THE LEATHERWOOD GOD
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
With Illustrations by Henry Raleigh
The author thinks it well to apprise the reader that the historical outline of this story is largely taken from the admirable narrative of Judge Taneyhill in the Ohio Valley Series, Robert Clarke Co., Cincinnati. The details are often invented, and the characters are all invented as to their psychological evolution, though some are based upon those of real persons easily identifiable in that narrative. The drama is that of the actual events in its main development; but the vital incidents, or the vital uses of them, are the author's. At times he has enlarged them; at times he has paraphrased the accounts of the witnesses; in one instance he has frankly reproduced the words of the imposter as reported by one who heard Dylks's last address in the Temple at Leatherwood and as given in the Taneyhill narrative. Otherwise the story is effectively fiction.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
He was now towering over those near him, with his head thrown back, and his hair tossed like a mane on his shoulders
Nancy stood staring at her, with words beyond saying in her heart—words that rose in her throat and choked her
"You believe, maybe, that you would be struck dead if you said the things that I do; but why ain't I struck dead?"
"It's my cloth! I spun it, I wove it, every thread! It's all we've got for our clothes this winter!"
"Now you can see how it feels to have your own husband slap you"
She had begun to wash his wound, very gently, though she spoke so roughly, while he murmured with the pain and with the comfort of the pain
They swarmed forward to the altar-place and flung themselves on the ground, and heaped the pulpit-steps with their bodies
"And he went down ag'in, and when he come up ag'in, his face was all soakin' wet, like he'd been crying under the water"
THE LEATHERWOOD GOD
Already, in the third decade of the nineteenth century, the settlers in the valley of Leatherwood Creek had opened the primeval forest to their fields of corn and tobacco on the fertile slopes and rich bottom-lands. The stream had its name from the bush growing on its banks, which with its tough and pliable bark served many uses of leather among the pioneers; they made parts of their harness with it, and the thongs which lifted their door-latches, or tied their shoes, or held their working clothes together. The name passed to the settlement, and then it passed to the man, who came and went there in mystery and obloquy, and remained lastingly famed in the annals of the region as the Leatherwood God.
At the time he appeared the community had become a center of influence, spiritual as well as material, after a manner unknown to later conditions. It was still housed, for the most part, in the log cabins which the farmers built when they ceased to be pioneers, but in the older clearings, and along the creek a good many frame dwellings stood, and even some of brick. The population, woven of the varied strains from the North, East and South which have mixed to form the Mid-Western people, enjoyed an ease of circumstance not so great as to tempt their thoughts from the other world and fix them on this. In their remoteness from the political centers of the young republic, they seldom spoke of the civic questions stirring the towns of the East; the commercial and industrial problems which vex modern society were unknown to them. Religion was their chief interest and the seriousness which they had inherited from their Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Moravian ancestry was expressed in their orderly and diligent lives; but the general prosperity had so far relaxed the stringency of their several creeds that their distinctive public rite had come to express a mutual toleration. The different sects had their different services; their ceremonies of public baptism, their revivals, their camp-meetings; but they gathered as one Christian people under the roof of the log-built edifice, thrice the size of their largest dwelling, which they called the Temple.
A storm of the afternoon before had cleared the mid-August air. The early sun was hot, but the wind had carried away the sultry mists, and infused fresh life into the day. Where Matthew Braile sat smoking his corncob pipe in the covered porchway between the rooms of his double-log cabin he insensibly shared the common exhilaration, and waited comfortably for the breakfast of bacon and coffee which his wife was getting within. As he smoked on he inhaled with the odors from her cooking the dense rich smell of the ripening corn that stirred in the morning breeze on three sides of the cabin, and the fumes of the yellow tobacco which he had grown, and cured, and was now burning. His serenity was a somewhat hawklike repose, but the light that came into his narrowed eyes was of rather amused liking, as a man on a claybank horse rode up before the cabin in the space where alone it was not hidden by the ranks of the tall corn. The man sat astride a sack with a grist of corn in one end balanced by a large stone in the other, and he made as if he were going on to the mill without stopping; but he yielded apparently to a temptation from within, since none had come from without. "Whoa!" he shouted at the claybank, which the slightest whisper would have stayed; and then he called to the old man on the porch, "Fine mornun', Squire!"
Braile took out his pipe, and spat over the edge of the porch, before he called back, "Won't you light and have some breakfast?"
"Well, no, thank you, Squire," the man said, and at the same time he roused the claybank from an instant repose, and pushed her to the cabin steps. "I'm just on my way down to Brother Hingston's mill, and I reckon Sally don't want me to have any breakfast till I bring back the meal for her to git it with; anyway that's what she said when I left." Braile answered nothing, and the rider of the claybank added, with a certain uneasiness as if for the effect of what he was going to say, "I was up putty late last night, and I reckon I overslep'," he parleyed. Then, as Braile remained silent, he went on briskly, "I was wonderin' if you hearn about the curious doun's last night at the camp-meetun'."
Braile, said, without ceasing to smoke, "You're the first one I've seen this morning, except my wife. She wasn't at the camp-meeting." His aquiline profile, which met close at the lips from the loss of his teeth, compressed itself further in leaving the whole burden of the affair to the man on the claybank, and his narrowed eyes were a line of mocking under the thick gray brows that stuck out like feathers above them.
"Well, sir, it was great doun's," the other said, wincing a little under the old man's indifference. Braile relented so far as to ask, "Who was at the bellows?"
The other answered with a certain inward deprecation of the grin that spread over his face, and the responsive levity of his phrase, "There was a change of hands, but the one that kep' the fire goun' the hardes' and the hottes' was Elder Grove."
Braile made "Hoonck!" in the scornful guttural which no English spelling can represent.
"Yes, sir," the man on the claybank went on, carried forward by his own interest, but helpless to deny himself the guilty pleasure of falling in with Braile's humor, "he had 'em goun' lively, about midnight, now I tell you: whoopun' and yellun', and rippun' and stavun', and fallun' down with the jerks, and pullun' and haulun' at the sinners, to git 'em up to the mourners' bench, and hurrahun' over 'em, as fast as they was knocked down and drug out. I never seen the beat of it in all my born days."
"You don't make out anything very strange, Abel Reverdy," Braile said, putting his pipe back into his mouth and beginning to smoke it again into a lost activity.
"Well, I hain't come to it yit," Reverdy apologized. "I reckon there never was a bigger meetun' in Leatherwood Bottom, anywhere. Folks there from twenty mile round, just slathers; I reckon there was a thousand if there was one."
"Hoonch!" Braile would not trouble to take out his pipe in making the sound now; the smoke got into his lungs, and he coughed.
Reverdy gained courage to go on, but he went on in the same strain, whether in spite of himself or not. "There was as many as four exhorters keepun' her up at once to diff'rent tunes, and prayun' and singun' everywhere, so you couldn't hear yourself think. Every exhorter had a mourners' bench in front of him, and I counted as many as eighty mourners on 'em at one time. The most of 'em was settun' under Elder Grove, and he was poundun' the kingdom into 'em good and strong. When the Spirit took him he roared so that he had the Hounds just flaxed out; you couldn't ketch a yelp from 'em."
"Many Hounds?" Braile asked, in a sort of cold sympathy with the riotous outlaws known to the religious by that name.
"Mought been 'fore I got there. But by that time I reckon they was most of 'em on the mourners' benches. They ought to tar and feather some of them fellers, or ride 'em on a rail anyway, comun' round, and makun' trouble on the edge of camp-meetun's. I didn't hear but one toot from their horns, last night, and either because the elder had shamed 'em back into the shadder of the woods, or brought 'em forwards into the light, there wasn't a Hound, not to call a Hound, anywheres. I tell you it was a sight, Squire; you ought to 'a' been there yourself." Reverdy grinned at his notion. "They had eight camp-fires goun' instead o' four, on top of the highest stageun's yit, so the whole place was lit up as bright as day; and when the elder stopped short and sudden, and the other exhorters held back their tommyhawks, and all the saints and sinners left off their groanun' and jerkun' to see what was comun', now it was a great sight, I tell you, Squire. The elder he put up his hand and says he, 'Let us pray!' and the blaze from all them stageun's seemed to turn itself right onto him, and the smoke and the leaves hung like a big red cloud over him, and everybody had their eyes fastened tight on his face, like they couldn't turn 'em anywhere else if they tried. But he didn't begin prayun' straight off. He seemed to stop, and then says he, 'What shall we pray for?' and just then there came a kind of a snort, and a big voice shouted out, 'Salvation!' and then there come another snort, —'Hooff!'—like there was a scared horse got loose right in there among the people; and some of 'em jumped up from their seats, and tumbled over the benches, and some of 'em bounced off, and fell into fits, and the women screeched and fainted, thick as flies. It give me about the worst feelun' I ever had in my life: went through me like a ax, and others said the same; some of 'em said it was like beun' scared in the dark, or more like when you think you're just goun' to die."
Abel Reverdy stopped for the effect on Braile, who had been smoking tranquilly throughout, and who now asked quietly, "And what was it?"
