SOUTHERN LIGHTS AND SHADOWS
Edited By William Dean Howells And Henry Mills Alden
Table of Contents
Grace MacGowan Cooke THE CAPTURE OF ANDY PROUDFOOT
Abby Meguire Roach THE LEVEL OF FORTUNE
Alice MacGowan PAP OVERHOLT
Mrs. B.F. Mayhew IN THE PINY WOODS
William L. Sheppard MY FIFTH IN MAMMY
Sarah Barnwell Elliott AN INCIDENT
M.E.M. Davis A SNIPE HUNT
J.J. Eakins THE COURTSHIP OF COLONEL BILL
Maurice Thompson THE BALANCE OF POWER
The most noticeable characteristic of the extraordinary literary development of the South since the Civil War is that it is almost entirely in the direction of realism. A people who, up to that time, had been so romantic that they wished to naturalize among themselves the ideals and usages of the Walter Scott ages of chivalry, suddenly dropped all that, and in their search for literary material could apparently find nothing so good as the facts of their native life. The more "commonplace" these facts the better they seemed to like them. Evidently they believed that there was a poetry under the rude outside of their mountaineers, their slattern country wives, their shy rustic men and maids, their grotesque humorists, their wild religionists, even their black freedmen, which was worth more than the poetastery of the romantic fiction of their fathers. In this strong faith, which need not have been a conscious creed, the writers of the New South have given the world sketches and studies and portraits of the persons and conditions of their peculiar civilization which the Russians themselves have not excelled in honesty, and hardly in simplicity. To be sure, this development was on the lines of those early humorists who antedated the romantic fictionists, and who were often in their humor so rank, so wild, so savage, so cruel, but the modern realism has refined both upon their matter and their manner. Some of the most artistic work in the American short-story, that is to say the best short-story in the world, has been done in the South, so that one may be reasonably sure of an artistic pleasure in taking up a Southern story. One finds in the Southern stories careful and conscientious character, rich local color, and effective grouping, and at the same time one finds genuine pathos, true humor, noble feeling, generous sympathy. The range of this work is so great as to include even pictures of the more conventional life, but mainly the writers keep to the life which is not conventional, the life of the fields, the woods, the cabin, the village, the little country town. It would be easier to undervalue than to overvalue them, as we believe the reader of the admirable pieces here collected will agree.
The Capture of Andy Proudfoot
By GRACE MACGOWAN COOKE
A dry branch snapped under Kerry's foot with the report of a toy pistol. He swore perfunctorily, and gazed greedily at the cave-opening just ahead. He was a bungling woodsman at best; and now, stalking that greatest of all big game, man, the blood drummed in his ears and his heart seemed to slip a cog or two with every beat. He stood tense, yet trembling, for the space in which a man might count ten; surely if there were any one inside the cave—if the one whose presence he suspected were there—such a noise would have brought him forth. But a great banner of trumpet-creeper, which hid the opening till one was almost upon it, waved its torches unstirred except by the wind; the sand in the doorway was unpressed by any foot.
Kerry began to go forward by inches. He was weary as only a town-bred man, used to the leisurely patrolling of pavements, could be after struggling obliquely up and across the pathless flank of Big Turkey Track Mountain, and then climbing to this eyrie upon Old Yellow Bald—Old Yellow, the peak that reared its "Bald" of golden grass far above the ranges of The Big and Little Turkey Tracks.
"Lord, how hungry I am!" he breathed. "I bet the feller's got grub in there." He had been out two days. He was light-headed from lack of food; at the thought of it nervous caution gave way to mere brute instinct, and he plunged recklessly into the cave. Inside, the sudden darkness blinded him for a moment. Then there began to be visible in one corner a bed of bracken and sweet-fern; in another an orderly arrangement of tin cans upon a shelf, and the ashes of a fire, where sat a Dutch oven. The sight of this last whetted Kerry's hunger; he almost ran to the shelf, and groaned as he found the first can filled with gunpowder, the next with shot, and the third containing some odds and ends of string and nails.
He had knelt to inspect a rude box, when a little sound caused him to turn. In the doorway was a figure which raised the hair upon his head, with a chilly sensation at its roots—a tall man, with a great mane of black locks blowing unchecked about his shoulders. He stood turned away from Kerry, having halted in the doorway as though to take a last advantage of the outer daylight upon some object of interest to him before entering. He was examining one of his own hands, and a little shivering moan escaped him. A rifle rested in the hollow of his arm; Kerry could see the outline of a big navy-pistol in his belt; and as the man shifted, another came to view; while the Irishman's practised eye did not miss the handle of a long knife in its sheath. It went swiftly through his mind that those who sent him on this errand should have warned him of the size of the quarry. Suddenly, almost without his own volition, he found himself saying: "I ask your pardon. I was dead beat an' fair famished, an' I crawled in here to—"
The tall figure in the doorway turned like a thing on a pivot; he did not start, nor spin round, as a slighter or more nervous person might have done; and a strange chill fell upon Kerry's heat when the man, whom he recognized as that one he had come to seek, faced him. The big, dark eyes looked the intruder up and down; what their owner thought of him, what he decided concerning him, could no more be guessed than the events of next year. In a full, grave voice, but one exceedingly gentle, the owner of the cave repaired the lack of greeting.
"Howdy, stranger?" he said. "I never seen you as I come up, 'count o' havin' snagged my hand on this here gun."
He came toward Kerry with the bleeding member outstretched. Now was the Irishman's time—by all his former resolutions, by the need he had for that money reward—to deftly handcuff the outlaw. What he did was to draw the other toward the daylight, examine the hand, which was torn and lacerated on the gun-hammer, and with sundry exclamations of sympathy proceed to bind it up with strips torn from his own handkerchief.
"Snagged!" he echoed, as he noted how the great muscle of the thumb was torn across. "I don't see how you ever done that on a gun-hammer. I've nursed a good bit—I was in Cuby last year, an' I was detailed for juty in the hospital more'n half my time," he went on, eagerly. "This here hand, it's bad, 'cause it's torn. Ef you had a cut o' that size, now, you wouldn't be payin' no 'tention to it. The looks o' this here reminds me o' the tear one o' them there Mauser bullets makes—Gawd! but they rip the men up shockin'!" He rambled on with uneasy volubility as he attended to the wound. "You let me clean it, now. It'll hurt some, but it'll save ye trouble after while. You set down on the bed. Where kin I git some water?"
"Thar's a spring round the turn in the cave thar—they's a go'd in it."
But Kerry took one of the tin cans, emptied and rubbed it nervously, talking all the while—talking as though to prevent the other from speaking, and with something more than the ordinary garrulity of the nurse. "I got lost to-day," he volunteered, as he cleansed the wound skilfully and drew its ragged lips together. "Gosh! but you tore that thumb up! You won't hardly be able to do nothin' with that hand fer a spell. Yessir! I got lost—that's what I did. One tree looks pretty much like another to me; and one old rock it's jest the same as the next one. I reckon I've walked twenty mile sence sunup."
He paused in sudden panic; but the other did not ask him whence he had walked nor whither he was walking. Instead, he ventured, in his serious tones, as the silence grew oppressive: "You're mighty handy 'bout this sort o' thing. I reckon I'll have a tough time here alone till that hand heals."
"Oh, I'll stay with you a while," Kerry put in, hastily. "I ain't a-goin' on, a-leavin' a man in sech a fix, when I ain't got nothin' in particular to do an' nowheres in particular to go," he concluded, rather lamely.
His host's eyes dwelt on him. "Well, now, that'd be mighty kind in you, stranger," he began, gently; and added, with the mountaineer's deathless hospitality, "You're shorely welcome."
In Kerry's pocket a pair of steel handcuffs clicked against each other. Any moment of the time that he was dressing the outlaw's hand, identifying at short range a dozen marks enumerated in the description furnished him, he could have snapped them upon those great wrists and made his host his prisoner. Yet, an hour later, when the big man had told him of a string of fish tied down in the branch, of a little cellarlike contrivance by the spring which contained honeycomb and some cold corn-pone, the two men sat at supper like brothers.
"Ye don't smoke?" inquired Kerry, commiseratingly, as his host twisted off a great portion of home-cured tobacco. "Lord! ye'll never know what the weed is till ye burn it. A chaw'll do when you're in the trenches an' afraid to show the other fellers where to shoot, so that ye dare not smoke. Ah-h-h! I've had it taste like nectar to me then; but tobacco's never tobacco till it's burnt," and the Irishman smiled fondly upon his stumpy black pipe.
They sat and talked over the fire (for a fire is good company in the mountains, even of a midsummer evening) with that freedom and abandon which the isolation, the hour, and the circumstances begot. Kerry had told his name, his birthplace, the habits and temperament of his parents, his present hopes and aspirations—barring one; he had even sketched an outline of Katy—Katy, who was waiting for him to save enough to buy that little farm in the West; and his host, listening in the unbroken silence of deep sympathy, had not yet offered even so much as his name.
