THE RE-CREATION OF BRIAN KENT
By Harold Bell Wright
DEAR AUNTIE SUE:
I have wondered many times, while writing this simple story of life and love, if you would ever forgive me for putting you in a book. I hope you will, because if you do not, I shall be heartbroken, and you wouldn't want me that way, would you, Auntie Sue?
I fancy I can hear you say: "But, Harold, how COULD you! You know I never did the things you have made me do in your story. You know I never lived in a little log house by the river in the Ozark Mountains! What in the world will people think!"
Well, to tell the truth, dear, I don't care so very much what people think if only they will love you; and that they are sure to do, because,—well, just because—You must remember, too, that you will be eighty-seven years old the eighteenth of next November, and it is therefore quite time that someone put you in a book.
And, after all, Auntie Sue, are you very sure that you have never lived in a little log house by the river,—are you very sure, Auntie Sue?
Forgive my impertinence, as you have always forgiven me everything; and love me just the same, because I have written only in love of the dearest Auntie Sue in the world!
The Glenwood Mission Inn, Riverside, California, April 30, 1919.
"And see the rivers, how they run Through woods and meads, in shade and sun, Sometimes swift, sometimes slow,— Wave succeeding wave, they go A various journey to the deep Like human life to endless sleep!"
John Dyer—"Grongar Hill."
I. A REMARKABLE WOMAN
II. THE MAN IN THE DARK
III. A MISSING LETTER
IV. THE WILL OF THE RIVER
V. AUNTIE SUE RECOGNIZES A GENTLEMAN
VI. IN THE LOG HOUSE BY THE RIVER
VII. OFFICERS OF THE LAW
VIII. THAT WHICH IS GREATER THAN THE LAW
IX. AUNTIE SUE'S PROPOSITION
X. BRIAN KENT DECIDES
XII. AUNTIE SUE TAKES A CHANCE
XIII. JUDY TO THE RESCUE
XIV. BETTY JO CONSIDERS
XV. A MATTER OF BUSINESS
XVI. THE SECRET OF AUNTIE SUE'S LIFE
XVII. AN AWKWARD SITUATION
XVIII. BETTY JO FACES HERSELF
XIX. JUDY'S CONFESSION
XX. BRIAN AND BETTY JO KEEP HOUSE
XXI. THE WOMAN AT THE WINDOW
XXII. AT THE EMPIRE CONSOLIDATED SAVINGS BANK
XXIII. IN THE ELBOW ROCK RAPIDS
XXIV. JUDY'S RETURN
XXV. THE RIVER
"LOOK, JUDY! LOOK!"
AUNTIE SUE SAID, SOFTLY, "SHE DID NOT UNDERSTAND, BRIAN."
...SHE MADE THE LITTLE BOOK OF PAINFUL MEMORIES A BOOK OF JOYOUS PROMISE.
THE RE-CREATION OF BRIAN KENT
A REMARKABLE WOMAN.
I remember as well as though it were yesterday the first time I met Auntie Sue.
It happened during my first roaming visit to the Ozarks, when I had wandered by chance, one day, into the Elbow Rock neighborhood. Twenty years it was, at least, before the time of this story. She was standing in the door of her little schoolhouse, the ruins of which you may still see, halfway up the long hill from the log house by the river, where the most of this story was lived.
It was that season of the year when the gold and brown of our Ozark Hills is overlaid with a filmy veil of delicate blue haze and the world is hushed with the solemn sweetness of the passing of the summer. And as the old gentlewoman stood there in the open door of that rustic temple of learning, with the deep-shadowed, wooded hillside in the background, and, in front, the rude clearing with its crooked rail fence along which the scarlet sumac flamed, I thought,—as I still think, after all these years,—that I had never before seen such a woman.
Fifty years had gone into the making of that sterling character which was builded upon a foundation of many generations of noble ancestors. Without home or children of her own, the life strength of her splendid womanhood had been given to the teaching of boys and girls. An old-maid schoolteacher? Yes,—if you will. But, as I saw her standing there that day,—tall and slender, dressed in a simple gown that was fitting to her work,—there was a queenly dignity, a stately sweetness, in her bearing that made me feel, somehow, as if I had come unexpectedly into the presence of royalty. Not the royalty of caste and court and station with their glittering pretenses of superiority and their superficial claims to distinction,—I do not mean that; I mean that true royalty which needs no caste or court or station but makes itself felt because it IS.
She did not notice me at first, for the noise of the children at play in the yard covered the sound of my approach, and she was looking far, far away, over the river which lay below at the foot of the hill; over the forest-clad mountains in the glory of their brown and gold; over the vast sweep of the tree-crowned Ozark ridges that receded wave after wave into the blue haze until, in the vastness of the distant sky, they were lost. And something made me know that, in the moment's respite from her task, the woman was looking even beyond the sky itself.
Her profile, clean-chiselled, but daintily formed, was beautiful in its gentle strength. Her hair was soft and silvery like the gray mist of the river in the morning. Then she turned to greet me, and I saw her eyes. Boy that I was then, and not given overmuch to serious thought, I knew that the high, unwavering purpose, the loving sympathy, and tender understanding that shone in the calm depth of those eyes could belong only to one who habitually looks unafraid beyond all earthly scenes. Only those who have learned thus to look beyond the material horizon of our little day have that beautiful inner light which shone in the eyes of Auntie Sue—the teacher of a backwoods school.
Auntie Sue had come to the Elbow Rock neighborhood the summer preceding that fall when I first met her. She had grown too old, she said, with her delightful little laugh, to be of much use in the larger schools of the more thickly populated sections of the country. But she was still far too young, she stoutly maintained, to be altogether useless.
Tom Warden, who lived just over the ridge from the schoolhouse, and who was blessed with the largest wife, the largest family, and the most pretentious farm in the county, had kinsfolk somewhere in Illinois. Through these relatives of the Ozark farmer Miss Susan Wakefield had learned of the needs of the Elbow Rock school, and so, finally, had come into the hills. It was the influential Tom who secured for her the modest position. It was the motherly Mrs. Tom who made her at home in the Warden household. It was the Warden boys and girls who first called her "Auntie Sue." But it was Auntie Sue herself who won so large a place in the hearts of the simple mountain folk of the district that she held her position year after year, until she finally gave up teaching altogether.
Not one of her Ozark friends ever came to know in detail the history of this remarkable woman's life. It was known in a general way that she was born in Connecticut; that she had a brother somewhere in some South-American country; that two other brothers had been killed in the Civil War; that she had taught in the lower and intermediate grades of public schools in various places all the years of her womanhood. Also, it was known that she had never married.
"And that," said Uncle Lige Potter, voicing the unanimous opinion, of the countryside, "is a doggone funny thing and plumb unnatural, considerin' the kind of woman she is."
To which Lem Jordan,—who was then living with his fourth wife, and might therefore be held to speak with a degree of authority,—added: "Hit sure is a dad burned shame, an' a plumb disgrace to the men of this here country, when you come to look at the sort of wimmen most of 'em are a marryin' most of the time."
Another matter of universal and never-failing interest to the mountain folk was the unprecedented number of letters that Auntie Sue received and wrote. That some of these letters written by their backwoods teacher were addressed to men and women of such prominence in the world that their names were known even to that remote Ozark district was a source of no little pride to Auntie Sue's immediate neighbors, and served to mark her in their eyes with no small distinction.
It was during the fourth year of her life amid the scenes of this story,—as I recall time,—that Auntie Sue invested the small savings of her working years in the little log house by the river and the eighty acres of land known as the "Old Bill Wilson place."
The house was a substantial building of three rooms, a lean-to kitchen, and a porch overlooking the river. The log barn, with "Prince," a gentle old horse, and "Bess," a mild-mannered, brindle cow, completed the modest establishment. About thirty acres of the land were cleared and under cultivation of a sort. The remaining acreage was in timber. The price, under the kindly and expert supervision of Tom Warden, was fifteen dollars an acre. But Auntie Sue always laughingly insisted that she really paid fifty cents an acre for the land and fourteen dollars and a half an acre for the sunsets.