"What was it? A man! A stranger that nobody seen before, and nobody suspicioned was there till they hearn him give that kind of snort, and they seen him standun' right in front of the mourners' bench under Elder Grove's pulpit. He was in his bare head, and he had a suit of long, glossy, jet-black hair hengun down back of his ears clean to his shoulders. He was kind of pale like, and sad-lookun', and he had a Roman nose some like yourn, and eyes like two coals, just black fire, kind of. He was putty thickset, round the shoulders, but he slimmed down towards his legs, and he stood about six feet high. But the thing of it," Reverdy urged, seeing that Braile remained outwardly unmoved, "was the way he was dressed. I s'pose the rest beun' all in brown jeans, and linsey woolsey, made us notice it more. He was dressed in the slickest kind of black broadcloth, with a long frock-coat, and a white cravat. He had on a ruffled shirt, and a tall beaver hat, the color of the fur, and a pair of these here high boots, with his breeches strapped down under 'em."
Braile limbered himself from his splint-bottom chair, and came forward to the edge of the porch, as if to be sure of spitting quite under the claybank's body. Not until he had folded himself down into his seat again and tilted it back did he ask, "Goin' to order a suit?"
"Oh, well!" said Reverdy, with a mingling of disappointed hope, hurt vanity, and involuntary pleasure.
If he had been deeply moved by the incident which he had tried to make Braile see with his own sense of its impressiveness, it could not have been wholly with the hope of impressing Braile that he had stopped to tell it. His notion might have been that Braile would ridicule it, and so help him throw off the lingering hold which it had upon him. His pain and his pleasure both came from Braile's leaving the incident alone and turning the ridicule upon him. That was cruel, and yet funny, Reverdy had inwardly to own, as it touched the remoteness from a full suit of black broadcloth represented by his hickory shirt and his butternut trousers held up by a single suspender passing over his shoulder and fastened before and behind with wooden pegs. His straw hat, which he had braided himself, and his wife had sewed into shape the summer before, was ragged round the brim, and a tuft of his yellow hair escaped through a break in the crown. It was as far from a tall hat of fur-colored beaver as his bare feet were from a pair of high boots such as the stranger at the camp-meeting had worn, though his ankles were richly shaded in three colors from the road, the field, and the barnyard. He liked the joke so well that the hurt of it could hardly keep him from laughing as he thumped his mare's ribs with his naked heels and bade her get up.
She fetched a deep sigh, but she did not move.
"Better light," Braile said; "you wouldn't get that corn ground in time for breakfast, now."
"I reckon," Reverdy said aloud, but to himself, rather than Braile, and with his mind on his wife in the log cabin where he had left her in high rebellion which she promised him nothing but a bag of cornmeal could reduce, "she don't need to wait for me, exactly. She could grate herself some o' the new corn, and she's got some bacon, anyway."
"Better light," Braile said again.
The sound of frying which had risen above their voices within had ceased, and after a few quick movements of feet over the puncheon floor, with some clicking of knives and dishes, the feet came to the door opening on the porch and a handsome elderly woman looked out.
She was neatly dressed in a home-woven linsey-woolsey gown, with a blue check apron reaching to its hem in front, and a white cloth passed round her neck and crossed over her breast; she had a cap on her iron gray hair.
Braile did not visibly note her presence in saying, "The woman will want to hear about it."
"Hear about what?" his wife asked, and then she said to Reverdy, "Good morning, Abel. Won't you light and have breakfast with us? It's just ready. I reckon Sally will excuse you."
"Well, she will if you say so, Mrs. Braile." Reverdy made one action of throwing his leg over the claybank's back to the ground, and slipping the bridle over the smooth peg left from the limb of the young tree-trunk which formed one of the posts of the porch. "My!" he said, as he followed his hostess indoors, "you do have things nice. I never come here without wantun' to have my old shanty whitewashed inside like yourn is, and the logs plastered outside; the mud and moss of that chinkun' and daubun' keeps fallun' out, and lettun' all the kinds of weather there is in on us, and Sally she's at me about it, too; she's wuss'n I am, if anything. I reckon if she had her say we'd have a two-room cabin, too, and a loft over both parts, like you have, Mis' Braile, or a frame house, even. But I don't believe anybody but you could keep this floor so clean. Them knots in the puncheons just shine! And that chimbly-piece with that plaster of Paris Samuel prayin' in it; well, if Sally's as't me for a Samuel once I reckon she has a hundred times; and that clock! It's a pictur'." He looked about the interior as he took the seat offered him at the table, and praised the details of the furnishing with a reference to the effect of each at home. In this he satisfied that obscure fealty of the husband who feels that such a connection of the absent wife with some actual experience of his is equivalent to their joint presence. It was not so much to praise Mrs. Braile's belongings to her as to propitiate the idea of Mrs. Reverdy that he continued his flatteries. In the meantime Braile, who came in behind him, stood easing himself from one foot to the other, with an ironical eye slanted at Reverdy from under his shaggy brows; he dropped his head now, and began walking up and down the room while he listened in a sort of sarcastic patience.
"Ain't you goin' to have anything to eat, Mr. Braile?" his wife demanded, with plaintive severity.
Braile pulled at his cob-pipe which muttered responsively, "Not so long as I've got anything to smoke. Gets up," he explained to Reverdy, "and jerks it out of my mouth, when we haven't got company."
"I reckon Abel knows how much to believe of that," Mrs. Braile commented, and Reverdy gave the pleased chuckle of a social inferior raised above his level by amiable condescension. But as if he thought it safest to refuse any share in this intimacy, he ended his adulations with the opinion, "I should say that if these here two rooms was th'owed together they'd make half as much as the Temple."
Braile stopped in his walk and bent his frown on Reverdy, but not in anger. "This is the Temple: Temple of Justice—Justice of the Peace. Do you people think there's only one kind of temple in Leatherwood?"
Reverdy gave his chuckle again. "Well, Squire, I ought to know, anyway, all the log-rollin' I done for you last 'lection time. I didn't hardly believe you'd git in, because they said you was a infidel."
"Well, you couldn't deny it, could you?" Braile asked, with increasing friendliness in his frown.
"No, I couldn't deny it, Squire. But the way I told 'em to look at it was, Mis' Braile was Christian enough for the whole family. Said you knowed more law and she knowed more gospel than all the rest of Leatherwood put together."
"And that was what elected the family, was it?" Braile asked. "Well, I hope Mrs. Braile won't refuse to serve," he said, and he began his walk again. "Tell her about that horse that broke into the meetin' last night, and tried to play man."
Reverdy laughed, shaking his head over his plate of bacon and reaching for the corn-pone which Mrs. Braile passed him. "You do beat all, Squire, the way you take the shine off of religious experience. Why," he addressed himself to Mrs. Braile, "it wasn't much, as fur as anybody could make out. It was just the queerness of the whole thing." Reverdy went over the facts again, beginning with deprecation for the Squire but gathering respect for them in the interest they seemed to have for Mrs. Braile.
She listened silently, and then she asked, "And what became of him?"
"Well, that's where you got me, Mrs. Braile. Don't anybody know what become of him. Just kind of went out like a fire, when the Power was workun' the hardest, and wasn't there next time you looked where he been. Kind o' th'owed cold water on the meetun' and folks begun goun' home, and breakun' up and turnun' in; well it was pretty nigh sun-up, anyway, by that time. I don't know! Made me feel all-overish. Seemed like I'd been dreamun' and that man was a Vision." Reverdy had lifted an enraptured face, but at sight of Braile pausing in sarcastic pleasure, he dropped his head with a snicker. "I know the Squire'll laugh. But that's the way it was."
"He'll laugh the other side of his mouth, some day, if he keeps on," Mrs. Braile said with apparent reproof and latent pride. "Was Sally at the meetin' with you?"
"Well, no, she wasn't," Reverdy began, and Braile asked:
"And did you wake her up and tell her about it?"
"Well, no, I didn't, Squire, that's a fact. She woke me up. I just crep' in quiet and felt out the soft side of a puncheon for a nap, and the firs' thing I know was Sally havin' me by the shoulder, and wantun' to know about gittun' that corn groun' for breakfas'. My! I don't know what she'll say, when I do git back." Reverdy laughed a fearful pleasure, but his gaiety was clouded by a shadow projected from the cabin door.
"Well, I mought 'a' knowed it!" a voice at once fond and threatening called to Reverdy's quailing figure. The owner of the voice was a young woman unkempt as to the pale hair which escaped from the knot at her neck, and stuck out there and dangled about her face in spite of the attempts made to gather it under the control of the high horn comb holding its main strands together. The lankness of her long figure showed in the calico wrapper which seemed her sole garment; and her large features were respectively lank in their way, nose and chin and high cheek bones; her eyes wabbled in their sockets with the sort of inquiring laughter that spread her wide, loose mouth. She was barefooted, like Reverdy, on whom her eyes rested with a sort of burlesque menace, so that she could not turn them to Mrs. Braile in the attention which manners required of her, even when she added, "I just 'spicioned that he'd 'a' turned in here, soon's I smelt your breakfas', Mrs. Braile; and the dear knows whether I blame him so much, nuther."
"Then you'd better draw up too, Sally," Mrs. Braile said, without troubling herself to rise from her own chair in glancing toward another for Mrs. Reverdy.