Then the bed was divided, a bundle of fern and pine boughs being disposed in the opposite corner of the cave for the newcomer's accommodation. Later, after good-nights had been exchanged and Kerry fancied that his host was asleep, he himself stirred, sat up, and being in uneasy need of information as to whether the cave door should not be stopped in some manner, opened with a hesitating, "Say!"
"You might jest call me Andy," the deep voice answered, before the mountain-man negatived the proposition of adding a front door to the habitation.
Kerry slept again. Mountain air and weariness are drugs potent against a bad conscience, and it was broad daylight outside the cave when he wakened. He was a little surprised to find his host still sleeping, yet his experience told him that the wound was of a nature to induce fever, followed by considerable exhaustion. As the Irishman lifted his coat from where he had had it folded into a bundle beneath his head, the handcuffs in the pocket clicked, and he frowned. He stole across to look at the man who had called himself Andy, lying now at ease upon his bed of leaves, one great arm underneath his head, the injured hand nursed upon his broad breast. Those big eyes which had so appalled Kerry upon a first view yesterday were closed. The onlooker noted with a sort of wonder how sumptuous were the fringes of their curtains, long and purple—black, like the thick, arched brows above. To speak truly, Kerry, although he was a respectable member of the police force, had the artistic temperament. The harmony of outline, the justness of proportion in both the face and figure of the man before him, filled the Irishman with delight; and the splendid virile bulk of the mountain-man appealed irresistibly to the other's masculinity. The little threads of silver in the tempestuous black curls seemed to Kerry but to set off their beauty.
"Gosh! but you're a good-looker!" he muttered. And putting his estimate of the man's charm into such form as was possible to him, he added, under his breath, "I'd hate to have seen a feller as you tryin' to court my Katy."
This was the first of many strange days; golden September days they were, cool and full of the ripened beauty of the departing summer. Kerry's host taught him to snare woodcock and pheasants—shoot them the Irishman could not, since the excitement of the thing made him fire wild.
"Now ain't that the very divil!" he would cry, after he had let his third bird get away unharmed. "Ef I was shootin' at a man, I'd be as stiddy as a clock. Gad! I'd be cool as an ice-wagon. But when that little old brown chicken scoots a-scutterin' up out o' the grass like a hummin'-top, it rattles me." His teacher apparently took no note of the significance contained in this statement; yet Kerry's very ears were red as it slipped out, and he felt uneasily for the handcuffs, which no longer clinked in his pocket, but now lay carefully hidden under his fern bed.
There had been a noon-mark in the doorway of the cave, thrown by the shadow of a boulder beside it, even before the Irishman's big nickel watch came with its bustling, authoritative tick to bring the question of time into the mountains. But the two men kept uncertain hours: sometimes they talked more than half the night, the close-cropped, sandy poll and the unshorn crest of Jove-like curls nodding at each other across the fire, then slept far into the succeeding day; sometimes they were up before dawn and off after squirrels—with which poor Kerry had no better luck than with the birds. Every day the Irishman dressed his host's hand; and every day he tasted more fully the charm of this big, strong, gentle, peaceful nature clad in its majestic garment of flesh.
"If he'd 'a' been an ugly, common-looking brute, I'd 'a' nabbed him in a minute," he told himself, weakly. And every day the handcuffs under the dried fern-leaves lay heavier upon his soul.
On the 20th of September, which Kerry had set for his last day in the cave, he was moved to begin again at the beginning and tell the big mountaineer all his affairs.
"Ye see, it's like this," he wound up: "Katy—the best gurrl an' the purtiest I ever set me two eyes on—she's got a father that'll strike her when the drink's with him. He works her like a dog, hires her out and takes every cent she earns. Her mother—God rest her soul!—has been dead these two years. And now the old man is a-marryin' an' takin' home a woman not fit for my Katy to be with. I says when I heard of it, says I: 'Katy, I'll take ye out o' that hole. I'll do the trick, an' I'll git the reward, an' it's married we'll be inside of a month, an' we'll go West.' That's what brought me up here into the mountains—me that was born, as ye might say, on the stair-steps of a tenement-house, an' fetched up the same."
Absorbed in the interest of his own affairs, the Irishman did not notice what revelations he had made. Whether or not this knowledge was new to his host the uncertain light of the dying fire upon that grave, impassive face did not disclose.
"An' now," Kerry went on, "I've been thinkin' about Katy a heap in the last few days. I'm goin' home to her to-morry—home to Philadelphy—goin' with empty hands. An' I'm a-goin' to say to her, 'Katy, would ye rather take me jest as I am, out of a job'—fer that's what I'll be when I go back,—'would ye rather take me so an' wait fer the little farm?' I guess she'll do it; I guess she'll take me. I've got that love fer her that makes me think she'll take me. Did ye ever love a woman like that?"—turning suddenly to the silent figure on the other side of the fire. "Did ye ever love one so that ye felt like ye could jest trust her, same as you could trust yourself? It's a—it—well, it's a mighty comfortable thing."
The mountaineer stretched out his injured hand, and examined it for so long a time without speaking that it seemed as though he would not answer at all. The wound was healing admirably now; he had made shift to shoot, with Kerry's shoulder for a rest, and their larder was stocked with game once more. When he at last raised his head and looked across the fire, his black eyes were such wells of misery as made the other catch his breath.
Upon the silence fell his big, serious voice, as solemn and sonorous as a church-bell: "You ast me did I ever love an' trust a woman like that. I did—an' she failed me. I ain't gwine to call you fool fer sich; you're a town feller, Dan, with smart town ways; mebby your gal would stick to you, even ef you was in trouble; but me—"
Kerry made an inarticulate murmur of sympathy.
The voice went on. "You say you're goin' home to her with jest your two bare hands?" it inquired. "But why fer? You've found your man. What makes you go back that-a-way?"
Kerry's mouth was open, his jaw fallen; he stared through the smoke at his host as though he saw him now for the first time. Kerry belongs to a people who love or hate obviously and openly; that the outlaw should have known him from the first for a police officer, a creature of prey upon his track, and should have treated him as a friend, as a brother, appalled and repelled him.
"See here, Dan," the big man went on, leaning forward; "I knowed what your arrant was the fust minute I clapped eyes on you. You didn't know whether I could shoot with my left hand as well as my right—I didn't choose you should know. I watched fer ye to be tryin' to put handcuffs on me any minute—after you found my right hand was he'pless."
"Lord A'mighty! You could lay me on my back with your left hand, Andy," Kerry breathed.
The big man nodded. "They was plenty of times when I was asleep—or you thort I was. Why didn't ye do it? Where is they? Fetch 'em out."
Unwilling, red with shame, penetrated with a grief and ache he scarce comprehended, Kerry dragged the handcuffs from their hiding-place. The other took them, and thereafter swung them thoughtfully in his strong brown fingers as he talked.
"You was goin' away without makin' use o' these?" he asked, gently.
Kerry, crimson of face and moist of eye, gulped, frowned, and nodded.
"Well, now," the mountain-man pursued, "I been thinkin' this thing over sence you was a-speakin'. That there gal o' yourn she's in a tight box. You're the whitest man I ever run up ag'inst. You've done me better than my own brothers. My own brothers," he repeated, a look of pain and bitterness knitting those wonderfully pencilled brows above the big eyes. "Fer my part, I'm sick o' livin' this-a-way. When you're gone, an' I'm here agin by my lonesome, I'm as apt as not to put the muzzle o' my gun in my mouth an' blow the top o' my head off—that's how I feel most o' the time. I tell you what you do, Dan: you jest put these here on me an' take me down to Garyville—er plumb on to Asheville—an' draw your money. That'll square up things fer you an' that pore little gal. What say ye?"
Into Kerry's sanguine face there surged a yet deeper red; his shoulders heaved; the tears sprang to his eyes; and before his host could guess the root of his emotion the Irishman was sobbing, furiously, noisily, turned away, his head upon his arm. The humiliation of it ate into his soul; and the tooth was sharpened by his own misdeeds. How many times had he looked at the great, kindly creature across the fire there and calculated the chances of getting him to Garyville?
Andy's face twisted as though he had bitten a green persimmon. "Aw! Don't cry!" he remonstrated, with the mountaineer's quick contempt for expressed emotion. "My Lord! Dan, don't—"
"I'll cry if I damn please!" Kerry snorted. "You old fool! Me a-draggin' you down to Garyville! Me, that's loved you like a brother! An' never had no thought—an' never had no thought—Oh, hell!" he broke off, at the bitter irony of the lie; then the sobs broke forth afresh. To deny that he had come to arrest the outlaw was so pitifully futile.