The tillable land, except for the garden, she "let out on shares," always under the friendly guardianship of neighbor Tom; while Tom's boys cared for the little garden in season, and saw to it that the woodpile was always ample and ready for the stove. And, in addition to these fixed and regular homely services, there were many offerings of helpful hands whenever other needs arose; for, as time passed, there came to be in all the Elbow Rock district scarce a man, young or old, who did not now and then honor himself by doing some little job for Auntie Sue; while the women and girls, in the same neighborly spirit, brought from their own humble households many tokens of their loving thoughtfulness. And never did one visit that little log house by the river without the consciousness of something received from the silvery-haired old teacher—a something intangible, perhaps, which they could not have expressed in words, but which, nevertheless, enriched the lives of those simple mountain people with a very real joy and a very tangible happiness.
For six years, Auntie Sue continued teaching the Elbow Rock school;—climbing the hill in the morning from her log house by the river to the cabin schoolhouse in the clearing on the mountain-side above; returning in the late afternoon, when her day's work was over, down the winding road to her little home, there to watch, from the porch that overlooked the river, the sunset in the evening. And every year the daily climb grew a little harder; the days of work grew a little longer; she went down the hill in the afternoon a little slower. And every year the sunsets were to her eyes more beautiful; the evening skies to her understanding glowed with richer meaning; the twilight hours filled her heart with a deeper peace.
And so, at last, her teaching days were over; that is, she taught no more in the log schoolhouse in the clearing on the mountain-side. But in her little home beside the river she continued her work; not from text-books, indeed, but as all such souls must continue to teach, until the sun sets for the last time upon their mortal days.
Work-worn, toil-hardened mountaineer mothers, whose narrow world denied them so many of the finer thoughts and things, came to counsel with this childless woman, and to learn from her a little of the art of contentment and happiness. Strong men, of rude dress and speech, whose lives were as rough as the hills in which they were reared, and whose thoughts were often as crude as their half-savage and sometimes lawless customs, came to sit at the feet of this gentle one, who received them all with such kindly interest and instinctive understanding. And young men and girls came, drawn by the magic that was hers, to confide in this woman who listened with such rare tact and loving sympathy to their troubles and their dreams, and who, in the deepest things of their young lives, was mother to them all.
Nor were the mountain folk her only disciples. Always there were the letters she continued to write, addressed to almost every corner of the land. And every year there would come, for a week or a month, at different times during the summer, men and women from the great world of larger affairs who had need of the strength and courage and patience and hope they never failed to find in that little log house by the river. And so, in time, it came to be known that those letters written by Auntie Sue went to men and women who, in their childhood school days, had received from her their first lessons in writing; and that her visitors, many of them distinguished in the world of railroads and cities, were of that large circle of busy souls who had never ceased to be her pupils.
Thus it came that the garden was made a little larger, and two rooms were added to the house, with other modest improvements, to accommodate Auntie Sue's grown-up boys and girls when they came to visit her. But never was there a hired servant, so that her guests must do their own household tasks, because, Auntie Sue said, that was good for them and mostly what they needed.
It should also be said here that among her many pupils who lived beyond the sky-line of the far, blue hills, not one knew more of the real secret of Auntie Sue's life and character than did the Ozark mountaineers of the Elbow Rock district, among whom she had chosen to pass the evening of her day.
Then came one who learned the secret. He learned—but that is my story. I must not tell the secret here.
THE MAN IN THE DARK.
A man stood at a window, looking out into the night. There was no light in the room. The stars were hidden behind a thick curtain of sullen clouds.
The house was a wretchedly constructed, long-neglected building of a type common to those old river towns that in their many years of uselessness have lost all civic pride, and in their own resultant squalor and filth have buried their self-respect. A dingy, scarcely legible sign over the treacherous board walk, in front, by the sickly light of a smoke-grimed kerosene lantern, announced that the place was a hotel.
Dark as it was, the man at the window could see the river. The trees that lined the bank opposite the town were mere ghostly shadows against the gloomy masses of the low hills that rose from the water's edge, indistinct, mysterious, and unreal, into the threatening sky. The higher mountains that reared their crests beyond the hills were invisible. The stream itself swept sullenly through the night,—a resistless flood of dismal power, as if, turbid with wrecked souls, with the lost hopes and ruined dreams of men, it was fit only to bear vessels freighted with sorrow, misfortune, and despair.
The manner of the man at the window was as if some woeful spirit of the melancholy scene were calling him. With head bowed, and face turned a little to one side, he listened intently as one listens to voices that are muffled and indistinct. He pressed his face close to the glass, and with straining eyes tried to see more clearly the ghostly trees, the sombre hills, and the gloomy river. Three times he turned from the window to pace to and fro in the darkened room, and every time his steps brought him again to the casement, as if in obedience to some insistent voice that summoned him. The fourth time, he turned from the window more quickly, with a gesture of assenting decision.
The crackling snap of a match broke the dead stillness. The sudden flare of light stabbed the darkness. As he applied the tiny, wavering flame to the wick of a lamp that stood on the cheap, old-fashioned bureau, the man's hand shook until the chimney rattled against the wire standards of the burner. Turning quickly from the lighted lamp, the man sprang again to the window to jerk down the tattered, old shade. Facing about, he stood with his back to the wall, searching the room with wide, fearful eyes. His fists were clenched. His chest rose and fell heavily with his labored breathing. His face worked with emotion. With trembling limbs and twitching muscles, he crouched like some desperate creature at bay.
But, save for the wretched man himself, there was in that shabby, dingy-papered, dirty-carpeted, poorly furnished apartment no living thing.
Suddenly, the man laughed;—and it was the reckless, despairing laughter of a soul that feels itself slipping over the brink of an abyss.
With hurried step and outstretched hands, he crossed the room to snatch a bottle of whisky from its place beside the lamp on the bureau. With trembling eagerness, he poured a water tumbler half-full of the red liquor. As one dying of thirst, he drank. Drawing a deep breath, and shaking his head with a wry smile, he spoke in hoarse confidence to the image of himself in the dingy mirror: "They nearly had me, that time." Again, he poured, and drank.
The whisky steadied him for the moment, and with bottle and glass still in hand, he regarded himself in the mirror with critical interest.
Had he stood erect, with the vigor that should have been his by right of his years, the man would have measured just short of six feet; but his shoulders—naturally well set—sagged with the weariness of excessive physical indulgence; while the sunken chest, the emaciated limbs, and the dejected posture of his misused body made him in appearance, at least, a wretched weakling. His clothing—of good material and well tailored—was disgustingly soiled and neglected;—the shoes thickly coated with dried mud, and the once-white shirt, slovenly unfastened at the throat, without collar or tie. The face which looked back from the mirror to the man was, without question, the countenance of a gentleman; but the broad forehead under the unkempt red-brown hair was furrowed with anxiety; the unshaven cheeks were lined and sunken; the finely shaped, sensitive mouth drooped with nervous weakness; and the blue, well-placed eyes were bloodshot and glittering with the light of near-insanity.
The poor creature looked at the hideous image of his ruined self as if fascinated with the horror of that which had been somehow wrought. Slowly, as one in a trance, he went closer, and, without moving his gaze from the mirror, placed the bottle and tumbler upon the bureau. As if compelled by those burning eyes that stared so fixedly at him, he leaned forward still closer to the glass. Then, as he looked, the distorted features twitched and worked grotesquely with uncontrollable emotions, while the quivering lips formed words that were not even whispered. With trembling fingers he felt the unshaven cheeks and touched the unkempt hair questioningly. Suddenly, as if to shut out the horror of that which he saw in the mirror, the man hid his face in his hands, and with a sobbing, inarticulate cry sank to the floor.
Silently, with pitiless force, the river swept onward through the night, following its ordained way to the mighty sea.
As if summoned again by some dark spirit that brooded over the sombre, rushing flood, the man rose heavily to his feet. His face turned once more toward the window. A moment he stood there, listening, listening; then wheeling back to the whisky bottle and the glass on the bureau, he quickly poured, and drank again.
Nodding his head in the manner of one reaching a conclusion, he looked slowly about the room, while a frightful grin of hopeless, despairing triumph twisted his features, and his lips moved as if he breathed reckless defiance to an invisible ghostly company.
Moving, now, with a decision and purpose that suggested a native strength of character, the man quickly packed a suit-case with various articles of clothing from the bureau drawers and the closet. He was in the act of closing the suit-case when he stopped suddenly, and, with a shrug of his shoulders, turned away. Then, as if struck by another thought, he stooped again over his baggage, and drew forth a fresh, untouched bottle of whisky.