"Oh, no, I couldn't, Mrs. Braile. I on'y just meant how nice it smelt. I got me somepin at home before I left, and I ain't a bit hungry."
"Well, then, you eat breakfast for me; I'm hungry," the Squire said. "Sit down! You couldn't get Abel away now, not if you went on an hour. Don't separate families!"
"Well, just as you say, Squire," Mrs. Reverdy snickered, and she submitted to pull up the chair which Mrs. Braile's glance had suggested. "It beats all what a excitement there is in this town about the goun's on at the camp-meetun', last night. If I've heard it from one I've heard it from a dozen. I s'pose Abel's tol' you?"—she addressed herself impartially to Mrs. Braile across the table and to the Squire tilted against the wall in his chair, smoking behind his wife.
"Not a word," the Squire said, and his wife did not trouble herself to protest; Reverdy opened his mouth in a soundless laugh at the Squire's humor, and then filled it with bacon and corn-pone, and ducked his head in silence over his plate. "What goings on?"
"Why, that man that came in while Elder Grove was snatchun' the brands from the burnun', and snorted like a horse—But I know Abel's tol' you! It's just like one of your jokes, Squire Braile; ain't it, Mrs. Braile?" Sally referred herself to one and the other.
"You won't get either of us to say, Sally," Mrs. Braile let the Squire answer for both. "You'd better go on. I couldn't hear too often about a man that snorted like a horse, if Abel did tell. What did the horses hitched back of the tents think about it? Any of 'em try to shout like a man?"
"Well, you may laugh, Squire Braile," Sally said with a toss of her head for the dignity she failed of. She slumped forward with a laugh, and when she lifted her head she said through the victual that filled her mouth, "I dunno what the horses thought, but the folks believe it was a apostle, or somepin."
"Who said so? Abel?" "Oh, pshaw! D'you suppose I b'lieve anythin' Abel Reverdy says?" and this gave Reverdy a joy which she shared with him; he tried to impart it to Mrs. Braile, impassively pouring him a third cup of coffee. "I jes' met Mis' Leonard comun' up the crossroad, and she tol' me she saw our claybank hitched here, and I s'picioned Abel was'nt fur off, and that's why I stopped."
The husband and wife looked across the table in feigned fear and threat that gave them pleasure beyond speech.
"She didn't say it was your claybank that snorted?" the Squire gravely inquired.
"Squire Braile, you surely will kill me," and the husband joined the wife in a shout of laughter. "Now I can't hardly git back to what she did say. But, I can tell you, it wasn't nawthun' to laugh at. Plenty of 'em keeled over where they sot, and a lot bounced up and down like it was a earthquake and pretty near all the women screamed. But he stood there, straight as a ramrod, and never moved a eye-winker. She said his face was somepin awful: just as solemn and still! He never spoke after that one word 'Salvation,' but every once in a while he snorted. Nobody seen him come in, or ever seen him before till he first snorted, and then they didn't see anybody else. The preacher, he preached along, and tried to act like as if nowthun' had happened, but it was no use; nobody didn't hardly pay no attention to him 'ceptun' the stranger himself; he never took his eyes off Elder Grove; some thought he was tryun' to charm him, like a snake does a bird; but it didn't faze the elder."
"Elder too old a bird?" the Squire suggested.
"Yes, I reckon he mought been," Sally innocently assented.
"And when he gave the benediction, the snorter disappeared in a flash, with a strong smell of brimstone, I suppose?"
"Why, that was the thing of it, Squire. He just stayed, and shuck hands with everybody, pleasant as a basket of chips; and he went home with David Gillespie. He was just as polite to the poorest person there, but it was the big bugs that tuck the most to him."
"Well," the Squire summed up, "I don't see but what your reports agree, and I reckon there must be some truth in 'em. Who's that up there at the pike-crossing?" He did not trouble himself to do more than frown heavily in the attempt to make out the passer. Mrs. Reverdy jumped from her chair and ran out to look.
"Well, as sure as I'm alive, if it ain't that Gillespie girl! I bet she'll know all about it. I'll just ketch up with her and git the news out of her, if there is any. Say, say, Jane!" she called to the girl, as she ran up the road with the cow-like gait which her swirling skirt gave her. The girl stopped for her; then in apparent haste she moved on again, and Sally moved with her out of sight; her voice still made itself heard in uncouth cries and laughter.
Braile called into the kitchen where Reverdy had remained in the enjoyment of Mrs. Braile's patient hospitality, "Here's your chance, Abel!"
"Chance?" Reverdy questioned back with a full mouth.
"To get that corn of yours ground, and beat Sally home."
"Well, Squire," Reverdy said, "I reckon you're right." He came out into the open space where Braile sat. "Well, I won't fergit this breakfast very soon," he offered his gratitude to Mrs. Braile over his shoulder, as he passed through the door.
"You're welcome, Abel," she answered kindly, and when he had made his manners to the impassive Squire and mounted his claybank and thumped the horse into motion with his naked heels, she came out into the porch and said to her husband, "I don't know as I liked your hinting him out of the house that way."
Braile did not take the point up, but remained thoughtfully smiling in the direction his guest had taken. "The idea is that most people marry their opposites," he remarked, "and that gives the children the advantage of inheriting their folly from two kinds of fools. But Abel and Sally are a perfect pair, mental and moral twins; the only thing they don't agree in is their account of what became of that snorting exhorter. But the difference there isn't important. If an all-wise Providence has kept them from transmitting a double dose of the same brand of folly to posterity, that's one thing in favor of Providence." He took up his wife's point now. "If I hadn't hinted him away, he'd have stayed to dinner; you wouldn't have hinted him away if he'd stayed to supper."
"Well, are you going to have some breakfast?" his wife asked. "I'll get you some fresh coffee."
"Well, I would like a little—with the head on—Martha, that's a fact. Have I got time for another pipe?"
"No, I don't reckon you have," his wife said, and she passed into the kitchen again, where she continued to make such short replies as Braile's discourse required of her.
He knocked his pipe out on the edge of his still uptilted chair, as he talked. "One fool like Abel I can stand, and I was just going to come in when Sally came in sight; and then I knew that two fools like Abel would make me sick. So I waited till the Creator of heaven and earth could get a minute off and help me out. But He seemed pretty busy with the solar system this morning, and I had about given up when He sent that Gillespie girl in sight. I knew that would fetch Sally; but it was an inspiration of my own to suggest Abel's chance to him; I don't want to put that on your Maker, Martha."
"It was your inspiration to get him to stay in the first place," Mrs. Braile said within.
"No, Martha; that was my unfailing obedience to the sacred laws of hospitality; I didn't expect to fall under their condemnation a second time, though." Mrs. Braile did not answer, and by the familiar scent from within, Braile knew that his coffee must be nearly ready. As he dropped his chair forward, he heard a sound of frying, and "Pshaw, Martha!" he called. "You're not getting me some fresh bacon?"
"Did you suppose there'd be some left?" she demanded, while she stepped to and fro at her labors. Her steps ceased and she called, "Well, come in now, Matthew, if you don't want everything to get cold, like the pone is."
Braile obeyed, saying, "Oh, I can stand cold pone," and at sight of the table with the coffee and bacon renewed upon it, he mocked tenderly, "Now just to reward you, Martha, I've got half a mind to go with you to the next meeting in the Temple."
"I don't know as I'm goin' myself," she said, pouring the coffee.
"I wish you would, just to please me," he teased.
No one could say quite how it happened that the stranger went home from the camp-meeting with old David Gillespie and his girl. Many had come forward with hospitable offers, and the stranger had been affable with all; but he had slipped through the hands he shook and had parried the invitations made him. Gillespie had not seemed to invite him, and his shy daughter had shrunk aside when the chief citizens urged their claims; yet the stranger went with them to their outlying farm, and spent all the next day there alone in the tall woods that shut its corn fields in.
Sally Reverdy had failed to get any light from the Gillespie girl when she ran out from Squire Braile's cabin. The girl seemed still under the spell that had fallen upon many at the meeting, and it appeared to Sally that she did not want to talk; at any rate she did not talk to any satisfactory end. A squirrel hunter believed he had caught a glimpse of the stranger in the chestnut woods behind the Gillespie spring-house, but he was not a man whose oath was acceptable in the community and his belief was not generally shared. It was thought that the stranger would reappear at the last night of the camp-meeting, but the Gillespies came without him, and reported that they had expected he would come by himself.
The camp-meeting broke up after the Sunday morning service and most of the worshipers, sated with their devotional experience, went home, praising the Power in song as they rode away in the wagons laden with their camp furniture, and their children strewn over the bedding. But for others, the fire of the revival burned through the hot, long, August Sabbath day, and a devout congregation crowded the Temple.
