life!—and don't you forget it, Appleby Cartwright! THERE! You go back home"—shake, shake, shake—"and sober up, you old gander, you!"
Major Appleby Cartwright stood not upon the order of his going, but went at once, galloping as if a company of those Yankees with whom he had once fought were upon his hindquarters with fixed bayonets.
However, they being next-door neighbors and friends of a lifetime's standing, peace was finally patched up. In Appleboro we do not mention this historic meeting when either of the participants can hear us, though it is one of our classics and no home is complete without it. The Major ever afterward eschewed Artillery Punch.
This morning, over the fence, Miss Sally Ruth addressed our invalid directly and without prelude, after her wont. She doesn't believe in beating about the bush:
"The wages of walking up and down the earth and going to and fro in it, tramping like Satan, is a lost leg. Not that it wasn't intended you should lose yours—and I hope and pray it will be a lesson to you."
"Well, take it from me," he said grimly, "there's nobody but me collecting my wages."
A quick approval of this plain truth showed in Miss Sally Ruth's snapping eyes.
"Come!" said she, briskly. "If you've got sense enough to see that, you're not so far away from the truth as you might be. Collecting your wages is the good and the bad thing about life, I reckon. But everything's intended, so you don't need to be too sorry for yourself, any way you look at it. And you could just as well have lost both legs while you were at it, you know." She paused reflectively. "Let's see: I've got chicken-broth and fresh rolls to-day—I'll send you over some, after awhile." She nodded, and went back to her housework.
Laurence went on to High School, Madame had her house to oversee, I had many overdue calls; so we left Pitache and John Flint together, out in the birdhaunted, sweet-scented, sun-dappled garden, in the golden morning hours. No one can be quite heartless in a green garden, quite hopeless in the spring, or quite desolate when there's a dog's friendly nose to be thrust into one's hand.
I am afraid that at first he missed all this; for he could think of nothing but himself and that which had befallen him, coming upon him as a bolt from the blue. He had had, heretofore, nothing but his body—and now his body had betrayed him! It had become, not the splendid engine which obeyed his slightest wish, but a drag upon him. Realizing this acutely, untrained, undisciplined, he was savagely sullen, impenetrably morose. He tired of Laurence's reading—I think the boy's free quickness of movement, his well-knit, handsome body, the fact that he could run and jump as pleased him, irked and chafed the man new and unused to his own physical infirmity.
He seemed to want none of us; I have seen him savagely repulse the dog, who, shocked and outraged at this exhibition of depravity, withdrew, casting backward glances of horrified and indignant reproach.
But as the lovely, peaceful, healing days passed, that bitter and contracted heart had to expand somewhat. Gradually the ferocity faded, leaving in its room an anxious and brooding wonder. God knows what thoughts passed through that somber mind in those long hours, when, concentrated upon himself, he must have faced the problem of his future and, like one before an impassable stone wall, had to fall back, baffled. He could be sure of only one thing: that never again could he be what he had been once—"the slickest cracksman in America." This in itself tortured him. Heretofore, life had been exactly what he chose to make it: he had put himself to the test, and he had proven himself the most daring, the coolest, shrewdest, most cunning, in that sinister world in which he had shone with so evil a light. He had been Slippy McGee. Sure of himself, his had been that curious inverted pride which is the stigmata of the criminal.
More than once I saw him writhe in his chair, tormented, shaken, spent with futile curses, impotently lamenting his lost kingdom. He still had the skill, the cold calculating brain, the wit, the will; and now, by a cruel chance and a stupid accident, he had lost out! The end had come for him, and he in his heyday! There were moments when, watching him, I had the sensation as of witnessing almost visibly, here in our calm sunny garden, the Dark Powers fighting openly for a soul.
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
If I have not heretofore spoken of Mary Virginia, it is because all that winter she and Mrs. Eustis had been away; and in consequence Appleboro was dull enough. For the Eustises are our wealthiest and most important family, just as the Eustis house, with its pillared, Greek-temple-effect front, is by far the handsomest house in town. When we have important folks to entertain, we look to the Eustises to save our faces for us by putting them up at their house.