"I guess you are the only baggage I'll need where I am going," he said, whimsically; and, leaving the open suit-case where it lay, he crossed the room, and extinguished the light. Cautiously, he unlocked and opened the door. For a moment, he stood listening. Then, with the bottle hidden under his coat, he stole softly from the room.
A few minutes later, the man stood out there in the night, on the bank of the river. Behind him the outlines of the scattered houses that made the little town were lost against the dusk of the hillside. From the ghostly tree-shadows that marked the opposite bank, the solemn hills rose out of the deeper darkness of the lowlands that edged the stream in sombre mystery. There was no break in the heavy clouds to permit the gleam of a friendly star. There was no sound save the soft swish of the water against the bank where he stood, the chirping of a bird in the near-by willows, and the occasional splash of a leaping fish or water animal. But to the man there was a feeling of sound. To the lonely human wreck standing there in the darkness, the river called—called with fearful, insistent power.
From under the black wall of the night the dreadful flood swept out of the Somewhere of its beginning. Past the man the river poured its mighty strength with resistless, smoothly flowing, terrible force. Into the darkness it swept on its awful way to the Nowhere of its ending. For uncounted ages, the river had poured itself thus between those walls of hills. For untold ages to come, until the end of time itself, the stream would continue to pour its strength past that spot where the man stood.
Out of the night, the voice of the river had called to the man, as he stood at the window of his darkened room. And the man had come, now, to answer the call. Cautiously, he went down the bank toward the edge of the dark, swirling water. His purpose was unmistakable. Nor was there any hint of faltering, now, in his manner. He had reached his decision. He knew what he had come to do.
The man's feet were feeling the mud at the margin of the stream when his legs touched something, and a low, rattling sound startled him. Then he remembered. A skiff was moored there, and he had brushed against the chain that led from the bow of the boat to the stump of a willow higher up on the bank. The man had seen the skiff,—a rude, flat-bottomed little craft, known to the Ozark natives as a John-boat,—just before sunset that evening. But there had been no boat in his thoughts when he had come to answer the call of the river, and in the preoccupation of his mind, as he stood there in the night beside the stream, he had not noticed it, as it lay so nearly invisible in the darkness. Mechanically, he stooped to feel the chain with his free hand. A moment later, he had placed his bottle of whisky carefully in the boat, and was loosing the chain painter from the willow stump.
"Why not?" he said to himself. "It will be easier in midstream,—and more certain."
Carefully, so that no sound should break the stillness, he stowed the chain in the bow, and then worked the skiff around until it pointed out into the stream. Then, with his hands grasping the sides of the little craft, and the weight of his body on one knee in the stern, he pushed vigorously with his free foot against the bank and so was carried well out from the shore. As the boat lost its momentum, the strong current caught it and whirled it away down the river.
Groping in the darkness, the man found his bottle of whisky, and working the cork out with his pocketknife, drank long and deep.
Already, save for a single light, the town was lost in the night. As the man watched that red spot on the black wall, the stream swung his drifting boat around a bend, and the light vanished. The dreadful mystery of the river drew close. The world of men was far, very far away. Centuries ago, the man had faced himself in the mirror, and had obeyed the voice that summoned him into the darkness. In fancy, now, he saw his empty boat swept on and on. Through what varied scenes would it drift? To what port would the mysterious will of the river carry it? To what end would it at last come in its helplessness?
And the man himself,—the human soul-craft,—what of him? As he had pushed his material boat out into the stream to drift, unguided and helpless, so, presently, he would push himself out from the shore of all that men call life. Through what scenes would he drift? To what port would the will of an awful invisible stream carry him? To what end would he finally come, in his helplessness?
Again the man drank—and again.
And then, with face upturned to the leaden clouds, he laughed aloud—laughed until the ghostly shores gave back his laughter, and the voices of the night were hushed and still.
The laughter ended with a wild, reckless, defiant yell.
Springing to his feet in the drifting boat, the man shook his clenched fist at the darkness, and with insane fury cursed the life he had left behind.
The current whirled the boat around, and the man faced down the stream. He laughed again; and, lifting his bottle high, uttered a reckless, profane toast to the unknown toward which he was being carried by the river in the night.
A MISSING LETTER.
Auntie Sue's little log house by the river was placed some five hundred yards back from the stream, on a bench of land at the foot of Schoolhouse Hill. From this bench, the ground slopes gently to the river-bank, which, at this point, is sheer and high enough to be well above the water at flood periods. The road, winding down the hill, turns to the right at the foot of the steep grade, and leads away up the river; and between the road and the river, on the up-stream side of the house, was the garden.
At the lower corner of the garden, farthest from the house, the strong current had cut a deep inward curve in the high shore-line, forming thus an eddy, which was margined on one side, at a normal stage of water, by a narrow shelf of land between the water's edge and the foot of the main bank. A flight of rude steps led down from the garden above to this natural landing, which, for three miles up and down the river, was the only point, on Auntie Sue's side of the stream, where one could go ashore from a skiff.
From the porch of the house, one, facing up the river, looked over the gently sloping garden, over the eddy lying under the high bank, and away over a beautiful reach of water known as The Bend,—a wide, sweeping curve which, a mile distant, is lost behind a wooded bluff where, at times, during the vacation or hunting season, one might see the smoke from the stone chimney of a clubhouse which was built and used by people who lived in the big, noisy city many miles from the peaceful Ozark scene. From the shore of The Bend, opposite and above Auntie Sue's place, beyond the willows that fringe the water's edge, the low bottom-lands extend back three-quarters of a mile to the foot of a heavily timbered ridge, beyond which rise the higher hills. But directly across from Auntie Sue's house, this ridge curves sharply toward the stream; while less than a quarter of a mile below, a mighty mountain-arm is thrust out from a shoulder of Schoolhouse Hill, as if to bar the river's way. The high bluff thus formed is known to the natives throughout all that region as Elbow Rock.
The quiet waters of The Bend move so gently on their broad course that from the porch, looking up the stream, the eye could scarcely mark the current. But in front of the little log house, where the restraining banks of the river draw closer together, the lazy current awakens to quickening movement. Looking down the stream, one could see the waters leaving the broad and quiet reaches of The Bend above and rushing away with fast increasing speed between the narrowing banks until, in all their vicious might, they dashed full against the Elbow Rock cliff, where, boiling and tossing in mad fury, they roared away at a right angle and so around the point and on to another quiet stretch below. And many were the tales of stirring adventure and tragic accident at this dangerous point of the river's journey to the far-away sea. Skilled rivermen, by holding their John-boats and canoes close to the far shore, might run the rapids with safety. But no boat, once caught in the vicious grip of the main current between the comparatively still waters of The Bend and that wild, roaring tumult at Elbow Rock, had ever survived.
It was nearing the close of a late summer day, and Auntie Sue, as was her custom, stood on the porch watching the sunset. In the vast field of sky that arched above the softly rounded hills there was not a cloud. No wind stirred the leaves of the far-reaching forests, or marred the bright waters of the quiet Bend that mirrored back the green, tree-fringed banks and blue-shadowed mountains. Faintly, through the hush, from beyond the bottom-lands on the other side of the stream, came the long-drawn "Wh-o-e-e! Wh-o-e-e!" of farmer Jackson calling his hogs. From the hillside, back of the house, sounded the deep, mellow tones of a cowbell, telling Auntie Sue that neighbor Tom's cattle were going home from their woodland pastures. A company of crows crossed the river on leisure wing, toward some evening rendezvous. A waterfowl flapped slowly up the stream. And here and there the swallows wheeled in graceful circles above the gleaming Bend, or dipped, flashlike, to break the silvery surface. As the blue of the mountains deepened to purple, and the rosy light from below the western hills flushed the sky, the silver sheen of the quiet water changed with the changing tints above, and the shadows of the trees along the bank deepened until the shore-line was lost in the dusk of the coming night.
And even as the river gave back the light of the sky and the color of the mountains, so the gentle face of the gray-haired woman, who watched with such loving reverence, reflected the beauty of the scene. The peace and quiet of the evening of her life was as the still loveliness of that twilight hour.
And, yet, there was a suggestion of pathos in the loneliness of the slender figure standing there. Now and again, she clasped her delicate hands to her breast as if moved by emotions of a too-poignant sweetness, while in her eyes shone the soft light of fondest memories and dearest dreams. Several times she turned her head to look about, as if wishing for some one to share with her the beauty that moved her so. At last, she called; and her voice, low and pure-toned, had in it the quality that was in the light of her eyes.