"So ye won't git the money that-a-way?" Andy's big voice ruminated, and a strange note of relief sounded in it; a curious gleam leaped into the sombre eyes. But he added, softly: "Sleep on it, bud; I'll let ye change your mind in the mornin'."
"You shut your head!" screeched Kerry, fiercely, with a hiccough of wrenching misery. "You talk to me any more like that, an' I'll lambaste ye—er try to—big as ye are! Oh, damnation!"
The last night in the cave was one of gusty, moving breezes and brilliant moonlight, yet both its tenants slept profoundly, after their strange outburst of emotion. The first gray of dawn found them stirring, and Kerry making ready for his return journey. Together, as heretofore, they prepared their meal, then sat down in silence to eat it. Suddenly the mountain-man raised his eyes, to whose grave beauty the Irishman's temperament responded like that of a woman, and said, quietly,
"I'm a-goin' to tell ye somethin', an' then I'm a-goin' to show ye somethin'."
Kerry's throat ached. In these two weeks he had conceived a love for his big, silent, gentle companion which rivalled even his devotion to Katy. The thought of leaving him helpless and alone, a common prey of reward-hunters, the remembrance of what Andy had said concerning his own despair beneath the terrible pressure of the mountain solitude, were almost more than Kerry could bear.
"Fust and foremost, Dan," the other began, when the meal was finished, "I'm goin' to tell ye how come I done what I done. Likely you've hearn tales, an' likely they was mostly lies. You see, it was this-a-way: Me an' my wife owned land j'inin'. The Turkey Track Minin' Company they found coal on it, an' was wishful to buy. Her an' me wasn't wed then, but we was about to be, an' we j'ined in fer to sell the land an' go West." His brooding eyes were on the fire; his voice—which had halted before the words "my wife," then taken them with a quick gulp—broke a little every time he said "she" or "her." Kerry's heart jumped when he heard the mention of that little Western farm—why, it might have been in the very locality he and Katy looked longingly toward.
"That feller they sent down here fer to buy the ground—Dickert was his name; you've hearn it, I reckon?"
Kerry recognized the murdered man's name. He nodded, without a word, his little blue eyes helplessly fastened on Andy's eyes.
"Yes, Dickert 'twas. He was took with Euola from the time he put eyes on her—which ain't sayin' more of him than of any man 'at see her. But a town feller's hangin' round a mounting-gal hain't no credit to her. Euola she was promised to me. But ef she hadn't 'a' been, she wouldn't 'a' took no passin' o' bows an' complyments from that Dickert. I thort the nighest way out on't was to tell the gentleman that her an' me was to be wed, an' that we'd make the deeds as man an' wife, an' I done so."
Kerry looked at his host and wondered that any man should hope to tamper with the affections of her who loved him.
"Wed we was," the mountain-man went on; and an imperceptible pause followed the words. "We rid down to Garyville to be wed, an' we went from the jestice's office to the office of this here Dickert. He had a cuss with him that was no better'n him; an' when it come to the time in the signin' that our names was put down, an' my wife was to be 'examined privately and apart'—ez is right an' lawful—ez to whether I'd made her sign or not, this other cuss steps with her into the hall, an' Dickert turns an' says to me, 'You git a thousand dollars each fer your land—you an' that woman,' he says.
"I never liked the way he spoke—besides what he said; an' I says to him, 'The bargain was made fer five thousand dollars apiece,' says I, 'an' why do we git less?'
"'Beca'se,' says he, a-swellin' up an' lookin' at me red an' devilish,—'beca'se you take my leavin's—you fool! I bought the land of you fer a thousand dollars each—an' there's my deed to it, that you jest signed—I reckon you can read it. Ef I sell the land to the company—it's none o' your business what I git fer it.'
"Well, I can't read—not greatly. I don't know how I knowed—but I did know—that he was gittin' from the company the five thousand dollars apiece that we was to have had. I seen his eye cut round to the hall door, an' I thort he had that money on him (beca'se he was their agent an' they'd trusted him so far) fer to pay me and Euola in cash. With that he grabbed up the deed an' stuffed it into his pocket. Lord! Lord! I could 'a' shook it out o' him—an' the money too—hit's what I would 'a' done if the fool had 'a' kep' his mouth shut. But I reckon hit was God's punishment on him 'at he had to go on sayin', 'Yes, you tuck my leavin's in the money, an' you've tuck my leavin's agin to-day.' Euola was jest comin' into the room when he said that, an' he looked at her. I hit him." He gazed down the length of his arm thoughtfully. "I ort to be careful when I hit out, bein' stronger than most. But I was mad, an' I hit harder than I thort. I reached over an' grabbed open the table drawer jest fer luck—an' thar was the money. I tuck it. The other cuss he was down on the floor, sorter whimperin' an' workin' over this feller Dickert; an' he begun to yell that I'd killed 'im. With that Euola she gives me one look—white ez paper she was—an' she says, 'Run, Andy honey. I'll git to ye when I kin.'" The mountain-man was silent so long that Kerry thought he was done. But he suddenly said:
"She ketched my sleeve, jest ez I made to start, an' said: 'I'll come, Andy. Mind, Andy, I'll come to ye, ef I live.'" Then there was the silence of sympathy between the two men.
So that was the history of the crime—a very different history from the one Kerry had heard.
"Hit's right tetchy business—er has been—a-tryin' to take Andy Proudfoot," the outlaw continued; "but, Dan, I'd got mighty tired, time you come. An' Euola—"
Kerry rose abruptly, the memory hot within him of Proudfoot's offer of the night before. The mountaineer got slowly to his feet.
"They's somethin' I wanted to show ye, too, ye remember," he said. They walked together down the bluff, to where another little cavern, low and shallow, hid itself behind huckleberry-bushes. "I kep' the money here," Proudfoot said, kneeling in the cramped entrance and delving among the rocks. He drew out a roll of bills and fingered them thoughtfully.
"The reward, now, hit was fifteen hundred dollars—with what the State an' company both give, warn't it? Dan, I was mighty proud ye wouldn't have it—I wanted to give it to ye this-a-way. I don't know as I've got any rights on Euola's money. I reckon I mought ax you fer to take it to her, ef so be you could find her. My half—you kin have it, an' welcome."
Fear was in Kerry's heart. "An' what'll you be doin'?" he inquired, huskily.
"Me?" asked Andy, listlessly. "Euola she's done gone plumb back on me," he explained. "I hain't heard one word from her sence the trouble, an' I've got that far I hain't a-keerin' what becomes of me. I like you, Dan; I'd ruther you had the money—"
"Oh, my Gawd! Don't, Andy," choked the Irishman. "Let me think, man," as the other's surprised gaze dwelt on him. Up to this time all Kerry's faculties had been engrossed in what was told him, or that which went on before his eyes. Now memory suddenly roused in him. The woman he had seen back at Asheville, the woman who called herself Mandy Greefe, but whom the police there suspected of being Andy Proudfoot's wife, whom they had twice endeavored, unsuccessfully, to follow in long, secret excursions into the mountains. What was the story? What had they said? That she was seeking Proudfoot, or was in communication with him; that was it! They had warned Kerry that the woman was mild-looking (he had seen her patient, wistful face the last thing as he left Asheville), but that she might do him a mischief if she suspected he was on the trail of her husband. "My Lord! Oh, my Lord! W'y, old man,—w'y, Andy boy!" he cried, joyously, patting the shoulder of the big man, who still knelt with the roll of money in his hands,—"Andy, she's waitin' fer you—she's true as steel! She's ready to go with you. Yes, an' Dan Kerry's the boy to git ye out o' this under the very noses o' that police an' detective gang at Asheville. 'Tis you an' me that'll go together, Andy."
Proudfoot still knelt. His nostrils flickered; his eyes glowed. "Have a care what you're a-sayin'," he began, in a low, shaking voice. "Euola! Euola! You've saw me pretty mild; but don't you be mistook by that, like that feller Dickert was mistook. Don't you lie to me an' try to fool me 'bout her. One o' them fellers I shot had me half-way to Garyville, tellin' me she was thar—sick—an' sont him fer me."
Kerry laughed aloud. "Me foolin' you!" he jeered. "'Tis a child I've been in your hands, ye black, big, still, solemn rascal! Here's money a-plenty, an' you that knows these mountains—the fur side—an' me that knows the ropes. You'll lend me a stake f'r the West. We'll go together—all four of us. Oh Lord!" and again tears were on the sanguine cheeks.
The Level of Fortune
BY ABBY MEGUIRE ROACH
She was the ambition of the younger girls and the envy of the less fortunate. Bessie Hall had everything, they said.