The impulse of the week past held over to the night unabated. The spacious log-built house was packed from wall to wall; the men stood dense; the seats were filled with women; only a narrow path was left below the pulpit for those who might wish to rise and confess Christ before the congregation. The people waited in a silence broken by their deep breathing, their devout whispering, the scraping of their feet; now and then a babe, whose mother could not leave it at home, wailed pitifully or spitefully till it was coaxed or scolded still; now and then some one coughed. The air was thick; a bat scandalized the assemblage by flying in at the open door, and wavering round the tallow candles on the pulpit; one of the men beat it down with his hat, and then picked it up and crowded his way down the aisle, out into the night with it. When he came back it was as if he had found the stranger whom they were all consciously expecting, and had brought him in with David Gillespie and his girl. She was tall and straight, like her father, and her hair was red, like his; her eyes were gray blue, and the look in them was both wilful and dreamy.
The stranger smiled and took the hands stretched out to him in passing by several of the different sectarians who used the Temple. Gillespie seemed not to notice or to care for the greetings to his guest, and his girl wore her wonted look of vague aloofness.
Matthew Braile had been given a seat at the front, perhaps in deference to his age and dignity; perhaps in confusion at his presence. He glanced up at the stranger with a keen glint through his branching eyebrows, and made a guttural sound; his wife pushed him; and he said; "What?" and "Oh!" quite audibly; and she pushed him again for answer.
The Gillespies sat down with the stranger in the foremost bench. He wore the black broadcloth coat of the Friday night before; his long hair, combed back from his forehead, fell down his shoulders almost to his middle; the glances of his black eyes roved round the room, but were devoutly lowered at the prayer which opened the service. It was a Methodist who preached, but somehow to-night he had not the fervor of his sect; his sermon was cold, and addressed itself to the faith rather than the hope of his hearers. He spoke as from the hold of an oppressive spell; at times he was perplexed, and lost his place in his exhortation. In the close heat some drowsed, and the preacher was distracted by snoring from a corner near the door. He lifted his voice as if to rouse the sleeper, or to drown the noise; but he could not. He came to the blessing at last, and the disappointed congregation rose to go out. Suddenly the loud snort that had dismayed the camp-meeting sounded through the heavy air, and then there came the thrilling shout of "Salvation."
The people did not need to look where the stranger had been sitting; he had done what they hoped, what they expected, and he was now towering over those near him, with his head thrown back, and his hair tossed like a mane on his shoulders. The people stopped; some who had gone out crowded in again; no one knew quite what to do. The minister halted on the pulpit stairs; he had done his part for the night, and he did not apparently resent the action of the man who now took it on him to speak.
A tall, stout man among those who had lingered, spoke from the aisle. He was the owner of the largest farm in the neighborhood and he had one of the mills on the creek. In his quality of miller everybody knew him, and he had the authority of a public character. Now he said:
"We want to hear something more than a snort and a shout from our brother here. We heard them Friday night, and we've been talkin' about it ever since."
The appeal was half joking, half entreating. The minister was still hesitating on the pulpit stairs, and he looked at the stranger. "Will you come up, Brother—"
"Call me Dylks—for the present," the stranger answered with a full voice.
"Brother Dylks," the minister repeated, and he came down, and gave him the right hand of fellowship.
The Gillespies looked on with their different indifference. Dylks turned to them: "Shall I speak?"
"Speak!" the girl said, but her father said nothing.
Dylks ran quickly up the pulpit steps: "We will join in prayer!" he called out, and he held the congregation, now returned to their places, in the spell of a quick, short supplication. He ended it with the Lord's Prayer; then he said, "Let us sing," and line after line he gave out the hymn,
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair We wretched sinners lay."
He expounded each stanza, as to the religious sense and the poetic meaning, before he led the singing. He gave out a passage of Scripture, as a sort of text, but he did not keep to it; he followed with other passages, and his discourse was a rehearsal of these rather than a sermon. His memory in them was unerring; women who knew their Bibles by heart sighed their satisfaction in his perfectness; they did not care for the relevance or irrelevance of the passages; all was Scripture, all was the one inseparable Word of God, dreadful, blissful, divine, promising heaven, threatening hell. Groans began to go up from the people held in the strong witchery of the man's voice. They did not know whether he spoke long or not. Before they knew, he was as if sweeping them to their feet with a repetition of his opening hymn, and they were singing with him:
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair We wretched sinners lay."
It ended, and he gave his wild brutish snort, and then his heart-shaking cry of "Salvation!"
Some of the chief men remained to speak with him, to contend for him as their guest; but old David Gillespie did not contend with them. "You can have him," he said to the miller, Peter Hingston, "if he wants to go with you." He was almost rude, and his daughter was not opener with the women who crowded about her trying to make her say something that would feed their hunger to know more. She remained hard and cold, almost dumb; it seemed to them that she was not worthy to have had him under her father's roof. As for her father, they had no patience with him for not putting in a word to claim the stranger while the others were pressing him to come home with them. In spite of the indifference of Gillespie and his girl, Dylks elected to remain with them, and when he could pull himself from the crowd he went away into the night between them.
When Matthew Braile made his escape with his wife from the crowd and began to walk home through the dim, hot night, he said, "Is Jane Gillespie any particular hand at fried chicken?"
"Now you stop, Matthew!" his wife said.
"Because that would account for it. I reckon it was fried chicken the ravens brought to Elijah. All men of God are fond of fried chicken."
His wife would not dispute directly with his perversity; she knew that in this mood of his it would be useless trying to make him partake the wonder she shared with her neighbors that the stranger had chosen David Gillespie again for his host out of the many leading men who had pressed their hospitality upon him, and that he should have preferred his apathy to their eagerness.
"I wish he had worn his yellow beaver hat in the pulpit," Braile went on. "It must have been a disappointment to Abe Reverdy, but perhaps he consoled himself with a full sight of the fellow's long hair. He ought to part it in the middle, like Thomas Jefferson, and do it up in a knot like a woman. Well, we can't have everything, even in a man of God; but maybe he isn't really a man of God. That would account for a good many things. But I think he shows taste in preferring old Gillespie to Peter Hingston; next to Abe Reverdy he's the biggest fool in Leatherwood. Maybe the prophet knew by instinct that there would be better fried chicken at Gillespie's."
His wife disdained to make a direct answer. "You may be sure they give him of their best, whatever it is. And the Gillespies may be poor, but when it comes to respectability and good works they've got a right to hold their heads up with the best in this settlement. That girl has done all the work of the house since her mother died, when she wasn't a little thing half grown; and old David has slaved off his mortgage till his farm's free and clear; and he don't owe anybody a cent."
"Oh, I don't say anything against Gillespie; all I say is that Brother Dylks knows which side his bread is buttered on; inspired, probably."
"What makes you so bitter, to-night, Matthew?" his wife halted him a little, with her question.
"Well, the Temple always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I hate to see brethren agreeing together in unity. You oughtn't to have taken me, Martha."
"I'll never take you again!" she said.
"And that man's a rascal, if ever there was one. Real men of God don't wear their hair down to their waists and come snorting and shouting in black broadcloth to a settlement like this for the good of folks' souls."
"You've got no right to say that, Matthew. And if you go round talking that way you'll make yourself more unpopular than you are already."
"Oh, I'll be careful, Martha. I'll just think it, and perhaps put two or three of the leading intellects like Abe and Sally on their guard. But come, come, Martha! You know as well as I do, he's a rascal. Don't you believe it?"
"I believe in giving everybody a chance. Don't your own law books say a man's innocent till he's proved guilty?"
"Something like that. And I'm not trying Brother Dylks in open court at present. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt if he's ever brought before my judgment seat. But you've got to allow that his long hair and black broadcloth and his snort and shout are against him."
"I don't believe in them any more than you do," she owned. "But don't you persecute him because he's religious, Matthew."
"Oh, I don't object to him because he's religious, though I think there's more religion in Leatherwood already than any ten towns would know what to do with. He's got to do more than preach his brand of religion before I'd want to trouble him."
They were at the hewn log which formed the step to the porch between the rooms of their cabin. A lank hound rose from the floor, and pulled himself back from his forward-planted paws, and whimpered a welcome to them; a captive coon rattled his chain from his corner under the porch roof.
"Why don't you let that poor thing go, Matthew?" Mrs. Braile asked.
"Well, I will, some day. But the little chap that brought it to me was like our—"
He stopped; both were thinking the same thing and knew they were. "I saw the likeness from the first, too," the wife said.
The Gillespies arrived at their simpler log cabin half an hour later than the Brailes at theirs. It was on the border of the settlement, and beyond it for a mile there was nothing but woods, walnut and chestnut and hickory, not growing thickly as the primeval forest grew to the northward along the lake, but standing openly about in the pleasant park-like freedom of the woods-pastures of that gentler latitude. Beyond the wide stretch of trees and meadow lands, the cornfields and tobacco patches opened to the sky again. On their farther border stood a new log cabin, defined by its fresh barked logs in the hovering dark.
Gillespie pulled the leatherwood latch-string which lifted the catch of his door, and pushed it open. "Go in, Jane," he said to his daughter, and the girl vanished slimly through, with a glance over her shoulder at Dylks where he stood aloof a few steps from her father.
Gillespie turned to his guest. "Did you see her?" he asked.
"Yes, I walked over to her house this morning."
"Did any one see you?"
"No. Her man was away."
Gillespie turned with an effect of helplessness, and looked down at the wood-pile where he stood. "I don't know," he said, "what keeps me from spliting your head open with that ax."
"I do," Dylks said.