"Judy! Judy, dear! Do come and see this wonderful, wonderful sky!"
From within the house, a shrill, querulous, drawling voice, so characteristic of the Southern "poor-white" mountaineer, answered: "Wha-a-t?"
A quick little smile deepened the crows'-feet at the corners of Auntie Sue's eyes, as she called again with gentle patience: "Do come and see the sunset, Judy, dear! It is so beautiful!" And, this time, in answer, Judy appeared in the doorway.
From appearances, the poor creature's age might have been anywhere from fifteen to thirty-five; for the twisted and misshapen body, angular and hard; the scrawny, wry neck; the old-young face, thin and sallow, with furtive, beady-black eyes, gave no hint of her years. As a matter of fact, I happened to know that Judith Taylor, daughter of the notorious Ozark moonshiner, Jap Taylor, was just past twenty the year she went to live with Auntie Sue.
Looking obliquely at the old gentlewoman, with a curious expression of mingled defiance, suspicion, and affection on her almost vicious face, Judy drawled, "Was you-all a-yellin' for me?"
"Yes, Judy; I want you to help me watch the sunset," Auntie Sue answered, with bright animation; and, turning, she pointed toward the glowing west,—"Look!"
Judy's sly, evasive eyes did not cease to regard the illumined face of her old companion as she returned, in her dry, high-pitched monotone: "I don't reckon as how you-all are a-needin' much help, seein' as how you are allus a-watchin' hit. A body'd think you-all was mighty nigh old 'nough, by now, ter look at hit alone."
Auntie Sue laughed, a low, musical, chuckling laugh, and, with a hint of loving impatience in her gentle voice, replied to Judy's observation: "But, don't you understand, child? It adds so to one's happiness to share lovely scenes like this. It makes it all so much—so much—well,—BIGGER, to have some one enjoy it with you. Come, dear!" And she held out her hand with a gesture of entreaty, and a look of yearning upon her dear old face that no human being could have withstood.
Judy, still slyly watchful, went cautiously nearer; and Auntie Sue, putting an arm lovingly about the crooked shoulders of the mountain girl, pointed again toward the west as she said, in a low voice that vibrated with emotion, "Look, Judy! Look!"
The black eyes shifted, and the old-young, expressionless face turned toward the landscape, which lay before them in all its wondrous beauty of glowing sky and tinted mountain and gleaming river. And there might have been a faint touch of softness, now, in the querulous monotone as Judy said: "I can't see as how hit could be ary bigger. Hain't ary reason, as I kin see, why hit should be ary bigger if hit could. Lord knows there's 'nough of hit as 't is; rough 'nough, too, as you-all 'd sure know if you-all had ter trapse over them there hills all yer life like I've had ter."
"But, isn't it wonderful to-night, Judy? It seems to me I have never seen it so perfect."
"Hit's just like hit's allus been, so far as I kin see, 'ceptin' that the river's higher in the spring an' more muddier," returned the mountain girl. "I was borned over there on yon side that there flat-topped mountain, nigh the mouth of Red Creek. I growed up on the river, mostly;—learned ter swim an' paddle er John-boat 'fore I kin remember. Red Creek, hit heads over there behind that there long ridge, in Injin Holler. There's a still—"
She checked herself suddenly, and shot a fearful sidewise look at Auntie Sue; then turned and pointed in the opposite direction with a pretense of excited interest. "Look down there, ma'm! See how black the old river is where she smashes inter Elbow Rock, an' how white them waves be where the water biles an' throws hitself. Hit'd sure git you if you was ter git ketched in there with er John-boat, wouldn't hit? Listen, ma'm! You kin hear hit a-roarin' like hit was mad, can't you?"
But the older woman turned to face, again, the quiet reaches of The Bend.
"I think I like The Bend best, though, Judy. See how perfectly those trees and hills are mirrored in the river; and how the water holds the color of the sky. Don't you think God is good to make the world so beautiful for us, child?"
"'Beautiful'!" cried poor, deformed Judy, in a voice that shrilled in vicious protest. "If there is a God, like you-all are allus a-talkin' 'bout, an' if He sure 'nough made them things, like you-all sees 'em, He sure hain't toted fair with me."
"Hush, Judy!" pleaded Auntie Sue. "Please don't, child!"
But the mountain girl rebelliously continued: "Look at me! Just look at me! If that there God of your'n is so all-fired good, what did He go an' let my pap git drunk for, an' beat me like he done when I was a baby, an' make me grow up all crooked like what I be? 'Good'? Hell! A dad burned ornery kind of a God I call Him!"
For some time, Auntie Sue did not speak, but stood with her face upturned to the sky. Then the low, gentle voice again broke the silence: "See, Judy, dear; the light is almost gone now, and there is not a cloud anywhere. Yesterday evening, you remember, we could not see the sunset at all, the clouds were so heavy and solid. The moon will be lovely to-night. I think I shall wait for it."
"You-all best set down then," said Judy, speaking again in her querulous, drawling monotone. "I'll fetch a chair." She brought a comfortable rustic rocking-chair from the farther end of the porch; then disappeared into the house, to return a moment later with a heavy shawl. "Hit'll be a-turnin' cold directly, now the sun's plumb down," she said, "an' you-all mustn't get to chillin', nohow."
Auntie Sue thanked her with gentle courtesy, and, reaching up, caught the girl's hand as Judy was awkwardly arranging the wrap about the thin old shoulders. "Won't you bring a chair for yourself, and sit with me awhile, dear?" As she spoke, Auntie Sue patted the hard, bony hand caressingly.
But Judy pulled her hand away roughly, saying: "You-all ain't got no call ter do sich as that ter me. I'll set awhile with you but I ain't a-needin' no chair." And with that, she seated herself on the floor, her back against the wall of the house.
The last of the evening was gone from the sky, now. The soft darkness of a clear, star-light night lay over the land. A gentle breeze stole over the mountains, rustled softly through the forest, and, drifting across the river, touched Auntie Sue's silvery hair.
Judy was first to break the silence: "I took notice neighbor Tom brung you-all a right smart bunch of letter mail this evenin'," she said, curiously.
There was a troubled note in Auntie Sue's gentle voice as she returned, "The letter from the bank did not come, Judy."
"No; and, Judy, it is nearly four weeks, now, since I sent them that money. I can't understand it."
"I was plumb scared at the time, you oughten ter sent hit just in er letter that a-way. Hit sure looked like a heap of money ter be a-trustin' them there ornery post-office fellers with, even if hit was funny, new-fangled money like that there was. Why, ma'm, you take old Tod Stimson, down at the Ferry, now, an' that old devil'd steal anythin' what warn't too much trouble for him ter lift."
"Argentine notes the money was, Judy. I felt sure that it would be all right because, you know, Brother John sent it just in a letter all the way from Buenos Aires. And, you remember, I folded it up in extra heavy paper, and put it in two envelopes, one over the other, and mailed it at Thompsonville with my own hands."
"Hit sure looks like hit ought ter be safe er nough, so long as hit warn't mailed at the Ferry where old Stimson could git his hands on hit," agreed Judy.
Then, after a silence of several minutes, she added, in a more reassuring voice: "I reckon as how hit'll be all right, ma'm. I wouldn't worry myself, if I was you. That there bank-place, like as not, gits er right smart lot of letters, an' hit stands ter reason the feller just naturally can't write back ter ev'rybody at once."
"Of course," agreed Auntie Sue. "It is just some delay in their acknowledgment, that is all. Perhaps they are waiting to find out if the notes are genuine; or it may be that their letter to me went astray, and will have to be returned to them, and then remailed all over again. I feel sure I shall hear from them in a few days."
So they talked until the moon appeared from behind the dark mountains that, against her light, were silhouetted on the sky. And, as the old gentlewoman watched the queen of the night rising higher and higher on her royal course, and saw the dusky landscape transformed to a fairy-scene of ethereal loveliness, Auntie Sue forgot the letter that had not come.
With the enthusiasm that never failed her, the silvery-haired teacher tried to give the backwoods girl a little of her wealth of vision. But though they looked at the same landscape, the eyes of twenty could not see that which was so clear to the eyes of seventy. Poor Judy! The river, sweeping on its winding way through the hills, from the springs of its far-away beginnings to the ocean of its final endeavor,—in all its varied moods and changes,—in all its beauty and its irresistible power,—the river could never mean to Judy what it meant to Auntie Sue.