Her prettiness, indeed, was chiefly in slender plumpness and bloom. But it served her purpose as no classic mould would have done. She did not overestimate it. But she was probably better satisfied with it than with most of those conditions of her life that people were always telling her were ideal. They spoke of her as the only child in a way that implied congratulations on the undivided inheritance—and that reminded her how she had always wanted a sister. They talked of her idyllic life on a blue-grass stock-farm—when she was wheedling from her father a winter in Washington. They envied her often when they had the very thing she wanted—or, at least, she didn't have it. They enlarged on her popularity, and she answered, "Oh yes, nice boys, most of them, but—"
She had always said, "When I marry," not "if," and had said it much as she said, "When I grow up." And, yes, she believed in fate: that everybody who belonged to you would find you out; but—it was only hospitable to meet them half-way! So her admirers found her in the beginning hopefully interested, and in the end rather mournfully unconvinced. Her regret seemed so genuinely on her own account as well as theirs that they usually carried off a very kind feeling for her. She was equally open to enlistment in any other proposed diversion. For Bessie lived in a constant state of great expectation that something really nice would really happen to-morrow. There was always something wrong to-day.
"It's not fair!" she complained to Guy Osbourne, when he came to tell her good-by, all in the gray. "I'm positively discriminated against. If I have an engagement, it's sure to rain! And now just when I'm beginning to be a grown young lady, with a prospect at last of a thoroughly good time, a war has to break out!"
Her petulance was pretty. Guy laughed. "How disobliging!" he sympathized. "And how modest!" he added—which the reader may disentangle; Bessie did not. "At last!" he mocked her.
For Bessie Hall, whose community already moved in an orbit around her, and whose parents had, according to a familiar phrase, an even more circumscribed course around her little finger—for Bessie Hall to rail at fate was deliciously absurd, delightfully feminine!
When Bessie was most unreasonable one only wanted to kiss her. Guy's privileges in that line had passed with the days when he used to pick up bodily his lithe little playfellow to cross a creek or rain-puddled road. But to-day seemed pleasantly momentous; it called for the unusual. "I say, Bibi, when a knight went off to fight, you know, his lady used to give him a stirrup-cup at good-by. Don't you think it would be really sweet of you—"
She held off, only to be provoking. She would have thought no more of kissing Guy than a brother—or she thought she wouldn't. To be sure, she hadn't for years; there was no occasion; and then, of course, one didn't. She laughed and shook her head, and retreated laughing. And he promptly captured her.... She freed herself, suddenly serious. And Guy stood sobered—sobered not at going to the war, but at leaving her.
"There now, run along."
"Well, good-by." But he lingered. There was nothing more to say, but he lingered. "Well, good-by. Be good, Bibi."
"It looks as if that was all I'd have a chance to be." The drawl of the light voice with its rising inflection was so engaging, no one called it nasal. "And it's so much more difficult and important to be charming!"
He was sobered at leaving her, but he never thought of not going with the rest. He went, and all the rest. And Bessie found herself, just when nature had crowned her with womanhood, a princess without a kingdom. To be sure, living on the border gave her double opportunities, and for contrasting romances. There were episodes that comforted her with the reflection that she was not getting wholly out of practice in the arts. And there was real adventure in flying and secret visits from Guy and the rest—Guy, who was never again just the same with her; but, for that matter, neither was she just the same with him. But, on the whole, as she pouted to him afterward, she wouldn't call that four years' war exactly entertaining!
The Halls personally did not suffer so deeply as their neighbors except from property loss. All they could afford, and more, they gave to the South, and the Northern invader took what was left. When there was nothing left, he hacked the rosewood furniture and made targets of the family portraits, in the mere wantonness of loot that, as a recriminative compliment, cannot be laid to the charge of any one period or section. Most of the farm negroes crossed the river. Funds ran low.
There had been ease and luxury in the family always, and just when Bessie reached the time to profit by them she remarked that they failed.
Even if the Halls were not in mourning, no one lives through such a time without feeling the common humanity. But Bessie, though she lingered on the brink of love as of all the other deeps of life—curious, adventurous, at once willing and reluctant—was still, in the end, quite steady.
When the war was over, the Halls were poor, on a competence of land run to waste, with no labor to work it, and no market to sell it. And Mr. Hall, like so many of his generation, was too hampered by habit and crushed by reminiscence to meet the new day.
It was the contrast in Guy's spirit that won Bessie. His was indeed the immemorial spirit of youth—whether it be of the young world, or the young male, or the young South—to accept the issue of trial by combat and give loyalty to one proved equally worthy of sword or hand.
"We're whipped," he told her, "and that settles it. Now there's other work for us than brooding over it. All the same, the South has a future, Bibi, and that means a future for you and me."
"Not in the manufacture of poetry, I'm afraid," she laughed. "You dropped a stitch."
She did not seem to take his prowess, either past or to come, very seriously; and her eyebrows and her inflection went up at the assumption of the "we" in his plans. But—she listened.
His definiteness was itself effective. She herself did not know what she wanted. Something was wrong; or rather, everything was. She was finding life a great bore. But what would be right, she couldn't say, except that it must be different.
Guy looked sure and seasoned as he poured out his plans; and together with the maturing tan and breadth from his rough life, there was an unconquerable boyishness in the lift of his head and the light of his eyes.
"This enthusiasm is truly beautiful!" she teased.
It was, in truth, infectious.
Why! it was love she had wanted. The four years had been so empty—without Guy.
She went into it alert, receptive, optimistic. But it nettled her that everybody should be so congratulatory, and nobody surprised. It wasn't what she would call ideal for two impoverished young aristocrats to start life on nothing but affection and self-confidence.
It did seem as if the choicest fruit always came to her specked.
"Never mind," Guy encouraged her. "Just give me ten years. It will be a little hard on you at first, Bibi dear, I know, but it would be harder at your father's now. And it won't be long!"
There was only one comment of whose intention Bessie was uncertain: "So Guy is to continue carrying you over the bad places, Bessie?"
Hm! She had been thinking it rather a fine thing for her to do. And that appealed to her.
"And think what an amusing anecdote it will make after a while, Guy,—how, with all your worldly goods tied up in a red bandanna, and your wife on your arm instead of her father's doorstep, you set out to make your fortune, and to live meanwhile in the City of Un-Brotherly Love!"
But Bessie had the standards of an open-handed people to whom economy was not a virtue. There had always been on her mother's table for every meal "salt-risin' light bread" and corn pone or griddle-cakes, half a dozen kinds of preserves, the staples in proportion. Her mother would have been humiliated had there been any noticeable diminution in the supply when the meal was over; and she and the cook would have had a council of war had a guest failed to eat and praise any single dish.
Bessie had not realized how inglorious their meagreness would be, until Mrs. Grey, at the daughter's table, grew unctuously reminiscent about the mother's.
"Dear me!" Guy tried afterward to comfort the red eyelids and tremulous lips, "do you want a table so full it takes your appetite at sight?"
"I'm afraid I can't joke about disgrace!" Bessie quivered.
"But, Bibi dear, Mrs. Grey is simply behind the times. The rationale of those enormous meals was not munificence, but that a horde of house-servants had to be fed at a second table."
Certainly Guy and his good spirits were excellent company. And Bessie came of a race of women used to gay girlhoods and to settling down thereafter, as a matter of course, into the best of house-mothers.
But there was a difference between the domestic arts she had been taught as necessary to the future lady of a large household and the domestic industries she had to practise. Supervising and doing were not the same. For her mother, sewing and cooking had been accomplishments; for her they were work. She had to do things a lady didn't do.
However, she was as fastidious about what she did for herself as about what was done for her. She was quick and efficient. People said Bessie Osbourne had the dearest home in town, was the best housekeeper, the most nicely dressed on nothing. You might know Bessie Hall would have the best of everything!
And when Bessie began to wonder if that was true, she had entered the last circle of disappointment.
The fact was that, after the first novelty, things seemed pretty much the same as before. Bessie Osbourne was not so different from Bessie Hall. She might have appreciated that as significant; but doubtless she had never heard the edifying jingle of the unfortunate youth who "wandered over all the earth" without ever finding "the land where he would like to stay," and all because he was injudicious enough to take "his disposition with him everywhere he went." It was as if she had been going in a circle from right to left, and, after a blare of drums and trumpets and a stirring "About—face!" she had found herself going in the same circle from left to right. It all came to the same thing, and that was nothing. Guy was apparently working hard; but, after all, in real life it seemed one did not plant the adepts' magic seed that sprouted, grew, bloomed, while you looked on for a moment. For herself, baking and stitching took all her time, without taking nearly all her interest, or seeming to matter much when all was said and done. If she neglected things, they went undone, or some one else did them; in any case Guy never complained. If she did what came up, each day was filled with meeting each day's demands. All their lives went into the means and preparation for living. Other people—Or was it really any different with them? Nine-tenths of the people nine-tenths of the time seemed to accomplish only a chance to exist. She had heard women complain that such was the woman's lot in order that men might progress. But it struck her very few men worked beyond the provision of present necessities, either. Was it all a myth, then—happiness, experience, romance? Was this all there was to life and love? What was the sense, the end? Her dissatisfaction reproached the Cosmos, grew to that Weltschmerz which is merely low spirits and reduced vitality, not "an infirmity of growth."