One afternoon, shortly after we had gotten settled in Appleboro, I came home to find my mother entertaining no less a personage than Mrs. Eustis; she wasn't calling on the Catholic priest and his mother, you understand; far from it! She was recognizing Armand De Rance and Adele de Marsignan!
Mrs. Eustis was a fair, plump little partridge of a woman, so perfectly satisfied with herself that brains, in her case, would have amounted to a positive calamity. She is an instance of the fascination a fool seems to have for men of undoubted powers of mind and heart, for Eustis, who had both to an unusual degree, loved her devotedly, even while he smiled at her. She had, after some years of childlessness, laid him under an everlasting obligation by presenting him with a daughter, an obligation deepened by the fact that the child was in every sense her father's child, not her mother's.
That afternoon she brought the little girl with her, to make our acquaintance. When the child, shyly friendly, looked up, it seemed to me for an anguished moment as if another little girl had walked out of the past, so astonishingly like was she to that little lost playmate of my youth. Right then and there Mary Virginia walked into my heart and took possession, as of a place swept and garnished and long waiting her coming.
When we knew her better my mother used to say that if she could have chosen a little girl instead of the little boy that had been I, she must have chosen Mary Virginia Eustis out of all the world.
Like Judge Mayne's Laurence, she chose to make the Parish House her second home—for indeed my mother ever seemed to draw children to her, as by some delightful magic. Here, then, the child learned to sew and to embroider, to acquire beautiful housewifely accomplishments, and to speak French with flawless perfection; she reaped the benefit of my mother's girlhood spent in a convent in France; and Mrs. Eustis was far too shrewd not to appreciate the value of this. And so we acquired Mary Virginia.
I watched the lovely miracle of her growth with an almost painful tenderness. Had I not become a priest, had I realized those spring hopes of mine; and had there been little children resembling their mother, then my own little girls had been like this one. Even thus had been their blue eyes, and theirs, too, such hair of such curling blackness.
The hours I spent with the little girl and Laurence helped me as well as them; these fresh souls and growing minds freshened and revived mine, and kept me young in heart.
"We are all made of dust," said my mother once. "But Mary Virginia's is star dust. Star dust, and dew, and morning gold," she added musingly.
"She simply cannot imagine evil, much less see it in anything or in anybody," I told Madame, for at times the child's sheer innocence troubled me for her. "One is puzzled how to bring home to this naive soul the ugly truth that all is not good. Now, Laurence is better balanced. He takes people and events with a saving grain of skepticism. But Mary Virginia is divinely blind."
My mother regarded me with a tolerant smile. "Do not worry too much over that divinely blind one, my son," said she. "I assure you, she is quite capable of seeing a steeple in daylight! Observe this: yesterday Laurence angered her, and she seized him by the hair and bumped his head against the study wall—no mild thump, either! She has in her quite enough of the leaven of unrighteousness to save her, at a pinch—for Laurence was entirely right, she entirely wrong. Yet—she made him apologize before she consented to forgive him, and he did it gratefully. She allowed him to understand how magnanimous she was in thus pardoning him for her own naughtiness, and he was deeply impressed, as men-creatures should be under such circumstances. Such wisdom, and she but a child! I was enchanted!"
"Good heavens! Surely, Mother, I misunderstand you! Surely you reproved her!"
"Reprove her?" My mother's voice was full of astonishment. "Why should I reprove her? She was perfectly right!"
"Perfectly right? Why, you said—indeed, I assure you, you said that Laurence had been entirely right, she entirely wrong!"
"Oh, that! I see; well, as for that, she was."
"My son, a woman who is in the wrong is entirely right when she makes the man apologize," said my mother firmly. "That is the Law, fixed as the Medes' and the Persians', and she who forgets or ignores it is ground between the upper and the nether millstones. Mary Virginia remembered and obeyed. When she grows up you will all of you adore her madly. Why, then, should she be reproved?"
I have never been able to reflect upon Laurence getting his head bumped and then gratefully apologizing to the darling shrew who did it, without a cold wind stirring my hair. And yet—Laurence, and I, too, love her all the more dearly for it! Miserere, Domine!