"Man!" the old man threatened, "Don't go too far."
"It wasn't the fear of God which you pretend is in your heart, but the fear of man." Dylks added with a vulgar drop from the solemn words, "You would hang for it. I haven't put myself in your power without counting all the costs to both of us."
Gillespie waved his answer off with an impatient hand.
"Did she know you?"
"Why not? It hasn't been so long. I haven't changed so much. I wear my hair differently, and I dress better since I've been in Philadelphia. She knew me in a minute as well as I knew her. I didn't ask for her present husband; I thought one at a time was enough."
"What are you going to do?"
"Nothing—first. I might have told her she had been in a hurry. But if she don't bother me, I won't her. We got as far as that. And I reckon she won't, but I thought we'd better have a clear understanding, and she knows now it's bigamy in her case, and bigamy's a penitentiary offense. I made that clear. And now see here, David: I'm going to stay here in this settlement, and I don't want any trouble from you, no matter what you think of my doings, past, present, or future. I don't want you to say anything, or look anything. Don't you let on, even to that girl of yours, that you ever saw me before in your life. If you do, you'll wish you had split my head open with that ax. But I'm not afraid; I've got you safe, and I've got your sister safe."
Gillespie groaned. Then he said desperately, "Listen here, Joseph Dylks! I know what you're after, here, because you always was: other people's money. I've got three hundred dollars saved up since I paid off the mortgage. If you'll take it and go—"
"Three hundred dollars! No, no! Keep your money, old man. I don't rob the poor." Dylks lifted himself, and said with that air of mysterious mastery which afterwards won so many to his obedience, "I work my work. Let no man gainsay me or hinder me." He walked to and fro in the starlight, swelling, with his head up and his mane of black hair cloudily flying over his shoulders as he turned. "I come from God."
Gillespie looked at him as he paced back and forth. "If I didn't know you for a common scoundrel that married my sister against my will, and lived on her money till it was gone, and then left her and let her believe he was dead, I might believe you did come from God—or the Devil, you —you turkey cock, you stallion! But you can't prance me down, or snort me down. I don't agree to anything. I don't say I won't tell who you are when it suits me. I won't promise to keep it from this one or that one or any one. I'll let you go just so far, and then—"
"All right, David, I'll trust you, as I trust your sister. Between you I'm safe. And now, you lay low! That's my advice." He dropped from his mystery and his mastery to a level of colloquial teasing. "I'm going to rest under your humble roof to-night, and to-morrow I'm going to the mansion of Peter Hingston. His gates will be set wide for me, and all the double log-cabin palaces and frame houses of this royal city of Leatherwood will hunger for my presence. You could always hold your tongue, David, and you can easily leave all the whys and wherefores to me. I won't go from your hospitality with an ungrateful tongue; I will proclaim before the assembled multitudes in your temple that I left you secure in the faith, and that I turned to others because they needed me more. I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; they will understand that. So good night, David, and good morning. I shall be gone before even you are up."
Gillespie made no answer as he followed his guest indoors. Long before he slept he heard the man's powerful breathing like that of some strong animal in its sleep; an ox lying in the field, or a horse standing in its stall. At times it broke chokingly and then he snorted it smooth and regular again. At daybreak Gillespie thought of rising, but he drowsed, and he was asleep when his daughter came to the foot of the ladder which climbed to his chamber in the cabin loft, and called to him that his breakfast was ready.
The figure of a woman who held her hooded shawl under her chin, stole with steps often checked through the limp, dew-laden grass of the woods-pasture and slipped on the rotting logs. But she caught herself from tumbling, and safely gained the border of Gillespie's corn field. There she sat down trembling on the stone doorstep of the spring-house, and waited rather than rested in the shelter of the chestnut boughs that overhung the roof. She was aware of the spring gurgling under the stone on its way into the sunshine, from the crocks of cream-covered milk and of butter in the cool dark of the hut; she sensed the thick August heat of the sun already smiting its honeyed odors from the corn; she heard the scamper of the squirrels preying upon the ripening ears, and whisking in and out of the woods or dropping into the field from the tips of the boughs overhanging the nearer rows; but it all came blurred to her consciousness.
She was recognizably Gillespie's sister, but her eyes and hair were black. She was wondering how she could get to speak with him when Jane was not by. He would send the girl away at a sign from her, but she could not have that; the thing must be kept from the girl but not seem to be kept.
She let her arms rest on her knees; her helpless hands hung heavy from them; her head was bowed, and her whole body drooped under the burden of her heart, as if it physically dragged her down. Jane would be coming soon with the morning's milk to pour into the crocks; she heard a step; the girl was coming; but she must rest a moment.
"What are you doing here, Nancy?" her brother's voice asked.
"Oh, is it you, David? Oh, blessed be the name of the Lord! Maybe He's going to be good to me, after all. David, is he gone?"
"He's gone, Nancy."
"He's gone; I don't care whether he's gone in anger or not."
"Did he tell you he saw me?"
"And did you promise him not to tell on him? To Jane? To any one?"
"No." Gillespie stood holding a bucket of milk in his hand; she sat gathering her shawl under her chin as if she were still coming through the suncleft shadows of the woods pasture.
"What do you want me to do, Nancy?"
"I don't know, I don't know. I haven't slept all night."
"You mustn't give way like this. Don't you see any duty for you in this matter?"
"Duty? Oh, David!" Her heart forboded the impossible demand upon it.
Gillespie set his bucket of milk down beside the spring. "Nancy," he said, "a woman cannot have two husbands. It's a crime against the State. It's a sin against God."
"But I haven't got two husbands! What do you mean, David? Didn't I believe he was dead? Didn't you? Oh, David, what—Do you think I've done wrong? You let me do it!"
"I don't think you've done wrong; but look out you don't do it. You are doing it, now. I can't let you do it. I can't let you live in sin!"
"In sin? Me?"
"You. Every minute you live now with Laban you live in sin. Your first husband, that was dead, is alive. He can't claim you unless you allow it; but neither can your second husband, now. If you live on with Laban a day longer—an hour—a minute—you live in deadly sin. I thought of it all night but I had not thought it out till this minute when I first saw you sitting there and I knew how miserable you were, and my heart seemed to bleed at the sight of you."
"You may well say that, David," the woman answered with a certain pride in the vastness of her calamity. "If it was another woman I couldn't bear to think of it. Why does He do it? Why does He set such traps for us?"
"Nancy!" her brother called sternly.
"Oh, yes, it's easy enough for you! But if Rachel was here, she'd see it different."
"Woman!" her brother said, "don't try to hide behind the dead in your sin."
"It's no sin! I was as innocent as the babe unborn when I married Laban—as innocent as he was, poor boy, when he would have me; and we all thought he was dead. Oh, why couldn't he have been dead?"
"This is murder you have in your heart now, Nancy," the old man said, with who knows what awful pleasure in his casuistry, so pitilessly unerring. "If the life of that wicked man could buy you safety in your sin you could wish it taken."
"Oh, oh, oh! What shall I do, what shall I do." She wailed out the words with her head fallen forward on her knees, and her loose hair dripping over them.
"Do? Go home, and bring your little one, and come to me. I will deal with Laban when he gets back tonight."
She started erect. "And let him think I've left him? And the neighbors, let them think we've quarreled, and I couldn't live with him?"
"It won't matter what the world thinks," Gillespie said, and he spoke of the small backwoods settlement as if it were some great center of opinion such as in great communities dispenses fame and infamy, and makes its judgments supremely dreaded. "Besides," he faltered, "no one is knowing but ourselves to his coming back. It can seem as if he left you."
"And I live such a lie as that? Is this you, David?"
It was she who rose highest now, as literally she did, in standing on the stone where she had crouched, above the level of his footing.
"I—I say it to spare you, Nancy. I don't wish it. But I wish to make it easy—or a little bit easier—something you can bear better."
"Oh, I know, David, I know! You would save me if you could. But maybe —maybe it ain't what we think it is. Maybe he was outlawed by staying away so long?"
Neither of them named Dylks, but each knew whom the other meant, throughout their talk.
"A lawyer might let you think so till he got all your money."
"Matthew Braile wouldn't."
She drooped again. "Oh, well, I must do it. I must do it. I'll go and get ready and I'll come to you. What will Jane think?"
"I'll take care of what Jane thinks. When do you expect Laban back?"
"Not before sundown. I'll not come till I see him."
"We'll be ready for you." He moved now to open the spring-house door; she turned and was lost to him in the lights and shadows of the woods-pasture. On its further border her cabin stood, and from it came the sound of a pitiful wail; at the back door a little child stood, staying itself by the slats let into grooves in the jambs. She had left it in its low cradle asleep, and it must have waked and clambered out and crept to the barrier and been crying for her there; its small face was soaked with tears.
She ran forward with long leaps out of the cornfield and caught it to her neck and mumbled its wet cheeks with hungry kisses. "Oh, my honey, my honey! Did it think its mother had left—"
She stopped at the word with a pang, and began to go about the rude place that was the simple home where after years of hell she had found an earthly heaven. Often she stopped, and wondered at herself. It seemed impossible she could be thinking it, be doing it, but she was thinking and doing it, and at sundown, when she knew by the eager shadow of a man in the doorway, pausing to listen if the baby were awake, all had been thought and done.