"Hit sure is er fine night for to go 'possum huntin'," said the girl, at last, getting to her feet and standing in her twisted attitude, with her wry neck holding her head to one side. "Them there Jackson boys'll sure be out."
Auntie Sue laughed her low chuckling laugh.
From the edge of the timber that borders the fields of the bottom-lands across the river, came the baying of hounds. "There they be now," said Judy. "Hear 'em? The Billingses, 'cross from the clubhouse, 'll be out, too, I reckon. When hit's moonlight, they're allus a-huntin' 'possum an' 'coon. When hit's dark, they're out on the river a-giggin' for fish. Well, I reckon I'll be a-goin' in, now, ma'm," she concluded, with a yawn. "Ain't no use in a body stayin' up when there ain't nothin' ter do but ter sleep, as I kin see."
With an awkward return to Auntie Sue's "Goodnight and sweet dreams, dear," the mountain girl went into the house.
For an hour longer, the old gentlewoman sat on the porch of her little log house by the river, looking out over the moonlit scene. Nor did she now, as when she had watched the sunset, crave human companionship. In spirit, she was far from all earthly needs or cares,—where no troubled thoughts could disturb her serene peace and her dearest dreams were real.
The missing letter was forgotten.
THE WILL OF THE RIVER.
Had Auntie Sue remained a few minutes longer on the porch, that evening, she might have seen an object drifting down the river, in the gentle current of The Bend.
Swinging easily around the curve above the clubhouse, it would not have been visible at first, because of the deep shadows of the reflected trees and mountains. But, presently, as it drifted on into the broader waters of The Bend, it emerged from the shadows into the open moonlit space, and then, to any one watching from the porch, the dark object, drawing nearer and nearer in the bright moonlight, would have soon shaped itself into a boat—an empty boat, the watcher would have said, that had broken from its moorings somewhere up the river;—and the watcher would have heard, through the still, night air, the dull, heavy roar of the mad waters at Elbow Rock.
Drifting thus, helpless in the grip of the main current, the little craft apparently was doomed to certain destruction. Gently, it would float on the easy surface of the quiet, moonlit Bend. In front of the house, it would move faster and faster. Where the river narrows, it would be caught as if by mighty hands hidden beneath the rushing flood, and dragged onward still faster and faster. About it, the racing waters would leap and boil in their furious, headlong career, shaking and tossing the helpless victim of their might with a vicious strength from which there would be no escape, until, in the climax of the river's madness, the object of its angry sport would be dashed against the cliff, and torn, and crushed, and hammered by the terrific weight of the rushing flood against that rocky anvil, into a battered and shapeless wreck.
The drifting boat drew nearer and nearer. It reached the point where the curve of the opposite bank draws in to form the narrow raceway of the rapids. It began to feel the stronger pull of those hidden hands that had carried it so easily down The Bend. And then—and then—the unguided, helpless craft responded to the gentle pressure of some swirl or crosscurrent in the main flow of the stream, and swung a little to one side. A few feet farther, and the new impulse became stronger. Yielding easily to the current that drew it so gently across the invisible dividing-line between safety and destruction, the boat swung in toward the shore. A minute more, and it had drifted into that encircling curve of the bank where the current of the eddy carried it around and around.
The boat seemed undecided. Would it hold to the harbor of safety into which it had been drawn by the friendly current? Would it swing out, again, into the main stream, and so to its own destruction?
Three times the bow, pointing out from the eddy, crossed the danger-line, and, for a moment, hung on the very edge. Three times, the invisible hands which held it drew it gently back to safety. And so, finally, the little craft, so helpless, so alone, amid the many currents of the great river, came to rest against the narrow shelf of land at the foot of the bank below Auntie Sue's garden.
The light in the window of Auntie Sue's room went out. The soft moonlight flooded mountain and valley and stream. The mad waters at Elbow Rock roared in their wild fury. Always, always,—irresistibly, inevitably, unceasingly,—the river poured its strength toward the sea.
AUNTIE SUE RECOGNIZES A GENTLEMAN.
Before the sun was high enough to look over Schoolhouse Hill, the next morning, Judy went into the garden to dig some potatoes.
Tom Warden's boys would come, some day before long, and dig them all, and put them away in the cellar for the winter. But there was no need to hurry the gathering of the full crop, so the boys would come when it was most convenient; and, in the meantime, Judy would continue to dig from day to day all that were needed for the kitchen in the little log house by the river. In spite of her poor crooked body, the mountain girl was strong and well used to hard work, so the light task was, for her, no hardship at all.
As one will when first coming out of doors in the morning, Judy paused a moment to look about. The sky, so clear and bright the evening before, was now a luminous gray. The mountains were lost in a ghostly world of fog, through which the river moved in stealthy silence,—a dull thing of mystery, with only here and there a touch of silvery light upon its clouded surface. The cottonwoods and willows, on the opposite shore, were mere dreams of trees,—gray, formless, and weird. The air was filled with the dank earth-smell. The heavy thundering roar of the never-ending war of the waters at Elbow Rock came louder and more menacing, but strangely unreal, as if the mist itself were filled with threatening sound.
But to Judy, the morning was only the beginning of another day;—she looked, but did not see. To her, the many ever-changing moods of Nature were without meaning. With her basket in hand, she went down to the lower end of the garden, where she had dug potatoes the time before, and where she had left the fork sticking upright in the ground.
A few minutes served to fill the basket; but, before starting back to the house, the mountain girl paused again to look out over the river. Perhaps it was some vague memory of Auntie Sue's talk, the night before, that prompted her; perhaps it was some instinct, indefinite and obscure;—whatever it was that influenced her, Judy left her basket, and went to the brink of the high bank above the eddy for a closer view of the water.
The next instant, with the quick movement of an untamed creature of her native mountain forests, the girl sprang back, and crouched close to the ground to hide from something she had seen at the foot of the bank. Every movement of her twisted body expressed amazement and fear. Her eyes were wild and excited. She looked carefully about, as if for dangers that might be hidden in the fog. Once, she opened her mouth as if to call. Half-rising, she started as if to run to the house. But, presently, curiosity apparently overruled her fear, and, throwing herself flat on the ground she wormed her way back to the brink of the river-bank. Cautiously, without making a sound, she peered through the tall grass and weeds that fringed the rim above the eddy.
The boat, which some kindly impulse of the river had drawn so gently aside from the stronger current that would have carried it down the rapids to the certain destruction waiting at Elbow Rock, still rested with its bow grounded on the shore, against which the eddying water had pushed it. But the thing that had so startled Judy was a man who was lying, apparently unconscious, on the wet and muddy bottom-boards of the little craft.
Breathlessly, the girl, looking down from the top of the bank, watched for some movement; but the dirty huddled heap of wretched humanity was so still that she could not guess whether it was living or dead. Fearfully, she noted that there were no oars in the boat, nor gun, nor fishing-tackle of any sort. The man's hat was missing. His clothing was muddy and disarranged. His position was such that she could not see the face.
Drawing back, Judy looked cautiously about; then, picking up a heavy clod of dirt from the ploughed edge of the garden, and crouching again at the brink of the bank, ready for instant flight, she threw the clod into the water near the boat. The still form in the boat made no movement following the splash. Selecting a smaller clod, the girl threw the bit of dirt into the stern of the boat itself, where it broke in fragments. And, at this, the figure moved slightly.
"Hit's alive, all right," commented Judy to herself, with a grin of satisfaction, at the result of her investigation. "But hit's sure time he was a-gittin' up."
Carefully selecting a still smaller bit of dirt, she deliberately tossed it at the figure itself. Her aim was true, and the clod struck the man on the shoulder, with the result that he stirred uneasily, and, muttering something which Judy could not hear, half-turned on his back so that the girl saw the haggard, unshaven face. She saw, too, that, in one hand, the man clutched an empty whisky bottle.
At sight of the bottle, the mountain girl rose to her feet with an understanding laugh. "Hell!" she said aloud; "drunk,—that's all—dead drunk. I'll sure fetch him out of hit." And then, grinning with malicious delight, she proceeded to pelt the man in the boat with clods of dirt until he scrambled to a sitting posture, and looked up in bewildered confusion.