It was May when Mary Virginia came back to Appleboro. She had written us a bubbling letter, telling us just when we were to expect her, and how happy she was at the thought of being home once more. We, too, rejoiced, for we had missed her sadly. My mother was so happy that she planned a little intimate feast to celebrate the child's return.
I remember how calm and mild an evening it was. At noon there had been a refreshing shower, and the air was deliciously pure and clear, and full of wet woodsy scents. The raindrops fringing the bushes became prisms, a spiderweb was a fairy foot-bridge; and all our birds, leaving for a moment such household torments as squalling insatiable mouths that must be filled, became jubilant choristers. "The opulent dyepots of the angels" had been emptied lavishly across the sky, and the old Parish House lay steeped in a serene and heavenly glow, every window glittering diamond-bright to the west.
Next door Miss Sally Ruth was feeding and scolding her cooing pigeons, which fluttered about her, lighting upon her shoulder, surrounding her with a bright-colored living cloud; the judge's black cat Panch lay along the Mayne side of the fence and blinked at them regretfully with his slanting emerald eyes. From the Mayne kitchen-steps came, faintly, Daddy January's sweet quavering old voice:
"—Gwine tuh climb up higher 'n' higher, Some uh dese days—"
John Flint, silent, depressed, with folded lips and somber eyes, hobbled about awkwardly, savagely training himself to use the crutches Westmoreland had lately brought him. Very unlovely he looked, dragging himself along like a wounded beast. The poor wretch struck a discordant note in the sweet peacefulness of the spring evening; nor could we say anything to comfort him, we who were not maimed.
Came a high, sweet, shrill call at the gate; a high yelp of delight from Pitache, hurtling himself forward like a woolly white cannonball; a sound of light and flying feet; and Mary Virginia ran into the garden, the little overjoyed dog leaping frantically about her. She wore a white frock, and over it a light scarlet jacket. Her blue eyes were dancing, lighting her sweet and fresh face, colored like a rose. The gay little breeze that came along with her stirred her skirts, and fluttered her scarlet ribbons, and the curls about her temples. You might think Spring herself had paused for a lovely moment in the Parish House garden and stood before you in this gracious and virginal shape, at once delicate and vital.
Miss Sally Ruth, scattering pigeons right and left, dashed to the fence to call greetings. My mother, seizing the child by the arms, held her off a moment, to look her over fondly; then, drawing her closer, kissed her as a daughter is kissed.
I laid my hand on the child's head, happy with that painful happiness her presence always occasioned me, when she came back after an absence—as if the Other Girl flashed into view for a quick moment, and then was gone. Laurence, who had followed, stood looking down at her with boyish condescension.
"Huh! I can eat hominy off her head!" said he, aggravatingly.
"Old Mister Biggity!" flashed Mary Virginia. And then she turned and met, face to face, the fixed stare of John Flint, hanging upon his crutches as one might upon a cross,—a stare long, still, intent, curious, speculative, almost incredulous.
"You are the Padre's last guest, aren't you?" her eyes were full of gravest sympathy. "I'm so sorry you met with such a misfortune—but I'm gladder you're alive. It's so good just to be alive in the spring, isn't it?" She smiled at him directly, taking him, as it were, into a pleasant confidence. She seemed perfectly unconscious of the evil unloveliness of him; Mary Virginia always seemed to miss the evil, passing it over as if it didn't exist. Instead, diving into the depths of other personalities, always she brought to the surface whatever pearl of good might lie concealed at the bottom. To her this sinister cripple was simply another human being, with whose misfortune one must sympathize humanly.
Clelie, in a speckless white apron and a brand-new red-and-white bandanna to do greater honor to the little girl whom she adored, set a table under the trees and spread it with the thin dainty sandwiches, the delectable little cakes, and the fine bonbons she and my mother had made to celebrate the child's return. And we had tea, making very merry, for she had a thousand amusing things to tell us, every airy trifle informed with something of her own brave bright mirthful spirit. John Flint sat nearby in the wheel chair, his crutches lying beside it, and looked on silently and ate his cake and drank his tea stolidly, as if it were no unusual thing for him to break bread in such company.