The emotional frenzies, recurring through the day, were past, and she could speak steadily to the man, in the absence of greeting which often emphasizes the self-forgetfulness of love as well as marks the formlessness of common life: "Your supper's waitin' for you, Laban; I've had mine; you must be hungry. It's out in the shed; it's cooler there. Go round; baby's asleep."
The man obeyed, and she heard him drop the bucket into the well, and lift it by the groaning sweep, and pour the water into the basin, and then splash himself, with murmurs of comfort, presently muffled in the towel. Her hearing followed him through his supper, and she knew he was obediently eating it, and patiently waiting for her to account for whatever was unwonted in her greeting. She loved him most of all for his boylike submission to her will and every caprice of it, but now she hardly knew how to deny his tacit question as he ventured in from the shed.
"Don't come near me, Laban," she said with a stony quiet. "Don't touch me. I ain't your wife, any more."
He could not speak at first; then it was like him to ask, "Why—why—What have I done, Nancy?"
"You, you poor soul?" she answered. "Nothing but good, all your days! He's come back."
He knew whom she meant, but he had to ask, "Joseph Dylks? Why I thought he was—"
"Don't say it! It's murder! I don't want you to have his blood on you too. Oh, if he was only dead! Yes, yes! I have a right to wish it! Oh, God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
"When—when—how did you know it, Nancy?"
"Yesterday morning or day before—just after you left. I reckon he was waitin' for you to go. I'm glad you went first." The man looked up at the rifle resting on the pegs above the fireplace. "Laban, don't!" she cried. "I looked at it when he was walkin' away, and I know what you're thinkin'."
"What is he goin' to do?" the man asked from his daze.
"Nothing. He said he wouldn't do nothing if I didn't. If he hadn't said it I might believe it!"
Laban shifted his weight where he stood from one foot to the other.
"He passed the night at David's. He's passed two nights there."
"Was it the snorting man?"
"I heard about him at the Cross Roads. Why didn't David tell us yesterday?"
"Maybe he hadn't thought it out. David thinks slow. He likes to be sure before he speaks. He was sure enough this morning!" the woman ended bitterly.
"What did he say?"
"He said it was living in sin for us to keep together if he was alive."
Laban pondered it. "I reckon if we come together without knowing he was alive, it ain't no sin."
"Yes, it is!" she shrieked.
"We was married just like anybody; we didn't make no secret of it; we've lived together four years. Are you goin' to unlive them years by stoppin' now?"
"Don't you s'pose I been over all that a million times? My mind's sore workin' with it; there ain't a thought in me that don't ache from it. But David's right. We've got to part. I put your things in this poke here," she said, and she gave him a bag made from an old pillow tick, with a few clothes lumping it half full. "I'll carry the baby, Laban." She pulled back from him with the child in her arms. "Or no, you can carry her; you'll have to leave her, too, and you've got a right to all the good you can get of her now. Don't touch anything. I'll stay at David's, tonight, but I'll come back in the morning, and then I'll see what I'll do—stay, or go and live with David. Come!"
"And what about Joey?" Laban asked, half turning with the child when they were outside.
"I declare I forgot about Joey! I'll see, to-morrow. It seems as if my very soul was tired now.
"Joey will just think we've gone over to David's for a minute; he'll go to bed when he comes; he'll have had his supper at Peter Hingston's, anyway."
As they walked away, she said, "You're a good man, Laban Billings, to feel the way you always do about Joey. You've been a true father to him; I wonder what his own father'd have been."
"No truer father to him than I've been a husband to you, Nancy," the man said, and as they walked along together, so far apart, his speech came to him, and he began to plead their case with her as before an adverse judge. Worn as she was with the arguments for and against them after the long day of iteration, she could not refuse to let him plead. She scarcely answered him, but he knew when they reached Gillespie's cabin that she had seen them in the fierce light of her conscience, where there was no shadow of turning.
David was alone; Jane, he said, had gone to the Reverdys, and was going with the woman to the Temple.
Nancy did not seem to hear him. She took the sleeping baby from its father's arms. "Laban has come with me to say good-by before you, David. I hope you'll be satisfied."
"I hope your conscience will be satisfied, Nancy. It doesn't matter about me. Laban, do you see this thing like I do?"
"I see it like Nancy does."
"God will bless your effort for righteousness. Your path is dark before you now, but His light will shine upon it."
The old man paused helplessly, and Nancy asked "Does Jane know?"
"Not yet. And I will confess I'm not certain what to do, about her, and about the neighbors. This is a cross to me, too, Nancy. I have lived a proud life here; there has never been talk about me or mine. Now when you and Laban are parted, there will be talk."
"There's no need to be," Laban said; "not at once. They want me back at the Cross Roads, the Wilkinses do. I can go now as well as in the morning. I forgot to tell you," he added to his wife. "It was drove out of my mind."
"Oh, I don't blame you," she answered.
"I can have work there all the fall."
David Gillespie rubbed his forehead, and said tremulously: "I don't know what to say. I suppose I am weak. It'll be one kind of a lie. But, Laban—I thank you—"
"I can come back here Sundays and see Nancy and the baby," Laban suggested.
The old man's voice shook. "You'll be making it harder for yourself," was all he could say.
"But perhaps—perhaps there'll be light—that light you said—by and by—"
"Let us pray that there'll be no light from the Pit. I am a sinful man, Laban, to let you do this thing. I ought to have strength for all of us. But I am older now, I'm not what I was—the day has tried me, Nancy."
"Good-by, then, Laban," the woman said. "And don't you think hard of David. I don't. And I'm not sure I'll ever let you come. Say good-by as if it was for life." She turned to her brother. "We can kiss, I reckon?"
"Oh, I reckon," he lamented, and went indoors.
Laban opened his arms as if to take her in them; but she interposed the baby.
"Kiss her first. Me last. Just once. Now, go! I won't be weak with you like David is. And don't you be afraid for me. I can get along. I'm not a man!" She went into the cabin, with her baby over her shoulder; but in a little while she came back without it, and stared after the figure of Laban losing itself in the night. Then she sat down on the doorstep and cried; it seemed as if she never could stop; but the tears helped her.
When she lifted her head she caught the sounds of singing from the village below the upland where the cabin stood. It was the tune that carried, not the words, but she knew them from the tune; as well as if she were in the Temple with them she knew what the people were singing. While she followed the lines helplessly, almost singing them herself, she was startled by the presence of a boy, who had come silently round the cabin in his bare feet and stood beside her.
"Oh!" she cried out.
"Why, did I scare you, mom?" he asked tenderly. "I didn't mean to."
"No, Joey. I didn't know any one was there; that's all. I didn't expect you. Why ain't you at home in bed? You must be tired enough, poor boy."
"Oh, no, I ain't tired. Mr. Hingston is real good to me; he lets me rest plenty; and he says I'll make a first rate miller. I helped to dress the burrs this morning—the millstones, you know," the boy explained, proud of the technicality. "Oh, I tell you I just like it there," he said, and he laughed out his joy in it.
"You always was a glad boy, Joey," his mother said ruefully.
"Well, you wouldn't thought so if you seen me over at our house. It seemed like there was somebody dead; I dasn't hardly go in, it was so dark and still. Whyn't you there? Didn't pop come home?"
"Yes, but he had to go back to the Cross Roads; he's got work there all the fall."
"Well! We do seem to be gittin' along!" He laughed again. "I reckon you come over here because it seemed kind o' lonesome. Goin' to stay all night with Uncle?"
"Yes. You won't mind being there alone?"
"Oh, no! Not much, I reckon."
"You can stay here too, if you want to—"
"Oh, no! Mom," he confessed shyly, "I brung Benny Hingston with me. I thought you'd let him stay all night with me."
"Why, certainly, Joey—"
"He's just behind the house; I wanted to ask first—"
"You know you can always bring Benny. There's plenty of room for both of you in your bed. But now when you go back with him be careful of the lamp. I put a fresh piece of rag in and there's plenty of grease. You can blow up a coal on the hearth. I covered the fire; only be careful."
"Oh, we'll be careful. Benny's about the carefullest boy the' is in Leatherwood. Oh, I do like being in the mill with Mr. Hingston." He laughed out his joy again, and then he asked doubtfully, "Mom?"
"Benny and me was wonderin'—we'd go straight back home, and not light any lamp at all—if you'd let us go to the Temple. There's a big meetin' there to-night." The mother hesitated, and the boy urged, "They say that strange man—well, some calls him the Snorter and some the Exhorter—is goin' to preach." The mother was still silent, and the boy faltered on: "He dresses like the people do Over-the-Mountains, and he wears his hair down his back—"
The mother gasped. "I don't like your being out late, Joey. I'd feel better if you and Benny was safe in bed."
"Oh, well." The boy's voice sank to the level of his disappointment; but after a silent interval he caught it up again cheerily. "Oh, well, I reckon Benny won't care much. We'll go right back home. We can have a piece before we go to bed?"
"Benny thinks our apple-butter is the best they is. Can we have some on bread, with sugar on top?"