"If you please," he said, in a hoarse voice, to the sallow, old-young face that grinned down at him from the top of the bank, "which one of the Devil's imps are you?"
As she looked into that upturned face, Judy's grin vanished. "I sure 'lowed as how you-all was dead," she explained.
"Well," returned the man in the boat, wearily, "I can assure you that it's not in the least my fault if I disappoint you. I feel as bad about it as you do. However, I don't think I am so much alive that it makes any material difference." He lifted the whisky bottle, and studied it thoughtfully.
"You-all come dad burned near not bein' ary bit alive," returned the girl.
"Yes?" said the man, inquiringly.
"Yep; you sure did come mighty nigh hit. If your old John-boat had a-carried you-all on down ter Elbow Rock, 'stead of bein' ketched in the eddy here, you-all would sure 'nough been a-talkin' to the Devil by now."
The man, looking out over the river into the fog, muttered to himself, "I can't even make a success of dying, it seems."
Again, he regarded the empty bottle in his hand with studied interest. Then, tossing the bottle into the river, he looked up, once more, to the girl on the bank above.
"Listen, sister!" he said, nervously. "Is there any place around here where I can buy a drink? I need something rather badly. Where am I, anyway?"
"You-all are at Auntie Sue's place," said Judy; "an' there sure ain't no chance for you-all ter git ary licker here. Where'd you-all come from, anyhow? How'd you-all git here 'thout no oars ner paddle ner nothin'? Where was you-all aimin' ter go?"
"Your questions, my good girl, are immaterial and irrelevant," returned the man in the boat. "The all-important matter before us for consideration is,—how can I get a drink? I MUST have a drink, I tell you!" He held up his hands, and they were shaking as if with palsy. "And I must have it damned quick!"
"You-all sure do talk some powerful big words," said Judy, with critical interest. "You-all sure must be some eddecated. Auntie Sue, now, she talks—"
The man interrupted her: "Who is 'Auntie Sue'?"
"I don't know," Judy returned; "she's just Auntie Sue—that's all I know. She sure is—"
Again the man interrupted: "I think it would be well for me to interview this worthy aunt of yours." And then, while he raised himself, unsteadily, to his feet, he continued, in a muttering undertone: "You don't seem to appreciate the situation. If I don't get some sort of liquor soon, things are bound to happen."
He attempted to step from the boat to the shore; but the instability of the light, flat-bottomed skiff, together with his own unsteady weakness, combined to land him half in the water and half on the muddy bank where he struggled helplessly, and, in his weakened condition, would have slipped wholly into the river had not Judy rushed down the rude steps to his assistance.
With a strength surprising in one of her apparent weakness, the mountain girl caught the stranger under his shoulders and literally dragged him from the water. When she had further helped him to his feet, Judy surveyed the wretched object of her beneficence with amused and curious interest.
The man, with his unkempt hair, unshaven, haggard face, bloodshot eyes, and slovenly dishevelled dress, had appeared repulsive enough while in the boat; but, now, as he stood dripping with water and covered with mud, there was a touch of the ridiculous in his appearance that brought a grin to the unlovely face of his rescuer, and caused her to exclaim with unnecessary frankness: "I'll be dad burned if you-all ain't a thing ter look at, mister!"
As the poor creature, who was shaking as if with the ague, regarded the twisted form, the wry neck, and the sallow, old-young face of the girl, who was laughing at him, a gleam of sardonic humor flashed in his bloodshot eyes. "Thanks," he said, huskily; "you are something of a vision yourself, aren't you?"
The laughter went from Judy's face as she caught the meaning of the cruel words. "I ain't never laid no claim ter bein' a beauty," she retorted in her shrill, drawling monotone. "But, I kin tell you-all one thing, mister: Hit was God-A'mighty Hisself an' my drunken pap what made me ter look like I do. While you,—damn you!—you-all just naturally made yourself what you be."
At the mountain girl's illiterate words, so pregnant with meaning, a remarkable change came over the face and manner of the man. His voice, even, for the moment, lost its huskiness, and vibrated with sincere feeling as he steadied himself; and, bowing with courteous deference, said: "I beg your pardon, miss. That was unkind. You really should have left me to the river."
"You-all would a-drownded, sure, if I had," she retorted, somewhat mollified by the effect of her observation.
"Which," he returned, "would have been so beautifully right and fitting that it evidently could not be." And with this cynical remark, his momentary bearing of self-respect was gone.
"Are you-all a-meanin' ter say that you-all was a-wantin' ter drown?"
"Something like that," he returned. And then, with a hint of ugliness in his voice and eyes, he rasped: "But, look here, girl! do you think I'm going to stand like this all day indulging in idle conversation with you? Where is this aunt of yours? Can't you see that I've got to have a drink?"
He started uncertainly toward the steps that led to the top of the bank, and Judy, holding him by his arm, helped him to climb the steep way. A part of the ascent he made on hands and knees. Several times he would have fallen except for the girl's support. But, at last, they gained the top, and stood in the garden.
"That there is the house," said Judy, pointing. "But I don't reckon as how you-all kin git ary licker there."
The wretched man made no reply; but, with Judy still supporting him, stumbled forward across the rows of vegetables.
The two had nearly reached the steps at the end of the porch when Auntie Sue came from the house to see why Judy did not return with the potatoes. The dear old lady paused a moment, startled at the presence of the unprepossessing stranger in her garden. Then, with an exclamation of pity, she hurried to meet them.
The man, whose gaze as he shambled along was fixed on the ground, did not notice Auntie Sue until, feeling Judy stop, he also paused, and raising his head looked full at the beautiful old lady.
"Why, Judy!" cried Auntie Sue, her low, sweet voice filled with gentle concern. "What in the world has happened?"
With an expression of questioning bewilderment and rebuke on his haggard face, the man also turned to the mountain girl beside him.
"I found him in er John-boat what done come ashore last night, down there in the eddy," Judy explained to Auntie Sue. To the man, she said: "This here is Auntie Sue, mister; but, I don't reckon as how she's got ary licker for you."
"'Liquor'?" questioned Auntie Sue. "What in the world do you mean, child?" Then quickly to the stranger;—"My dear man, you are wringing wet. You must have been in the river. Come, come right in, and let us do something for you." As she spoke, she went toward him with outstretched hands.
But the wretched creature shrank back from her, as if in fear;—his whole body shaking with emotion; his fluttering hands raised in a gesture of imploring protest;—while the eyes that looked up at the saintly countenance of the old gentlewoman were the eyes of a soul sunken in the deepest hell of shame and humiliation.
Shocked with pitying horror, Auntie Sue paused.
The man's haggard, unshaven face twitched and worked with the pain of his suffering. He bit his lips and fingered his quivering chin in a vain effort at self-control; and then, as he looked up at her, the sunken, bloodshot eyes filled with tears that the tormented spirit had no power to check.
And Auntie Sue turned her face away.
For a little, they stood so. Then, as Auntie Sue faced him again, the stranger, with a supreme effort of his will, gained a momentary control of his shattered nerves. Drawing himself erect and standing steady and tall before her, he raised a hand to his uncovered head as if to remove his hat. When his hand found no hat to remove, he smiled as if at some jest at his own expense.
"I am so sorry, madam," he said,—and his voice was musically clear and cultured. "Please pardon me for disturbing you? I did not know. This young woman should have explained. You see, when she spoke of 'Auntie Sue,' I assumed, of course,—I mean,—I expected to find a native woman who would—" He paused, smiling again, as if to assure her that he fully appreciated the humor of his ridiculous predicament.
"But, my dear sir," cried Auntie Sue, eagerly, "there is nothing to pardon. Please do come into the house and let us help you."
But the stranger drew back, shaking his head sadly. "You do not understand, madam. It is not that my clothes are unpresentable,—it is I, myself, who am unfit to stand in your presence, much less to enter your house. I thank you, but I must go."
He was turning away, when Auntie Sue reached his side and placed her gentle old hand lightly on his arm.
"Please, won't you come in, sir? I shall never forgive myself if I let you go like this."
The man's voice was hoarse and shaking, now, as he answered: "For God's sake, madam, don't touch me! Let me go! You must! I—I—am not myself! You might not be safe with me! Ask her—she knows!" He turned to Judy.