She constantly expected perfection, and all that fell below it was its opposite extreme, and worthless. She began to suspect herself of being an exceptional and lofty nature deprived of her dues.
Guy was a little disappointed at her prudent objection to children until their success was established. Prudence was mere waste of time to his courage and assurance. And he believed, though without going into the psychology of the situation, that Bessie would be happier with a child or two.
"Oh, how can we do any more?" she answered, in her pretty, spoiled way. "We're trying to cut a two-yard garment out of a one-yard piece now." At least, she was; and so Guy was.
Well, it wasn't a great matter yet. It is not in the early years of marriage that that lack is most felt. And Bessie was not very strong; she never seemed really well any more. She developed a succession of small ailments, lassitudes, nerves. She dragged on the hand of life, and complained. The local physician drugged her with a commendable spirit of optimism and scientific experiment. But the drawl of the light voice with its rising inflection became distinctly a whine.
She got a way of surprising Guy and upsetting his calculations with unannounced extravagances. "What's the good of all this drudgery? We're making no headway, getting nowhere; we might as well have what good we can as we go along."
There was a negro woman in the kitchen now, and in the sitting-room one of the new sewing-machines. And Guy, who, so far, had been only excavating for the cellar of his future business house, was beginning to feel that good foundation walls were about to start.
But, even when peevish, Bessie had a way of turning up her eyes at him that reduced him to helplessness and adoration. And she was delicate! "I know," he sympathized with her loyally, "it's like trying to work and be jolly with a jumping tooth; or rather, in your case, with a constant buzzing in your head."
The jumping tooth was his own simile. The headaches that had begun while he was soldiering were increasing. He had intermittent periods of numbness in the lower half of his body. It was annoying to a busy man. He could offer no explanation, nor could the doctors. "Overwork," they suggested, and advised the cure that is of no school—"rest." That was "impossible." Besides, it was all nonsense. He put it aside, went on, kept it from Bessie.
The end came, as it always does, even after the longest expectation, with a rush. He was suffering with one of his acute headaches one night, when Bessie fell asleep beside him. She woke suddenly, with no judgment of time, with a start of terror, a sense of oppression, or—death?
"Guy!" she screamed.
The strangeness of his answering voice only repeated the stab of fear. She was on her feet, had made a light....
He was not suffering any more. He was perfectly conscious and rational. But from the waist down he could not move nor feel.
The doctors came and talked a great deal and said little; they reminded them that not much was known of this sort of thing; they would be glad to do what they could....
"You don't mean to say this is permanent? Paralyzed? I? Oh, absurd!" Awful things happened to other people, of course—scandal, death—but to one's self—"Oh, it doesn't sound true! It can't be true. Paralyzed? I?"
And Bessie wondered why this had been sent on her.
The explanation was hit on long afterward, when in one of his campaign stories Guy mentioned a fall from his horse, with his spine against a rock, that had laid him unconscious for twenty-two hours.
And so the war, which had been responsible for their starting together with only a past and a future, was responsible for their having shortly only a past. Guy was not allowed his ten years.
Though he had now less actual pain, the shock seemed to jar the foundations of his life, and the sharp change in the habits of an active and vigorous body seemed to wreck his whole system. For months and months and months he seemed only a bundle of exposed nerves—that is, where he had any movement or sensation at all.
Now a past, however escutcheoned and fame-enrolled, is even more starvation diet than a future of affection and self-confidence. No help was to be had from either of their homes; it was the day of self-help for all.
Bessie wondered why this had been sent on her, but she took a couple of boarders at once, she sold sponge-cake and beaten biscuit, she got up classes in bread-making. And Guy stopped her busy passing to draw her hand to his lips, or watched her with dumb eyes.
Several of her friends, after trying her sewing-machine, then still something of a novelty, ordered duplicates. Guy suggested as a joke that she charge the makers a commission.
"The idea of trading on friendship?" Bessie laughed.
"Oh, I don't know," Guy reflected, more seriously. "How about these boarders, then? That's trading on hospitality."
It was one of those minute flashes of illumination that, multiplied and collected, become the glow of a new light, the signal of a revolution. The country was full of them in those days. The old codes were melting in the heat of change. Standards were fluid. Personally, it ended in Bessie's selling machines, first in her town, then in neighboring ones.
In the restlessness that youth thinks is aspiration for the ideal, particularly for the ideal love, is a large element of craving for place and interest. After her marriage, at least, Bessie might have had enough of both; but the obvious purpose was too limited to appeal to her. Now two appetites and the four seasons supplied motive enough for industry. There was nothing magnificent in this manifest destiny, but it had the advantage of being imperative and constant. It was no small tax on her acquired delicacy, but it gave less time for hunting symptoms. It did not answer the Whence, Whither, and Why; it pointedly changed the subject. Her work began to carry her out of herself.
"Bibi dear, what a sorry end to all my promises!"
She had been thinking just that herself with a sense of injury and imposition; and she was used all her life to having people see everything as she saw it, from her side only. But Guy had just turned over to his few creditors the hole in the ground into which so far most of his work had gone. "Bibi dear, what a sorry end to all my plans!" was what she expected him to say. And what he did say and what he didn't, met surprised in her mind and surveyed each other.
"Oh, Guy!" she deprecated, suddenly ashamed. For the first time it occurred to her to wonder why this had been sent on him. With a rush of remorseful sympathy and appreciation, she slipped down beside his chair. "My poor old boy!"
He clung to her like a drowning man—Guy, who, after the first single cry at the blow, had been so self-contained (or self-repressed?) through it all!
She remembered that she had omitted a good many things lately.
"You're tired to-day," he said.
"Yes, I am." She caught at it hurriedly with apologetic self-defence. "I'm pretty constantly tired lately. And this morning Mrs. Grey was so trying. She doesn't understand her machine, and she doesn't understand business, and she was too silly and stupid. I don't wonder you men laugh at us and don't want us in your affairs!"
"It's all hard on you, Bibi." There was a lump in his voice. It was the first time he had been able to speak of it.
"Yes;" her own throat was so strained that for a moment she could not go on. "But," it struck her again, "I don't suppose an unbiased observer would think it exactly festive for you."
And, to be sure, when one came to think of it, how, pray, was he to blame?
From that day there began to be more than necessity to her work, and more than work to carry her out of herself.
In the present of commercial femininity we have two types—one, the business man; the other, an individual without gender, impersonal, capable. She never does anything ill-bred, certainly, but one no more thinks of specifying that she is a lady than that her hair is black; it isn't the point.
Mrs. Osbourne, however, was always first of all a lady. With her, men kept their hats off and their coats on, and had an inclination to soften business with bows, and bargains with figures of speech. She was at once so patrician and so gracious that women felt it a kind of social function to deal with her. The drawl of the light voice with its rising inflection was only gently plaintive. The pretty way was winning, and rather pathetic in her position; it drifted about her an aroma of story, and that had its own appeal. The unvarying black of dress and bonnet, with touches of white at neck and wrist, was refined, and made her rosy plumpness look sweeter. It was all an uninventoried part of her stock in trade. And she came to take the same satisfaction in returns in success and cash that she had taken as a girl in results in valentines and cotillion favors.
Mrs. Osbourne had all the traditions of her class and generation. She let her distaste of the situation be known. If it had been possible, she would have concealed it like a scandal. As it was, with very proud apology, she made the necessity of her case understood: her object was bread and butter, not any of these new Woman's Rights—unwomanly, bourgeoise!
Nevertheless, it was not only true that it suited her to be doing something with some point and result, but that the life of action and influence among people suited her. The work came to interest her for itself as well as for its object; that interest was a factor in her success; and the success again both stimulated and further equipped her.
As she got into training and over the first sore muscles of mind and body, work began to strengthen her. The nerves and small ailments grew secondary, were overlooked, actually lessened. There need be nothing esoteric in saying that a vital interest in life is as essential to health as to happiness. One need consider only the practical and physical effects of interest and self-forgetfulness, serenity and self-resource.
Sometimes her increasing trade took her away for two or three days, as far as Louisville or Cincinnati. The thought of Guy followed her, a sweet pain. She found herself hurrying back to her bright prisoner, and because of both conditions the marvel of that brightness grew on her, together with certain embarrassed comparisons. More than anything else, she admired his strength where she had been weak.