His mother did not answer at once, and he said again, as if relinquishing another ideal, "Oh, well."
Nancy rose up and kissed him. "Yes, go to the Temple. You might as well."
"Truly, mom? Oh, Benny, hurrah! She's let me! Come along!"
He ran round the cabin to his comrade, and she heard them shouting and laughing together, and then the muted scamper of their bare feet on the soft road toward the settlement.
The mother said to herself, "He'd get to see him sooner or later." She drew her breath in a long sigh, and went into the cabin. "What a day, what a day! It seems a thousand years," she said aloud.
"Are you talking to me, Nancy?" her brother asked from somewhere in the dark.
"No, no. Only to myself, David. Where did I put the baby? Oh! I know. I've let Joey go to the Temple to hear his father preach. Lord have mercy!"
The discourse of Dylks the second night was a chain of biblical passages, as it had been the first night. But an apparent intention, which had been wanting before, ran through the incoherent texts, leaping as it were from one to another, and there binding them in an intimation of a divine mission. He did not say that he had been sent of God, but he made the texts which he gave, swiftly and unerringly, say something like that for him to such as were prepared to believe it. Not all were prepared; many denied; the most doubted; but those who accepted that meaning of the inspired words were of the principal people, respected for their higher intelligence and their greater wealth.
He had come to the Temple with Peter Hingston and he went with him from it. Hingston's quarter section of the richest farmland in the bottom bordered his mill privilege, with barns and corncribs and tobacco sheds, and his brick house behind the mill was the largest and finest dwelling in the place. His flocks and herds abounded; his state was patriarchal; and in the neighborhood which loved and honored him, for some favor and kindness done nearly every man there: for money when the crops failed; for the storage of their wheat and corn in the deep bins of his mill when the yield was too great for their barns; for the use of his sheds in drying their tobacco before their own were ready. His growing sons and daughters, until they were grown men and women, obeyed his counsel as they had obeyed his will while children. But he was severe with no one; since his wife had died his natural gentleness was his manner as it had always been his make, and it tempered the piety, which in many was forbidding and compelling, to a wistful kindness. His faith admitted no misgiving, for himself, but his toleration of doubts and differences in others extended to the worst of skeptics. He believed that revelation had never ceased; he was of those who looked for a sign, because if God had ever given Himself in communion with His creatures it was not reasonable that he should afterwards always withhold Himself. A friendly humor looked from his dull eyes, and, in never quite coming to a formulated joke, stayed his utterance as if he were hopeful of some such event in time. He stood large in bulk as well as height, and drew his breath in slow, audible respirations.
The first people of the community tacitly recognized him as the first man in it, though none would have compared him in education with his nearest friend, Richard Enraghty, who had been the schoolmaster and was now the foremost of the United Brethren. He led their services in the Temple, and sometimes preached for them when it came their turn to occupy the house which they shared with the other sects. Hingston was a Methodist, but perhaps because their sects were so akin in doctrine and polity their difference made no division between the friends: Enraghty little and fierce and restless, Hingston large and kind and calm. What they joined in saying prevailed in questions of public interest; those who yielded to their wisdom liked to believe that Enraghty's opinion ruled with Hingston. Matthew Braile alone had the courage to disable their judgment which he liked to say was no more infallible than so much Scripture, but the hardy infidel, who knew so much law and was inexpugnable in his office, owned that he could not make head against their gospel. He could darken their counsel with citations from "Common Sense" and "The Age of Reason," but the piety of the community remained safe from his mockery.
The large charity of Hingston covered the multitude of the Squire's sins; he would have argued that he had not been understood perhaps in the worst things he said; but the fiercer godliness of Enraghty was proof against the talk of a man whose conversation was an exhalation from the Pit. He had bitterly opposed Matthew Braile's successive elections; he had made the pulpit of the Temple an engine of political warfare and had launched its terrors against the invulnerable heathen. He was like Hingston in looking for a sign; in that day of remoteness from any greater world the people of the backwoods longed to feel themselves near the greatest world of all, and well within the radius of its mysteries. They talked mostly of these when they met together, and in the solitude of their fields they dwelt upon them; on their week days and work days they turned over the threats and promises of the Sabbath and expected a light or a voice from on high which should burst their darkness and silence.
To most of them there was nothing sacrilegious in the pretensions which could be read into the closely scriptured discourse of Dylks when he preached the second time in the Temple. The affability which he used in descending from the pulpit among them, and shaking hands and hailing them Brother and Sister, and personally bidding each come to the mercy seat, convinced them of his authority; no common man would so fearlessly trust his dignity among those who had little of their own. They thronged upon him gladly, and the women, old and young alike, trembled before him with a strange joy.
"Where is your father, Sister Gillespie?" he demanded of the girl, who wavered in his strong voice like a plant in the wind.
"I don't know—he's at home," she said.
"See that he comes, another time. I send him my peace, and tell him that it will not return to me. Say that I said he needs me."
He went out between Enraghty and Hingston, and as they walked away, he sank his voice back in words of Scripture; farther away he began his hymn:
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair, We wretched sinners lay"—
and ended with his shout of "Salvation!"
The cabin of the Reverdys stood on a byway beyond the Gillespies. Sally had joined the girl on her way out of the Temple, and was prancing beside her as they went homeward together. "Oh, ain't it just great? I feel like as if I could fly. I never seen the Power in Leatherwood like it was to-night. He's sent; you can tell that as plain as the nose on your face. How happy I do feel! I believe in my heart I got salvation this minute. Don't you feel the Spirit any? But you was always such a still girl! I did like the way the women folks was floppun' all round. I say, if you feel the Power workun' in you, show it, and help the others to git it. What do you s'pose he meant by your paw's needun' him?"
"I don't know. Perhaps he will," the girl answered briefly.
"Goun' to tell him? Well, that's right, Janey. I kep' wonderun' why he didn't come to-night. If Abel hadn't be'n so beat out with his work at the Cross Roads to-day, you bet I'd 'a' made him come; but he said I'd git enough glory for both. I believe his talkun' with Squire Braile don't do him no good. You b'lieve Washington and Jefferson was friends with Tom Paine? The Squire says they was, but I misdoubt it, myself; I always hearn them two was good perfessun' Christians. Kind o' lonesome along here where the woods comes so close't, ain't it? Say, Janey: I wisht you'd come a little piece with me, though I don't suppose the bad spirits would dast to come around a body right on the way home from the Temple this way—"
They had reached the point where Sally must part with the girl, who stopped to lift the top rail of the bars to the lane leading from the road to her father's cabin. She let it drop again. "Why, I'll go the whole way with you, Sally."
"Will you? Well, I declare to gracious, you're the best girl I ever seen. I believe in my heart, I'll rout Abel out and make him go back home with you."
"You needn't," the girl said. "I'm not afraid to go alone in the dark."
"Well, just as you say, Janey. What do you do to keep from beun' afraid?"
"Oh, I don't know. I just think, I suppose."
"Well, I just want to squeal." Sally had been talking in her loud, loose voice to keep her courage up. "Well, I declare if we ain't there a'ready. If you just say the word I'll have Abel out in half a minute, and—"
"No," the girl said. "Good night."
"Well, good night. I've got half a mind to go back with you myself," Sally called, as she lifted her hand to pull the latchstring of her door.
Jane Gillespie found her father standing at the bars when she went back. He mechanically let them down for her.
"I thought you would be in bed, Father," she said gently, but coldly.
"I've had things to keep me awake; and it's hot indoors," he answered, and then he demanded, "Well?"
If it was his way of bidding her tell him of her evening's experience, she did not obey him, and he had to make another attempt on her silence. "Was Hughey there?"
"Hughey? I don't know."
"Didn't he ask to come home with you?"
"I didn't see him. Sally Reverdy came with me."
"Yes, I knew that."
She was silent for another moment and then she said, "Father, I have a message for you. He said, 'I send my peace to him; and it will not return unto me.' He said you needed him."
Gillespie knew that she meant Dylks and he knew that she kept out of her voice whatever feeling she had in delivering his message.
In the dark, she could not see her father's frown, but she was aware of it in his answer. "You went there against my will. Well?"
"You believe? What do you believe?"
"Him. That he is sent."
"I can't tell you. He made me; he made all the people there."
Her father was standing between her and the door. He stood aside. "Go to bed now. But be quiet. Your Aunt Nancy is there."
"Laban came, but he went back to the Cross Roads, and she's over for the night with the baby."
"The baby? Oh, I'll be careful!" A joy came into her voice, and the strain left it in something like a laugh.
Early in the morning she crept down the ladder from the loft; her father had looped his cot up against the cabin wall and gone out. Nancy was sitting up in the bed she had made for herself on the floor, coiling a rope of her black hair into a knot at her neck. The baby lay cooing and kicking in her lap. The morning air came in fresh and sweet at the open door.
"Oh, Aunt Nancy, may I take her?"
"Yes; I'll get the breakfast. Your father'll be hungry; he's been up a good while, I reckon."
"I'll make the fire first, and then I'll take the baby."
The girl uncovered the embers on the hearth and blew them into life; then she ran out into the cornfield, and gathered her apron full of the milky ears, and grated them for the cakes which her aunt molded to fry for breakfast. She took the baby and washed its hands and face, talking and laughing with it.