"Padre," said Mary Virginia with deep gravity. "My aunt Jenny says I'm growing up. She says I'll have to put up my hair and let down my frocks pretty soon, and that I'll probably be thinking of beaux in another year, though she hopes to goodness I won't, until I've got through with school at least."
The almost unconscious imitation of Miss Jenny's pecking, birdlike voice made me smile.
"Beaux! Long skirts! Put up hair! Great Scott, will you listen to the kid!" scoffed Laurence. "You everlasting little silly, you! P'tite Madame, these cakes are certainly all to the good. May I have another two or three, please!"
"I'm 'most thirteen years old, Laurence Mayne," said Mary Virginia, with dignity. "You're only seventeen, so you don't need to give yourself such hateful airs. You're not too old to be greedy, anyhow. Padre, am I growing up?"
"I fear so, my child," said I, gloomily.
"You're not glad, either, are you, Padre?"
"But you were such a delightful child," I temporized.
"Oh, lovely!" said Laurence, eying her with unflattering brotherliness. "And she had so much feeling, too, Mary Virginia! Why, when I was sick once, she wanted me to die, so she could ride to my funeral in the front carriage; she doted on funerals, the little ghoul! She was horribly disappointed when I got better—she thought it disobliging of me, and that I'd done it to spite her. Once, too, when I tried to reason with her—and Mary Virginia needed reason if ever a kid did—she bumped my head until I had knots on it. There's your delightful Mary Virginia for you!"
"Anyhow, you didn't die and become an angel—you stayed disagreeably alive and you're going to become a lawyer," said Mary Virginia, too gently. "And your head was bumpable, Laurence, though I'm sorry to say I don't ever expect to bump it again. Why, I'm going away to school and when I come back I'll be Miss Eustis, and you'll be Mr. Mayne! Won't it be funny, though?"
"I don't see anything funny in calling you Miss Eustis," said Laurence, with boyish impatience. "And I'm certainly not going to notice you if you're silly enough to call me Mister Mayne. I hope you won't be a fool, Mary Virginia. So many girls are fools." He ate another cake.
"Not half as big fools as boys are, though," said she, dispassionately. "My father says the man is always the bigger fool of the two."
Laurence snorted. "I wonder what we'll be like, though—both of us?" he mused.
"You? You're biggity now, but you'll be lots worse, then," said Mary Virginia, with unflattering frankness. "I think you'll probably strut like a turkey, and you'll be baldheaded, and wear double-lensed horn spectacles, and spats, and your wife will call you 'Mr. Mayne' to your face and 'Your Poppa' to the children, and she'll perfectly despise people like Madame and the Padre and me!"
"You never did have any reasoning power, Mary Virginia," said Laurence, with brotherly tact. "Our black cat Panch would put it all over you. Allow me to inform you I'm not biggity, miss! I'm logical—something a girl can't understand. And I'd like to know what you think you're going to grow up to be?"
"Oh, let's quit talking about it," she said petulantly. "I hate to think of growing up. Grown ups don't seem to be happy—and I want to be happy!" She turned her head, and met once more the absorbed and watchful stare of the man in the wheel-chair.
"Weren't you sorry when you had to stop being a little boy and grow up?" she asked him, wistfully.
"Me?" he laughed harshly. "I couldn't say, miss. I guess I was born grown up." His face darkened.
"That wasn't a bit fair," said she, with instant sympathy.
"There's a lot not fair," he told her, "when you're born and brought up like I was. The worst is not so much what happens to you, though that's pretty bad; it's that you don't know it's happening—and there's nobody to put you wise. Why," his forehead puckered as if a thought new to him had struck him, "why, your very looks get to be different!"
Mary Virginia started. "Oh, looks!" said she, thoughtfully. "Now, isn't it curious for you to say just that, right now, for it reminds me that I brought something to the Padre—something that set me to thinking about people's looks, too,—and how you never can tell. Wait a minute, and I'll show you." She reached for the pretty crocheted bag she had brought with her, and drew from it a small pasteboard box. None of us, idly watching her, dreamed that a moment big with fate was upon us. I have often wondered how things would have turned out if Mary Virginia had lost or forgotten that pasteboard box!