"He's done said hit, ma'm," said Judy, in answer to Auntie Sue's questioning look. "My pap, he was that way when he done smashed me up agin the wall, when I was nothin' but a baby, an' hit made me grow up all crooked an' ugly like what I be now."
With one shamed glance at Auntie Sue, the wretched fellow looked down at the ground. His head drooped forward. His shoulders sagged. His whole body seemed to shrink. Turning sadly away, he again started back toward the river.
"Stop!" Auntie Sue's voice rang out imperiously.
The man halted.
"Look at me," she commanded.
Slowly, he raised his eyes. The gentle old teacher spoke with fine spirit, now, but kindly still: "This is sheer nonsense, my boy. You wouldn't hurt me. Why, you couldn't! Of course, you are not yourself; but, do you think that I do not know a gentleman when I meet one? Come—" She held out her hand.
A moment he stood, gazing at her in wondering awe. Then his far-overtaxed strength failed;—his abused nerves refused to bear more,—and he sank,—a pitiful, cowering heap at her feet. Hiding his face in his shaking hands, he sobbed like a child.
IN THE LOG HOUSE BY THE RIVER.
Those two women managed, somehow, to get the almost helpless stranger into the house, where Auntie Sue, after providing him with nightclothes, left by one of her guests, by tactful entreaty and judicial commands, persuaded him to go to bed.
Then followed several days and nights of weary watching. There were times when the man lay with closed eyes, so weak and exhausted that he seemed to be drifting out from these earthly shores on the deep waters of that wide and unknown sea into which all the streams of life finally flow. But, always, Auntie Sue miraculously held him back. There were other times when, by all the rules of the game, he should have worn a strait-jacket;—when his delirium filled the room with all manner of horrid creatures from the pit; when leering devils and loathsome serpents and gibbering apes tormented him until his unnatural strength was the strength of a fiend, and his tortured nerves shrieked in agony. But Auntie Sue perversely ignored the rules of the game. And never did the man, even in his most terrible moments, fail to recognize in the midst of the hellish crew of his diseased imagination the silvery-haired old teacher as the angel of his salvation. Her gentle voice had always power to soothe and calm him. He obeyed her implicitly, and, like a frightened child, holding fast to her hand would beg piteously for her to protect and save him.
But no word of the man's low-muttered, broken sentences, nor of his wildest ravings, ever gave Auntie Sue a clue to his identity. She searched his clothes, but there was not a thing to give her even his name.
And, yet, that first day, when Judy would have gone to neighbor Tom's for help, Auntie Sue said "No." She even positively forbade the girl to mention the stranger's presence in the house, should she chance to talk with passing neighbors. "The river brought him to us, Judy, dear," she said. "We must save him. No one shall know his shame, to humiliate and wound his pride and drag him down after he is himself again. Until he has recovered and is once more the man I believe him to be, no one must see him or know that he is here; and no one must ever know how he came to us."
And late, one evening, when Judy was fast asleep, and the man was lying very still after a period of feverish tossing and muttering, the dear old gentlewoman crept quietly out of the house into the night. She was gone some time, and when she returned again to the stranger's bedside she was breathless and trembling as from some unusual exertion. And the following afternoon, when Judy came to her with the announcement that the boat which had brought the man to them was no longer in the eddy below the garden, Auntie Sue said, simply, that she was glad it was gone, and cautioned the girl, again, that the stranger's presence in the house must not be made known to any one.
When the mountain girl protested, saying, "You-all ain't got no call ter be a-wearin' yourself ter the bone a-takin' care of such as him," Auntie Sue answered, "Hush, Judy! How do you know what the poor boy really is?"
To which Judy retorted: "He's just triflin' an' ornery an' no 'count, that's what he is, or he sure wouldn't been a-floatin' 'round in that there old John-boat 'thout ary gun, or fishin' lines, or hat even, ter say nothin' of that there whisky bottle bein' plumb empty."
Auntie Sue made no reply to the mountain girl's harsh summing-up of the damning evidence against the stranger, but left her and went softly to the bedside of their guest.
It was perhaps an hour later that Judy, quietly entering the room, happened upon a scene that caused her to stand as if rooted to the spot in open-mouthed amazement.
The man was sleeping, and the silvery-haired old maiden-lady, seated on the side of the bed, was bending over the unconscious stranger and gently stroking his tumbled, red-brown hair, even as a mother might lovingly caress her sleeping child. And then, as Judy watched, breathless with wonder, the proud old gentlewoman, bending closer over that still form on the bed, touched her lips—soft as a rose-petal—to the stranger's brow.
When she arose and saw Judy standing there, Auntie Sue's delicate old cheeks flushed with color, and her eyes were shining. With a gesture, she commanded the girl to silence, and the two tiptoed from the room. When they were outside, and Auntie Sue had cautiously closed the door, she faced the speechless Judy with a deliciously defiant air that could not wholly hide her lovely confusion.
"I—I—was thinking, Judy, how he—how he—might have been—my son."
"Your 'son'!" ejaculated the girl. "Why, ma'm, you-all ain't never even been married, as I've ever hearn tell, have you?"
Auntie Sue drew her thin shoulders proudly erect, and, lifting her fine old face, answered the challenging question with splendid spirit: "No, I have never been married; but I might have been; and if I had, I suppose I could have had a son, couldn't I?"
The vanquished Judy retreated to the kitchen, where, in safety, she sank into a chair, convulsed with laughter, which she instinctively muffled in her apron.
Then came the day when the man, weak and worn with his struggle, looked up at his gentle old nurse with the light of sanity in his deep blue eyes. Very tired eyes they were, and filled with painful memories,—filled, too, with worshipping gratitude and wonder.
She smiled down at him with delighted triumph, and drawing a chair close beside the bed, seated herself and placed her soft hand on his where it lay on the coverlid.
"You are much better, this morning," she said cheerily. "You will soon be all right, now." And as she looked into the eyes that regarded hers so questioningly, there was in her face and manner no hint of doubt, or pretense, or reproach;—only confidence and love.
He spoke slowly, as if feeling for words: "I have been in Hell; and you—you have brought me out. Why did you do it?"
"Because you are mine," she answered, with her low chuckling laugh. It was so good to have him able to talk to her rationally after those long hours of fighting.
"Because I am yours?" he repeated, puzzling over her words.
"Yes," she returned, with a hint of determined proprietorship in her voice; "because you belong to me. You see, that eddy where your boat landed is my property, and so anything that drifts down the river and lodges there belongs to me. Whatever the river brings to me, is mine. The river brought you, and so—" She finished with another laugh,—a laugh that was filled with tender mother-yearning.
The blue eyes smiled back at her for a moment; then she saw them darken with painful memories.
"Oh, yes; the river," he said. "I wanted the river to do something for me, and—and it did something quite different from what I wanted."
"Of course," she returned, eagerly, "the river is always like that. It always does the thing you don't expect it to do. Just like life itself. Don't you see? It begins somewhere away off at some little spring, and just keeps going and going and going; and thousands and thousands of other springs, scattered all over the country, start streams and creeks and branches that run into it, and make it bigger and bigger, as it winds and curves and twists along, until it finally reaches the great sea, where its waters are united with all the waters from all the rivers in all the world. And in all of its many, many miles, from that first tiny spring to the sea, there are not two feet of it exactly alike. In all the centuries of its being, there are never two hours alike. An infinite variety of days and nights—an infinite variety of skies and light and clouds and daybreaks and sunsets—an infinite number and variety of currents and shoals and deep places and quiet spots and dangerous rapids and eddies—and, along its banks, an endless change of hills and mountains and flats and forests and meadows and farms and cities—and—" She paused, breathless. And then, when he did not speak, but only watched her, she continued: "Don't you see? Of course, the river never could be what you expect, any more than life could be exactly what you want and dream it will be."
"Who in the world are you?" he asked, wonderingly. "And what in the world are you doing here in the backwoods?"
Smiling at his puzzled expression, she answered: "I am Auntie Sue. I am LIVING here in the backwoods."
"But, your real name? Won't you tell me your name? I must know how to address you."
"Oh, my name is Susan E. Wakefield—MISS Wakefield, if you please. I shall be seventy-one years old the eighteenth day of next November. And you must call me 'Auntie Sue,'—just as every one else does."
"Wakefield—Wakefield—where have I seen that name?" He wrinkled his brow in an effort to remember. "Wakefield—I feel sure that I have heard it, somewhere."