His brightness seemed to her the most pathetic thing about him; it was so sorry. It was indeed the epitome of his tragedy. To be as unobtrusive as possible, and, when necessarily in evidence, as pleasant as possible, was the role he had assigned himself. It was the one thing he could do, the only thing he could do for her.
Doubtless the very controlling of the nervousness helped it. Moreover, his revolting organization was gradually adapting itself somewhat to the new conditions. Sensitive and uncertain tendrils of vitality began to creep out from the roots of a blighted vigor.
Bessie, increasingly perceptive, began to suspect that what she saw was the brightness after the storm. She wondered what his long solitary hours were like when she was away. What must they be, with him helpless, disappointed, lonely, liable to maddening attacks of nerves? But he assured her that he was perfectly comfortable; Mammy Dinah was faithful and competent; and he was really making headway with the German and French that he had taken up because he could put them down as need was, and because—they might come in, in some way, some time. "In heaven?" Bessie wondered secretly, but, enlightened by her own experience, saw the advantage of his being entertained.
"You're too much alone," she said, feeling for the trouble. "And so am I," she added, thoughtfully. She should have noticed his eyes at that last. He had developed a sort of controlled voracity for endearment, but he never asked for it. In the old days he had taken his own masterfully, with no doubts. Now he waited. He did not starve. She cajoled him and coaxed his appetite and patted the pillows, and made pretty, laughing eyes at him and fate quite in her habitual manner. Her touch and tone of affection had never been so free. But in that very fact he found another sting.
"The better I do on the road, the more they keep me out," she was saying. "We can't go on this way. I've been thinking lately—Could you bear to go North, Guy, and to live in a city, among strangers? Perhaps at headquarters there might be an opening for me that would let me settle down."
"What! Cincinnati! Is there any such chance?"
"You'd like it? Why on earth—Are you so bored here?"
"Oh, Bibi, have you never thought of it? In a city there'd be some chance of something I could do!"
"You? Oh, Guy!" After she had accepted the care of him, and that so pleasantly, he wasn't satisfied! "Is there anything you lack here?" She was hurt.
It was replaying the old parts reversed. Once he had grieved that he could not give her enough to content her.
"A—h—" He turned his head away and flung an arm up over his eyes.
She understood only that he was suffering. "But, Guy, there's nothing you could do, possibly. It's not to be expected. Have I complained?" She fell back on the kindly imbecility of the nurse. "Now you're not to worry about that, at least until you're better—"
"Better?" He forgot the lines in which he had schooled himself. The man overrode the amateur actor. "That's not the thing to hope for. Why couldn't it have killed me—that first fall?" ("My dear, my dear!" she stammered.) "There would have been some satisfaction in getting out of the way, and that in decent fashion; like a charge of powder, not like a rubbish-heap. I can't accept it of you, Bibi. I'm enraged for you. I can't be grateful. I'm ashamed."
She understood now.
What could she say? A dozen things, and she did; things about as satisfying as theology at the grave. He did not answer nor respond. When he relaxed at last it was simply to her arms around him, his head on her bosom, her wordless notes of tenderness and consolation.
He was suffering, and chiefly for her, and what a fighter he was! Who but he would ever have thought of his doing anything?
So there might be cases in which it was really more helpful and generous not to do things for people, but to let them do for themselves. She couldn't fancy his doing enough to amount to anything. He oughtn't to! But if it would make him any happier he should have his make-believe—yes, and without knowing it was make-believe. Doing things that were of no value to any one was so disheartening. She knew. Like perfunctory exercise for your health.
Her own business in Cincinnati proved so brief as to take her breath. His was more difficult. The plough was still mightier than either sword or pen. Few markets were open to an inactive man whose hours must be short and irregular, and whose chief qualifications seemed to be a valiant spirit and a store of reminiscences, in a time when reminiscences were as easy to get as advice.
She was delayed in her return, growing more and more anxious at the thought of his anxiety. When she boarded the south-bound train, she went down the aisle, looking for a seat, with her short steps hurried as if it would get her home sooner.
Mrs. Grey leaned over and motioned her, and as she sat down, looked critically at the bright eyes and pink cheeks. "You certainly do look well nowadays, Bessie."
Doubtless Bessie's color was partly excitement and rush.
"Oh, I'm well," absently.
"Funny kind of dyspepsia, wasn't it, to be cured by eating around, the way you have to do."
"Oh, dyspepsia!" The nettles brought back her attention. People needn't belittle her troubles! "I still have that dyspepsia. But if you had to be as busy as I, Mrs. Grey, you'd know that there are times when nothing but sudden death can interfere." Even Mrs. Grey's prickings, however, were washed over to-day by Balm of Gilead. "Still, it has come to something. The company has given me Cincinnati for my territory."
"Really?" Not that Mrs. Grey doubted her veracity. "Well, you always did succeed at anything you put your hand to. It has been the most surprising thing! You know, I tell everybody, Bessie, that you deserve all the credit in the world for the way you have taken hold." Bessie stiffened; neither need they sympathize too much! "A girl brought up as you were, who always had the best of everything." The best of everything! The familiar phrase was like a bell, sending wave after wave of memory singing through Bessie's mind. "And still I never saw any one to whom the wind has been so tempered as to you: when you were sick you could afford it, and now that it's inconvenient—Things always did seem to work smoother with you, and come out better, than with any of the rest of us."
Bessie sat looking at her, and, in the speech, saw her own petulance of a moment before—any number of her own speeches, in fact, inverted, as things are in a glass. Indeed, Mrs. Grey had held up a reflector. Bessie had met herself. And she saw herself, as in a mirror-maze, from all angles, down diminishing perspectives, from the woman she was to the girl she had been.
She had been quite unconscious of the slow transformation in her habits of thought. It is so in life. One toils up the thickly wooded hillside, intent only on the footing, and comes suddenly on a high clearing, overlooking valley and path, defining a new horizon.
"I never had the best of everything, Mrs. Grey," she said. "Nobody has. Every life and every situation in life has its bad conditions—and its good ones. I haven't had any more happiness—nor trouble than most people. It strikes me things are pretty equally divided. We only think they aren't when we don't know all about it. We see the surface of other people's lives, not their private drawbacks or compensations. There are always both. But other people's troubles are so much easier to bear than our own, their good luck so much less deserved and qualified! With all I had as a girl I didn't have contentment. And now, with all I lack, I don't know any one with whom I'd change places."
What was the use with Mrs. Grey?
But alone, the thought kept widening ring after ring: How little choice there was of conditions in life; how fortune tends to seek its level; how one man has the meat and another the appetite; and another, without either, can find in the fact the flavor of a joke or chew the cud of reflection over it. Of the three, Bessie thought she would rather be the one with the disposition. But that could be cultivated. Look at hers! Circumstances had started it in a sort of aside, but she would take the hint.
The cure for dissatisfaction was to recognize one's balance of good.
Guy was watching for her at the window. She was half conscious that he looked unusually haggard, but there were so many other thoughts at sight of him that they washed over the first.
She swung her reticule. "It's all right!" and she ran up the walk, a most feminine swirl of progress. She got to him breathless. "I've found a house that will give you its German correspondence to translate and write, and it won't be so much but that you can do it as you're able, within reason. Now, sir!"
For a minute it seemed as if Guy's whole body was alive. The weak and shaken invalid still had something of unconquerable boyishness in the lift of his head and the light of his eyes. "Good! That will do for a start." The old spirit, to which hers always answered. If she didn't believe he would actually do something worth while in the end! Then promptly, of old habit, he thought of her. "Bibi! You took your time for that."
"Not all of it, in good sooth, fair lord." She spread out her skirts, lady-come-to-see fashion, and strutted across the room. "Mrs. Osbourne has a new 'job' and a 'raise.'" (Incidentally Mrs. Osbourne had never before been so advanced in her language.)
"Bully for you!" he shouted, so genuinely that she ran back to him and shook and hugged his shoulders. How she liked him!
"What a thorough girl you are, Bibi!"
"Oh, and to-day I've been laughing at myself; as silly as I used to be, counting so much on a mere change of circumstances. Of course something unpleasant will develop there too. But at least the harness will rub in a different place. On the whole, it will be better. Guy, do you know, I have just gotten rid of envy and discontent, and that without endangering ambition. I'll give you the charm; it's a sort of cabalistic spell—the four P's—Occupation, Responsibility, Purpose, and Philosophy."
"Yes," he said, "the most worth-while thing in life is to feel you are accomplishing something—doing your work well and getting proportionate returns."
The tone touched her. "Poor old Guy!" so generously congratulatory of her flaunted advantages. How stupid she was! Poor Guy! her pretty creed scattered at a breath like a dead dandelion-ball. Envy she had disposed of, but what about pity? What had he to make up? "The idea of my talking of happiness, with you caged here!"