"I happened to put my hand on a tree—and this little fellow moved, and I caught him. I thought at first he was a part of the tree-trunk, he looked so much like it," said the child, opening the little box. Inside lay nothing more unusual than a dark-colored and rather ugly gray moth, with his wings folded down.
"One wouldn't think him pretty, would one?" said she, looking down at the creature.
"No," said Flint, who had wheeled nearer, and craned his neck over the box. "No, miss, I shouldn't think I'd call something like that pretty,"—he looked from the moth to Mary Virginia, a bit disappointedly.
Mary Virginia smiled, and picking up the little moth, held his body, very gently, between her finger-tips. He fluttered, spreading out his gray wings; and then one saw the beautiful pansy-like underwings, and the glorious lower pair of scarlet velvet barred and bordered with black.
"I brought him along, thinking the Padre might like him, and tell me something about him," said the little girl. "The Padre's crazy about moths and butterflies, you must understand, and we're always on the lookout to get them for him. I never found this particular one before, and you can't imagine how I felt when he showed me what he had hidden under that gray cloak of his!"
"He's a member of a large and most respectable family, the Catocalae," I told her. "I'll take him, my dear, and thank you—there's always a demand for the Catocalae. And you may call him an Underwing, if you prefer—that's his common name."
"I got to thinking," said the little girl, thoughtfully, lifting her clear and candid eyes to John Flint's. "I got to thinking, when he threw aside his plain gray cloak and showed me his lovely underwings, that he's like some people—people you'd think were very common, you know. You couldn't be expected to know what was underneath, could you? So you pass them by, thinking how ordinary, and matter of fact, and uninteresting and even ugly they are, and you feel rather sorry for them—because you don't know. But if you can once get close enough to touch them—why, then you find out!" Her eyes grew deeper, and brighter, as they do when she is moved; and the color came more vividly to her cheek. "Don't you reckon," said she naively, "that plenty of folks are like him? They're the sad color of the street-dust, of course, for things do borrow from their surroundings, didn't you know that? That's called protective mimicry, the Padre says. So you only think of the dust-colored outside—and all the while the underwings are right there, waiting for you to find them! Isn't it wonderful and beautiful? And the best of all is, it's true!"
The cripple in the chair put out his hand with a hint of timidity in his manner; he was staring at Mary Virginia as if some of the light within her had dimly penetrated his grosser substance.
"Could I hold it—for a minute—in my own hand?" he asked, turning brick-red.
"Of course you may," said Mary Virginia pleasantly. "I see by the Padre's face this isn't a rare moth—he's been here all along, only my eyes have just been opened to him. I don't want him to go in any collection. I don't want him to go anywhere, except back into the air—I owe him that for what he taught me. So I'm sure the Padre won't mind, if you'd like to set him free, yourself."
She put the moth on the man's finger, delicately, for a Catocala is a swift-winged little chap; it spread out its wings splendidly, as if to show him its loveliness; then, darting upward, vanished into the cool green depth of the shrubbery.
"I remember running after a butterfly once, when I was a kid," said he. "He came flying down our street, Lord knows where from, or why, and I caught him after a chase. I thought he was the prettiest thing ever my eyes had seen, and I wanted the worst way in the world to keep him with me. A brown fellow he was, all sprinkled over with little splotches of silver, as if there'd been plenty of the stuff on hand, and it'd been laid on him thick. But after awhile I got to thinking he'd feel like he was in jail, shut up in my hot fist. I couldn't bear that, so I ran to the end of the street, to save him from the other kids, and then I turned him loose and watched him beat it for the sky. They're pretty things, butterflies. Somehow I always liked them better than any other living creatures." He was staring after the moth, his forehead wrinkled. He spoke almost unconsciously, and he certainly had no idea that he had given us cause for a hopeful astonishment.
Now, Mary Virginia's eyes had fallen, idly enough, upon John Flint's hands lying loosely upon his knees. Her face brightened.