"You talk to it a sight more than you do to anybody else, Jane," the mother said. "Don't put anything but its little shimmy on; it's goin' to be another hot day."
"I believe," the girl said, "I'll get some water in the tub, and wash her all over. There'll be time enough."
"It'd be a good thing, I reckon. But you mustn't forget your milkin'. I dunno what our cow'd do this morning if it wasn't for Joey. But he'll milk her, him and Benny Hingston, between them, somehow. Benny stayed with him last night."
"I did forget the milking," the girl said, putting the baby's little chemise on. "But I'll do it now. Sissy will have to wait till after breakfast for her washing." She got the tin bucket from where it blazed a-tilt in the sun beside the back door of the cabin, and took her deep bonnet from its peg. She did not ask why the boys slept alone in the cabin, but her aunt felt that she must explain.
"Laban's got work for the whole fall at the Cross Roads. He went straight back last night. I come here." She had got through without telling the lie which she feared she must. "I'm goin' home after breakfast."
Jane asked nothing further, but called from the open door, "Sukey, Sukey! Suk, Suk, Suk!" A plaintive lowing responded; then the snapping sound of a cow's eager hoofs; the hoarse drumming of the milk in the bucket followed, subduing itself to the soft final murmur of the strippings in the foam. Jane carried the milk to the spring house before she reappeared in the cabin with a cup of it for the baby.
"It's so good for her to have it warm from the cow," she said, as she tilted the tin for the last drop on the little one's lips. "I wish you'd leave her here with me, Aunt Nancy."
"It's about time she was weaned," the mother said. "I reckon you better call your father now. He must be ready for his breakfast, bendin' over that tobacco ever since sun-up."
Jane took down the tin dinner horn from its peg, and went to the back door with it, and blew a long, loud blast, crumbling away in broken sounds.
The baby was beating the air with its hands up and down, and gurgling its delight in the noise when she came back. "Oh, honey, honey, honey!" she cooed, catching it up and hugging it to her.
The mother looked at them over her shoulder as she put the cakes of grated corn in the skillet, and set it among the coals on the hearth. "It's a pity you ha'n't got one of your own."
"I don't want one of my own," the girl said.
"I thought, a spell back,"—the woman took up the subject again after a decent interval—"that you and Hughey Blake was goin' to make a match." The girl said nothing, and her aunt pursued, "Was he there, last night?"
"I didn't notice."
"Many folks?" her aunt asked with whatever change or fulfilment of a first intent.
From kneeling over to play with the baby the girl sank back on her heels with her hands fallen before her.
"I don't know."
"What did he preach?"
"The Word of God; God's own words. All Scripture; but it was like as if it was the first time you ever heard it."
The girl was looking at the woman, but seemed rapt from the sight of her in a vision of the night before.
"I reckon Satan could make it sound that way," Nancy said, but her niece seemed not to hear her. Nancy stood staring at her, with words bitter beyond saying in her heart; words that rose in her throat and choked her. When she spoke she only said, "Get up, Jane; your father'll be here in a minute."
"I'm not going to eat anything. I'm going into the woods." She staggered to her feet, and dashed from the door. The child looked after her with outstretched arms and whimpered pitifully, but she did not mind its call.
"Where's Jane?" her father said, coming in at the back door.
"Gone into the woods," she said.
"To pray, I reckon."
He sat down at the table-leaf lifted from the wall, and his sister served him his breakfast. He ate greedily, but his hand trembled so in lifting his cup that the coffee spilled from it.
When he had ended and sat leaning back from the board, she asked him: "What are you going to do?"
The old man cleared his throat. "Nothing, yet. Let the Lord work His will."
"And let Joseph Dylks work his will, too! I'll have something to say about that."
"Be careful, woman. Be careful."
"Oh, I'll be careful. He has as much to lose as I have."
"No, not half so much."
Where Matthew Braile sat smoking most of the hot forenoon away on the porch of his cabin, there came to him rumor of the swift spread of the superstition running from mind to mind in the neighborhood, and catching like fire in dry grass. The rumor came in different voices, some piously meant to shake him with fear in the scorner's seat which he held so stubbornly; some in their doubt seeking the help of his powerful unfaith; but he required their news from them all with the same mocking. They were not of the Scribes and Pharisees, the pillars of the Temple, the wise and rich and proud who had been the first to follow Dylks, but the poorer and lowlier sort who wavered before the example of their betters, and were willing to submit it to the searching of the old Sadducee's scrutiny.
The morning after Abel Reverdy had finished his work at the Cross Roads, and had returned to the cares patiently awaiting him at home he rode his claybank so hesitantly toward the Squire's cabin that his desire to stop and talk was plain, and Braile called to him: "Well, Abel, what do they think of the Prophet over at Wilkins's? Many converts? Many dipped or sprinkled, as the case required?"
Reverdy drew rein and faced the Squire with a solemnity presently yielding to his natural desire to grin at any form of joke, and his belief that when the Squire indulged such flagrant irreverence as this he must be joking. Yet he answered evasively: "You hearn't he says now he hain't never go'n to die?"
"No. But I'm not surprised to hear it; about the next thing on the docket. Did he say that at the Cross Roads?"
"Said it right here in Leatherwood. Sally told me the first thing when I got home. You wasn't at the Temple last night, I reckon?"
"Well, not last night," Braile said with an implication that he had been at the Temple all the other nights, which made Reverdy laugh with guilty joy.
"One o' the Hounds—no, it was Jim Redfield hisself—stopped on the way out, and he says, 'What's this I hear? You say you ain't goin' to die.' And Dylks he lifts his hands up over his head and he says, 'This shell will fall off'; and Jim he says, 'I've got half a mind to crack your shell,' and the believers they got round, and begun to hustle Jim off, but Dylks he told them to let him alone, and he says, 'I can endure strong meat, but I must be fed on milk for a while.' What you s'pose he meant, Squire?"
Braile took his pipe out and cackled toothlessly. "I'm almost afraid to think, Abel. Something awful, though. You say Sally told you?"
"I should think Sally would know what he meant, if anybody." He looked at Abel, and Sally's husband joined him in safe derision. "Tell you anything else?"
"Well, no, not just in so many words. But it 'pears he's been teachun' round all sorts of things in private, like. Who do you reckon he says he is?"
"Not John the Baptist, I hope. I don't know where we should get the locusts and wild honey for him in this settlement. Might try grasshoppers, but the last bee-tree in the Bottom was cut down when I was a boy. I got a piece of the comb."
"I don't know if he said John the Baptist; but it was John, anyway. And they say—or that's what Sally hearn tell—that when he was off with Enraghty and Hingston on some 'pointments down round Seneca there was doun's that 'uld make your hair stand up."
"You don't happen to know just what the doings were?"
"Well, no, I don't, Squire. But they was doun's to deceive the very elec', from all I hearn."
"That's just what Hingston and Enraghty both are—the very elect. What deceived them?"
"Oh, pshaw, now, Squire! You know I don't mean they were deceived! That's just a Bible sayin'. You see, Brother Briggs was sick and Brother Enraghty went along with Dylks and Brother Hingston to preach in his place."
"Couldn't Dylks have done the preaching?"
"I reckon he could. But there was three 'p'intments, and may be Dylks couldn't fill 'em all, and may be he didn't want to. Fust Brother Enraghty preached in the Temple at Seneca, and then at Brother Christhaven's house off south of that, and then at David Mason's, the local preacher; but Brother Mason has got the consumption, and he couldn't preach, so Brother Enraghty had to do all the preachun'."
"I see. Well?"
"Well, that wasn't anything out o' the common, but what Dylks done to the Devil beat all the preachun', I reckon."
"How'd it get out? Devil tell?"
"No. Brother Enraghty told, and Sally she got it putty straight from the wife of the man that he told it to."
"Go on," Braile said. "I can hardly wait to hear."
"Well, sir, they had just got acrost the Leatherwood, and Brother Enraghty felt as if he was lifted all at once into heaven; air diff'ent, and full of joy. Dylks's face got brighter and brighter, and his voice sounded like music. When they got to the top of the hill where you can look back and see the Temple, Dylks turned his horse and stretched out his hands, and says he, 'How ignorant them people is of my true natur'. But time will show 'em.' Well, not just them words, you know; more dictionary; and they preached with a great outpourun' at Seneca. They didn't go to bed that night at all, accordun' to the woman's tell that Enraghty told her man; sot up tell mornun' prayun', and singun' hymns and readun' the Bible. Next mornun' when they started out Brother Enraghty seen a bright ring round Dylks's head, and whenever Dylks got down to pray the ring just stayed in the air over the saddle tell he got back, and then it dropped round his head ag'in."
Reverdy stopped for the effect, but Braile only said, "Go on! Go on!"
"Well, sir, so they kep' on all that day and all the next night, prayun', and singun', and readun' the Bible. The next mornun' when they started Brother Enraghty felt kind o' cold all over, and his teeth chattered, and Dylks looked at him hard in the face, and says he, 'Time is precious now. This is the time for work. I now reveal unto you that you are Paul the Apostle.'"