"Perhaps that was the point of it all," he said, "to give you your chance."
"That would be a beautifully humble thing for me to think, now wouldn't it?" Yet she had once complained that the point of it all was to interfere with her. "And so sweetly generous. Your chance being—?"
"To serve as a means of grace to you?" He smiled. "I am glad to be of some use—and honored to be of that one!" he hurried to add, elaborately humorous.
But what she was noticing was the flagging effort of his vivacity. Her half-submerged first impression of him was coming to the surface: he did look unusually haggard. "You haven't been good while I was away. Now don't tell stories. Don't I know you? No more storms, Guy!" she warned.
His eye evaded hers. "I am seriously questioning whether you ought to make this change. All your friends are here."
"Oh, as to that! There might be advantages in working among strangers. Mrs. Grey fairly puts herself out to let me understand that she is a friend in need!" She reined herself up, recollecting, but too late. "Oh, Guy, don't mind so for me. Why, the South is full of women doing what I am, only so many of them are doing it—without—the Guys who never came back!"
"Lucky dogs!" subterraneously. Then, seeing her apprehensive of a second flare-up of that volcanic fire: "So gentlemanly of them, too, Bibi. How can those few years of love be worth a life of this to you?"
"Those few years? why, Guy! of love? Is that how you feel?" Her eyes filled; her whole face quivered. "Oh, Guy—be willing for my sake. I never knew what love could mean until lately."
His grasp hurt her knuckles. "Yes, dear, I have seen. It's very sweet. It's the mother in you, Bibi, and my helplessness. Of course! What could a woman love in a dependent, half-corpse of a no-man?"
For a moment she was too surprised to speak. She stared at him. "What a notion! and it isn't true! You never were any more a man than you've been through these two dreadful years." She sounded fairly indignant. "And for my part, I never appreciated what you were half as much."
"Love doesn't begin with a P," he remarked to the opposite wall.
"But what do you suppose the purpose was?"
"You never told me." That strange voice and averted face!
"How should I fancy you wouldn't know? I had never thought it out myself until just now. It has simply been going on from day to day, as natural and quiet as growing—" A bewildering illumination was spreading in her mind. "Look here, young man"—she forced his face around to see it,—"what goblins have you been hatching in the night-watches?" The raillery broke. "Dear, is that what has been troubling you? Is there anything else?"
He looked at her now. "Anything else trouble me, if I really have you, and a chance to do a little something for you?"
It was their apotheosis. They had never known a moment equal to it before; could never know just another such again. In a very deep way it was the first kiss of love for them both.
Bessie came back to herself with that sense of arriving, of having been infinitely away, with which one drops from abstraction.
Where had they been in that state of absent mind?
It was as if they had met out of time, space, matter.... And as she thought of his words, in the light of his eyes, pity too was qualified, and that without endangering helpfulness. He, too, had his balance of good. Yes, things squared in the end.
Her creed was quick. The scattered dandelion seed sprouted all around her.
BY ALICE MACGOWAN
Up and down the long corn rows Pap Overholt guided the old mule and the small, rickety, inefficient plough, whose low handles bowed his tall, broad shoulders beneath the mild heat of a mountain June sun. As he went—ever with a furtive eye upon the cabin—he muttered to himself, shaking his head:
"Say I sha'n' do hit. Say he don't want me a-ploughin' his co'n. My law! Whut you gwine do? Thar's them chillen—thar's Huldy. They got to be fed—they 'bleeged to have meat and bread. Ef I don't—"
Again he lifted his apprehensive glance toward the cabin; and this time it encountered a figure stepping from the low doorway—a young fellow with an olive face, delicately cut features, black curling hair, the sleep still lingering in his dark eyes. He approached the fence—the sorry, broken fence,—put his hands upon it, and called sharply, "Pap!"
The old man released the plough-handles and came toward the youth, shrinking like a truant schoolboy called up for discipline.
"Pap, this is the way you do me all the time—come an' plough in my co'n when I don't know nothin' about hit—when I don't want hit done,—tryin' to make everybody think I'm lazy and no 'count. Huldy tellin' me I ought to be ashamed of myse'f, in bed while my po' old pappy—'at hain't ploughed a row of his own for years—is a-gittin' my co'n outen the weeds."
The father stood, a chidden culprit. The boy had worked himself up to the desired point.
"You jest do hit to put a shame on me. Now, Pap, you take that mule—"
"W'y, Sammy,—w'y, Sammy honey, you know Pappy don't do it fer nair sech a reason. Hit don't look no sech a thing—like you was shif'less an' lazy. Hit jes look like Pappy got nothin' to do, an' love to come and give you a turn with yo' co'n; an', Sammy honey,"—the good farmer for the moment getting the better of the timid, soft-hearted parent,—"hit is might'ly in the weeds, boy. Don't you reckon I better jes—"
The other began, "I tell you—"
"There, there! Ne'mine, Sammy. Ef you don't want Pappy to plough no mo', Pappy jes gwine to take the plough right outen the furrow and put old Beck up. Pappy gwine—"
The boy turned away, his point made, and strolled back to the cabin. The old man, murmuring a mixture of apologies, assurances, and expostulations, went pathetically about the putting up of the mule, the setting away of the plough.
Nobody knew when Pap Overholt began to be so called, nor when his wife had received the affectionate title of Aunt Cornelia. It was a naming that grew of itself. Forty years ago the pair had been married—John, a sturdy, sunny-tempered young fellow of twenty-one, six feet in his stockings, broad of shoulder, deep of chest, and with a name and a nature clean of all tarnish; Cornelia Blackshears, a typical mountain girl of the best sort.
When, at the end of the first year, old Dr. Pastergood, who had ushered Cornelia herself into this world, turned to them with her first child in his arms, the young father stood by, controlling his great rush of primal joy, his boyish desire to do something noisy and violent; the mother looked first at her husband, then into the old doctor's face, with eyes of passionate delight and appeal. He was speechless a moment, for pity. Then he said, gently:
"Hit's gone, befo' hit ever come to us, Cornely. Hit never breathed a breath of this werrisome world."
A man who had practised medicine in the Turkey Tracks for twenty-five years —a doctor among these mountain people, where poverty is the rule, hardship a condition of life, and tragedy a fairly familiar element, would have had his fibre well stiffened. The brave old campaigner, who had sat beside so many death-beds and so many birth-beds, and had seen so many come and so many go, at the exits and entrances of life, met the matter stoutly and without flinching. His stoic air, his words of passive acceptance, laid a calm upon the first outburst of bitter grief from the two young creatures. Later, when John had gone to do the chores, the old doctor still sat by Cornelia's bed. He took the girl's hand in his—an unusual demonstration of feeling for a mountaineer—and said to her, gently,
"Cornely, there won't never be no mo'—there'll be nair another baby to you, honey."
The stricken girl fastened her eyes upon his in dumb pain and protest. She said nothing, the wound was too deep; only her lips quivered pitifully and the tears ran down upon the pillow.
"Now, now, honey, don't ye go to fret that-a-way. W'y, Cornely, ye was made for a mother; the Lord made ye for such—an' do ye 'low 'at He don't know what He's a-gwine to do with the work of His hands? 'For mo' air the children of the desolate'—don't ye know Scripter says?—than of them that has many. Lord love ye, honey, girl, you'll be mother to a minny and a minny. They air a-comin'; the Lord's a-sendin' 'em. W'y, honey,—you and John will have children gathered around you—"
The one cry broke forth from Cornelia which she ever uttered through all her long grief of childlessness: "Oh, but, Dr. Pastergood, I wanted mine—my own—and John's! Oh, I reckon it was idolatry the way I felt in my heart; I thought, to have a little trick-bone o' my bone, flesh o' my flesh—look up at me with John's eyes—" A sob choked her utterance, and never again was it resumed.
In the years that followed, the pair—already come to be called Pap Overholt and Aunt Cornely—well fulfilled the old doctor's prophecy. The very next year after their baby was laid away, John's older brother, Jeff, lost his wife, and the three little children Mandy left were brought at once to them, remaining in peace and welfare for something over a year (Jeff was a circumspect widower), making the place blithe with their laughter and their play. Then their father married, and they were taken to the new home. He was an Overholt too, and shared that powerful paternal instinct with John. Three times this thing happened. Three times Jeff buried a wife, and the little Jeff Overholts, with recruited ranks, were brought to Aunt Cornelia and Pap John. When Jeff married his fourth wife—Zulena Spivey, a powerful, vital, affluent creature, of an unusual type for the mountains,—and the children (there were nine of them by this time) went to live with their step-mother, whose physique and disposition promised a longer tenure than any of her predecessors, Pap and Aunt Cornelia sat upon the lonely hearth and assured each other with tears that never again would they take into their home and their lives, as their very own, any children upon whom they could have no sure claim.