"Padre," she suggested suddenly, "why don't you let him help you with your butterflies? Look at his hands! Why, they're just exactly the right sort to handle setting needles and mounting blocks, and to stretch wings without loosening a scale. He could be taught in a few lessons, and just think what a splendid help he could be! And you do so need help with those insects of yours, Padre—I've heard you say so, over and over."
The child was right—John Flint did have good hands—large enough, well-shaped, steel-muscled, powerful, with flexible, smooth-skinned, sensitive fingers, the fingers of an expert lapidary rather than a prize-fighter.
"If you think there's any way I could help the parson for awhile, I'd be proud to try, miss. It's true," he added casually, with a sphinx-like immobility of countenance, "that I'm what might be called handy with my fingers."
"We'll call it settled, then," said Mary Virginia happily.
Laurence took her home at dusk; it was a part of his daily life to look after Mary Virginia, as one looks after a cherished little sister. When they were younger the boy had often complained that she might as well be his sister, she quarreled with him so much; and the little girl said, bitterly, he was as disagreeable as if he'd been a brother. In spite of which the little girl, for all her delicious impertinences, looked up to the boy; and the boy had adored her, from the time she gurgled at him from her cradle.
My mother left us, and John Flint and I sat outdoors in the pleasant twilight, he smoking the pipe Laurence had given him.
"Parson," said he, abruptly, "Parson, you folks are swells, ain't you? The real thing, I mean, you and Madame? Even the yellow nigger's a lady nigger, ain't she?"
"I am a poor priest, such as you see, my son, Madame is—Madame. And Clelie is a good servant."
"But you were born a swell, weren't you?" he persisted. "Old family, swell diggings, trained flunkies, and all that?"
"I was born a gentleman, if that is what you mean. Of an old family, yes. And there was an old house—once."
"How'd you ever hit the trail for the Church? I wonder! But say, you never asked me any more questions than you had to, so you can tell me to shut up, if you want to. Not that I wouldn't like to know how the Sam Hill the like of you ever got nabbed by the skypilots."
"God called me through affliction, my son."
"Oh," said my son, blankly. "Huh! But I bet you the best crib ever cracked you were some peach of a boy before you got that 'S.O.S.'"
"I was, like the young, the thoughtless young, a sinner."
"I suppose," said he tentatively, after a pause, "that I'm one hell of a sinner myself, according to Hoyle, ain't I?"
"I do not think it would injure you to change your—course of life, nor yet your way of mentioning it," I said, feeling my way cautiously. "But—we are bidden to remember there is more joy in heaven over one sinner saved than over the ninety-and-nine just men."
"Is that so? Well, it listens like good horse-sense to me," said Mr. Flint, promptly. "Because, look here: you can rake in ninety-and-nine boobs any old time—there's one born every time the clock ticks, parson—but they don't land something like me every day, believe me! And I bet you a stack of dollar chips a mile high there was some song-and-dance in the sky-joint when they put one over on you for fair. Sure!" He puffed away at his pipe, and I, having nothing to say to this fine reasoning, held my peace.
"Parson, that kid's a swell, too, ain't she? And the boy?"
"Laurence is the son of Judge Hammond Mayne."
"And the little girl?" Insensibly his voice softened.
"I suppose," I agreed, "that the little girl is what you might call a swell, too."
"I never," said he, reflectively, "came what you might call talking close to real swells before. I've seen 'em, of course—at a distance. Some of 'em, taking 'em by and large, looked pretty punk, to me; some of 'em was middling, and a few looked as if they might have the goods. But none of 'em struck me as being real live breathing people, same as other folks. Why, parson, some of those dames'd throw a fit, fancying they was poisoned, if they had to breathe the same air with folks like me—me being what I am and they being—what they think they are. Yet here's you and Madame, the real thing—and the boy—and the little girl—the little girl—" he stopped, staring at me dumbly, as the vision of Mary Virginia rose before him.
"She is, indeed, a dear, dear child," said I. His words stung me somewhat, for once upon a time, I myself would have resented that such as he should have breathed the same air with Mary Virginia.
"I'd almost think I'd dreamed her," said he, thoughtfully, "that is, if I was good enough to have dreams like that," he added hastily, with his first touch of shame. "I've seen 'em from the Battery up, and some of 'em was sure-enough queens, but I didn't know they came like this one. She's bran-new to me, parson. Say, you just show me what she wants me to help you with, and I'll do it. She seems to think I can, and it oughtn't to be any harder than opening a time-vault, ought it?"
"No," said I gravely, "I shouldn't think it would be. Though I never opened a time-vault, you understand, and I hope and pray you'll never touch one again, either. I'd rather you wouldn't even refer to it, please. It makes me feel, rather—well, let's say particeps criminis."
"I suppose that's the polite for punching you in the wind," said he, just as gravely. "And I didn't think you'd ever monkeyed with a vault; why, you couldn't, not if you was to try till Gabriel did his little turn in the morning—not unless you'd been caught when you were softer and put wise. Man, it's a bigger job than you think, and you've got to have the know-how and the nerve before you can put it over. But there—I'll keep it dark, seeing you want me to." He stretched out his hands, regarding them speculatively. "They are classy mitts," he remarked impersonally. "Yep, seemed like they were just naturally made to—do what they did. They were built for fine work." At that his jaw snapped; a spasm twitched his face; it darkened.
"The work little Miss Eustis suggested for you," I insinuated hastily, "is what very many people consider very fine work indeed. About one in a thousand can do it properly."
"Lead me to it," said he wearily, and without enthusiasm, "and turn me loose. I'll do what I can, to please her. At least, until I can make a getaway for keeps."
When I was first seen prowling along the roads and about the fields stalking butterflies and diurnal moths with the caution of a red Indian on the warpath and the stealth of a tiger in the jungle; when mystified folk met me at night, a lantern suspended from my neck, a haversack across my shoulders, a bottle-belt about my waist, and armed with a butterfly net, the consensus of opinion was that poor Father De Rance was stark staring mad. Appleboro hadn't heretofore witnessed the proceedings of the Brethren of the Net, and I had to do much patient explaining; even then I am sure I must have left many firmly convinced that I was not, in their own phrase, "all there."
"Hey, you! Mister! Them worms is pizen! Them's fever-worms!" was shrieked at me frenziedly by the country-folks, black and white, when I was caught scooping up the hairy caterpillars of the tiger moths. Even when it was understood that I wished caterpillars, cocoons, and chrysalids, for the butterflies and moths they would later make, looks of pitying contempt were cast upon me. That a grown man—particularly a minister of the gospel, with not only his own but other people's souls to save—should spend time hunting for worms, with which he couldn't even bait a hook, awakened amazement.
"What any man in his right mind wants with a thing that ain't nothin' but wriggles an' hair on the outside an' sqush on the inside, beats me!" was said more than once.
"But all of them are interesting, some are valuable, and many grow into very beautiful moths and butterflies," I ventured to defend myself.
"S'posin' they do? You can't eat 'em or wear 'em or plant 'em, can you?" And really, you understand, I couldn't!
"An' you mean to tell me to my face," said a scandalized farmer, watching me assorting and naming the specimens taken from my field box, "you mean to tell me you're givin' every one o' them bugs a name, same's a baptized Christian? Adam named every livin' thing, an' Adam called them things Caterpillars an' Butterflies. If it suited him an' Eve and God A'mighty to have 'em called that an' nothin' else, looks to me it had oughter suit anybody that's got a grain o'real religion. If you go to call 'em anythin' else it's sinnin' agin the Bible. I've heard all my life you Cath'lics don't take as much stock in the Scripters as you'd oughter, but this thing o'callin' a wurrum Adam named plain Caterpillar a—a—what'd you say the dum beast's name was? My sufferin' Savior! is jest about the wust dern foolishness yet! I lay it at the Pope's door, every mite o' it, an' you'd better believe he'll have to answer for sech carryin's on, some o' these days!"
So many other things having been laid at the Pope's door, I held my peace and made no futile attempt to clear the Holy Father of the dark suspicion of having perpetrated their names upon certain of the American lepidoptera.