"Tell ye, Cornely, this thing o' windin' yer heart-strings around and around a passel o' chaps for a year or so and then havin' 'em tore out—well, hit takes a mighty considerable chunk o' yer heart along with 'em." And the wife, looking at him with wet eyes, nodded an assent.
It was next May that Pap Overholt, who had been doing some hauling over as far as Big Turkey Track, returned one evening with a little figure perched beside him on the high wagon seat. "The Lord sent him, honey," he said, and handed the child down to his wife. "He ain't got a livin' soul on this earth to lay claim to him. He is ourn as much as ef he was flesh and bone of us. I even tuck out the papers."
That evening, the two sitting watching the little dark face in its sleep, Pap told his story. Driving across the flank of Yellow Old Bald, beyond Lost Cabin, he had passed a woman with five children sitting beside the road in Big Buck Gap.
"Cornely, she looked like a picture out of a book," whispered Pap. "This chap's the livin' image of her. Portugee blood—touch o' that melungeon tribe from over in the Fur Cove. She had a little smooth face shaped like a aig; that curly hair hangin' clean to her waist, dark like this baby's, but with the sun all through it; these eyebrows o' his'n that's lifted in the middle o' his forred, like he cain't see why some onkindness was did him; and little slim hands and feet; all mighty furrin to the mountains. I give 'er a lift—she was goin' to Hepzibah, huntin' fer some kind o' charity she'd heard could be got there; and this little trick he tuck to me right then."
The woman bent over and looked long at the small olive face, so delicately cut, the damp rings of hair on his forehead, the tragic lift of the brows above the nose bridge, the thin-lipped scarlet mouth. "My baby," she murmured; then lifted her glance with the question: "An' how come ye to have him? Did she—did that womern—"
"No, no. 'Twas this-a-way," Pap interrupted her. "When I came back from Big Turkey Track, I went down through Hepzibah—I couldn't git this chap's eyes—ner his little hands—out o' my head; I found myse'f a-studyin' on 'em the hull enjurin' time. She was dead when I got thar. She'd died to Squire Cannon's, and they was a-passellin' out the chillen 'mongst the neighbors. No sooner I put foot on the po'ch 'n this little soul come a-runnin' to me, an' says: W'y, here's my pappy, now. I tole you-all I did have a pappy. Now look—see—here he is.' Then he peeked up at me, and he put up his little arms, an' he says, jest as petted, and yit a little skeered, he says, 'Take me, pappy.' When I tuck him up, he grabbed me round the neck and dug his little face into mine. Then he looked around at all the folks, and sort o' shivered, and put his face back in my neck—still ez a little possum when you've killed the old ones an' split up the tree an' drug out the nest."
Both faces were wet with tears now. Pap went on: "I had the papers made right out—I knowed you'd say yes, Cornely. He's Samuel Ephraim Overholt. A-comin' home, the little weenty chap looks up at me suddent an' axes, 'Is they a mammy to we-all's house whar we goin' now?' Lord! Lord!" Pap shook his head gently, as signifying the utter inadequacy of mere words.
Little Sammy grew and thrived in the Overholt home. The tiny rootlets of his avid, unconscious baby life he thrust out in all directions through that kind soil, sucking, sucking, grasping, laying hold, drawing to him and his great little needs sustenance material and spiritual. More keen and capable to penetrate were those thready little fibres than the irresistible water-seeking tap-root of the cottonwood or the mesquite of the plains; more powerful to clasp and to hold than the cablelike roots of the rock-embracing cedar. The little new member was so much living sunshine, gay, witching, brilliant, erratic in disposition as he was singular and beautiful in his form and coloring, but always irresistibly endearing, dangerously winning. When he had been Sammy Overholt only two weeks, he sat at table with his parents one day and scornfully rejected the little plate that was put before him.
"No!" he cried, sharply. "No, no! I won't have it—ole nassy plate!"
"W'y, baby! W'y, Sammy," deprecated Cornelia, "that's yo' own little plate that mammy washed for you. You mustn't call it naisty."
"Hit air nassy," insisted young Samuel. "Hit got 'pecks—see!" and the small finger pointed to some minute flaw in the ware which showed as little dots on the white surface.
Cornelia, who, though mild and serene, was possessed of firmness and a sense of justice, would have had the matter fairly settled. "He ort not to cut up this-away, John," she urged. "He ort to take his little plate and behave hisse'f; 'r else he ort to be spanked,—he really ort, John, in jestice to the child"
But John was of another mould. "Law, Cornely! Hit's jest baby-doin's. The idee o' him a-settin' up 'at yo' dishes ain't clean! That shore do beat all!" And he had executed an exchange of plates under Cornelia's deprecating eyes. And so the matter went.
Again, upon a June day, Sammy was at play with the scion of the only negro family which had ever been known in all the Turkey Track regions. The Southern mountaineers have little affinity, socially or politically, with the people of the settlements. There were never any slaveholders among them, and the few isolated negroes were treated with almost perfect equality by the simple-minded mountain dwellers.
"Sammy honey, you an' Jimmy mus' cl'ar up yo' litter here. Don't leave it on mammy's nice flo'. Hit's mighty nigh supper-time. Cl'ar up now, 'fo' Pappy comes."
Sammy stiffened his little figure to a startling rigidity. "I ain't a-goin' to work!" he flung out. "Let him do it; he's a nigger!" And this was the last word of the argument.
This was Sammy—handsome, graceful, exceedingly winning, sudden and passionate, disdaining like a young zebra the yoke of labor, and, when crossed, absolutely beyond all reason or bounds; the life of every gathering of young people as he grew up; much made of, deferred to, sought after, yet everywhere blamed as undutiful and ungrateful.
"Oh, I do p'intedly wish the neighbors would leave us alone," sighed Pap Overholt, when these reports came to him. "As ef I didn't know what I wanted—as ef I couldn't raise my own chile;" and as he said this he ever avoided Aunt Cornelia's honest eye.
It was when Sammy was eighteen, the best dressed, the best horsed—and the idlest—to be found from Little Turkey Track to the Fur Cove, from Tatum's to Big Buck Gap—that he went one day, riding his sorrel filly, down to Hepzibah, ostensibly to do some errands for Aunt Cornelia, but in fact simply in search of a good time. The next day Blev Straly, a rifle over his shoulder and a couple of hounds at heel, stopped a moment at the chopping-block where Pap was splitting some kindling.
"I was a-passin'," he explained—"I was jest a-passin', an' I 'lowed I'd drap in an' tell ye 'bout Sammy. Hit better be me than somebody 'at likes to carry mean tales and wants to watch folks suffer." Aunt Cornelia was beside her husband now.
"No, no," Blev answered the look on the two faces; "nothin' ain't the matter of Sammy. He's jest married—that little Huldy Frew 'at's been waitin' on table at Aunt Randy Card's ho-tel. You know, Aunt Cornely, she is a mighty pretty little trick—and there ain't nothin' bad about the gal. I jest knowed you and Pap 'ud feel mighty hurt over Sammy doin' you-all like you was cruel to him—like he had to run away to git married; and I 'lowed I better come and tell you fust."
The "little Huldy gal" was, as Blev Straly had described her, a mighty pretty little trick, and nothing bad about her. The orphan child of poor mountaineers, bound out since the death of her parents when she was ten years old, she had been two years now working for Aunt Randy Card, who kept the primitive hotel at Hepzibah. Even in this remote region Huldy showed that wonderful—that irrepressible—upward impulse of young feminine America, that instinctive affinity for the finer things of life, that marvellous understanding of graces and refinements, and that pathetic and persistent groping after them which is the marked characteristic of America's daughters. The child was not yet sixteen, a fair little thing with soft ashen hair and honest gray eyes, the pink upon her cheek like that of a New England girl.
At first this marriage—which had been so unkindly conducted by Sammy, used by him apparently as a weapon of affront—seemed to bring with it only good, only happiness. The boy was more contented at home, less wayward, and the feeling of apprehension that had dwelt continually in the hearts of Pap and Aunt Cornelia ever since his adolescence now slept. The little Huldy—her own small cup apparently full of happiness—was all affectionate gratitude and docility. She healed the bruises Sammy made, poured balm in the wounds he inflicted; she was sunny, obedient, grateful enough for two.
But a new trait was developed in Sammy's nature—perversity. Life was made smooth to his feet; the things he needed—even the things which he merely desired—were procured and brought to him. Love brooded above and around him—timid, chidden, but absolute, adoring. Nothing was left him—no occupation was offered for his energies—but to resent these things, to quarrel with his benefits. And now the quarrel began.