"It is not unlikely," she returned, lightly. "It is not at all an uncommon name. And now that I am properly introduced, don't you think—?"
He hesitated a moment, then said, deliberately, "My name is Brian Kent."
"That is an Irish name," she said quickly; "and that is why your hair is so nearly red and your eyes so blue."
"Yes," he returned, "from my mother. And please don't ask me more now, for I can't lie to you, and I won't tell you the truth." And she saw, again, the dark shadows of painful memories come into the blue eyes.
Bending over the bed, she laid her soft hand on his brow, and pushed back his heavy hair; and her sweet old voice was very low and gentle as she said: "My dear boy, I shall never ask you more. The river brought you to me, and you are mine. You must not even think of anything else, just now. When you are stronger, and are ready, we will talk of your future; but of your past, you—"
A loud knock sounded at the door of the living room.
"There is someone at the door," she said hastily. "I must go. Lie still, and go to sleep like a good boy; won't you?"
Swiftly, she leaned over, and, before he realized, he felt her lips touch his forehead. Then she was gone, and Brian Kent's Irish eyes were filled with tears. Turning to the wall, he hid his face in the pillow.
OFFICERS OF THE LAW.
As Auntie Sue was closing the door of her guest's room carefully behind her, Judy came from the kitchen in great excitement, and the knocking at the front door of the house was repeated.
"Hit's the Sheriff, ma'm," whispered Judy. "I was just a-comin' ter tell you. I seed 'em from the kitchen-winder. He's got two other men with him. Their hosses is tied ter the fence in front. What in hell will we do, now? They are after him in there, sure 's death!"
Auntie Sue's face was white, and her lips trembled,—but only for a moment.
"Go back into the kitchen, Judy, and stay there," she commanded, in a whisper; and went to open the front door as calmly as if nothing unusual had happened.
Sheriff Knox was a big man, with a bluff, kindly manner, and a voice that made nothing of closed doors. He returned Auntie Sue's greeting heartily, and, with one of his companions,—a quiet, business-looking gentleman,—accepted her cordial invitation to come in. The third man of the party remained near the saddle-horses at the gate.
"Well, Auntie Sue," said the Sheriff, settling his ponderous bulk in one of the old lady's rocking-chairs, which certainly was not built to carry such a weight, "how are you? I haven't seen you in a coon's age. I'll swear, though, you ain't a minute older than you was when you first begun teachin' the little Elbow Rock school up there on the hill, are you?"
"I don't know, Sheriff," Auntie Sue returned, with a nervous little laugh. "I sometimes think that I am a few days older. I have watched a good many sunsets since then, you know."
The big officer's laughter almost shook the log walls of the house. To his quiet companion, who had taken a chair near the window, he said: "I'll have to tell you, Ross, that Auntie Sue owns every sunset in these Ozark Mountains. What was it you paid for them?" He turned again to their smiling hostess. "Oh, yes; fifty cents an acre for the land and fourteen dollars and a half for the sunsets. You'll have to be blamed careful not to trespass on the sunsets in this neighborhood, Ross." Again, his hearty laugh roared out, while his chair threatened to collapse with the quaking of his massive body.
The gentleman seated at the window laughed quietly, in sympathy.
"You'll be all right, though, Ross," the Sheriff continued, "as long as you're with me. Auntie Sue and me have been friends for about twenty year, now. I always stop to see her whenever I'm passing through the Elbow Rock neighborhood, if I ain't in too big a hurry. Stayed with her a week, once, five years ago, when we was after that Lewis gang. She knows I'd jail any man on earth that would even touch one of her sunsets."
Then, as if the jesting allusion to his office reminded him of his professional duties, he added: "I plumb forgot, Auntie Sue, this gentleman is Mr. Ross. He is one of William J. Burns's crack detectives. Don't be scared, though, he ain't after you."
Auntie Sue, while joining in the laughter, and acknowledging the introduction, regarded the business-looking gentleman by the window with intense interest.
"I think," she said, slowly,—and the sweetness of her low, cultured voice was very marked in contrast to the Sheriff's thundering tones,—"I think, sir, that this is the first time in my life that I ever saw a real detective. I have read about them, of course."
Mr. Ross was captivated by the charm of this beautiful old gentlewoman, who regarded him with such child-like interest, and who spoke with such sweet frankness and dignity. Smilingly, he returned:
"I fear, madam, that you would find me very disappointing. No one that I ever knew in my profession could hope to live up to the reputation given us by the story-books. No secret service man living can remotely approximate the deeds performed by the detectives of fiction. We are very, very human, I can assure you."
"I am sure that you, at least, must be very kind," returned Auntie Sue, gently. And the cheeks of the experienced officer flushed like the cheeks of a schoolboy.
"Mr. Ross, Auntie Sue," said the Sheriff, "is, as I was telling you, one of William J. Burns's big men."
Auntie Sue gave her attention to her big friend: "Yes?"
The Sheriff continued: "Now, the Burns people, you see, protect the banks all over the country."
"Yes?" came, again, in a tone so low and gentle that the monosyllable was scarcely heard.
The officer's loud voice went on: "And Mr. Ross, here, works most of his time on these bank cases. Just now, he is trailing a fellow that got away with a lot of money from the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, of Chicago, about a month ago;—that is, the man disappeared about a month ago. He had been stealing along from the bank for about a year,—worked, for them, you see."
"The Empire Consolidated Savings Bank!" Auntie Sue spoke the words in a voice that was little more than a whisper. It was to the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank that she had sent the money which she had received from her brother in Buenos Aires; and Homer T. Ward, the president of that bank, was one of her old pupils. Why, her stranger guest, in the other room there, was that very moment wearing one of the bank president's nightshirts.
"And do you"—Auntie Sue addressed the detective—"do you know the man's name, Mr. Ross?"
"Oh, yes," returned the officer, "his name is Brian Kent."
Some source of strength, deep-hidden in her gentle nature, enabled Auntie Sue to control her emotions, though her voice broke a little as she slowly repeated the man's name, "Brian Kent. And do I understand, sir, that you have traced the man to this—neighborhood?"
The detective was too skilled not to notice Auntie Sue's manner and the break in her voice; but he never dreamed that this old gentlewoman's agitation was caused by a deeper interest than a quite natural fear that a dangerous criminal might be lurking in the immediate vicinity.
"Not exactly, Mrs.—ah—"
"Miss Wakefield,"—she supplied her name with a smile.
With a courteous bow, the detective continued: "We do not know for sure that the man is in this neighborhood, Miss Wakefield. There is really no cause for you to be alarmed. Even if he should call at your house, here, you need not be frightened, for I assure you the man is not at all a dangerous character."
"I am glad," said Auntie Sue; and she laughed a little with a relief more genuine than her callers knew.
Detective Ross continued as if anxious to finish his unpleasant duty: "It is too bad for us to be disturbing you with this business, Miss Wakefield, and I hope you will forgive us; but, the case is like this: We traced our man to the little town of Borden, some forty miles up the river from here. He disappeared from the hotel one night, leaving his suit-case and, apparently, everything he had with him, and not a soul that we can find has seen him since. Of course, everybody says 'suicide.' He had been drinking heavily and acting rather queer the two or three days he was at the hotel,—it seems. But I am not willing, yet, to accept the suicide idea as final, because it would be too easy for him to give things that appearance in order to throw us off; and I can't get away from the fact that a John-boat that was tied to the bank near the hotel managed to break loose and drift off down the river that same night. Working on my theory, we are following down the river, trying to get trace of either the boat or the man. So far, we haven't heard of either, which rather strengthens me in my belief that the boat and the man went away together. He is probably traveling nights, and lying up under the willows in daylight. But he will be compelled to show himself somewhere, soon, in order to get something to eat, for he couldn't have taken much with him, trying, as he was, to create the impression that he had committed suicide. You have a wonderful view of the river here, Miss Wakefield."
"Yes, sir; it is beautiful from the porch."
"You spend a good deal of time on the porch, do you?"
"And you would be quite likely to notice any boat passing, wouldn't you?"
"Could you see a boat at night,—in the moonlight, I mean?"
"I could if it were well out in the middle of the stream, away from the shadow of the trees, along the bank."
"Have you seen any boats pass lately, Miss Wakefield?"
"No, sir; I haven't seen a boat on the river for a month, at least."
"Dead certain about it, are you, Auntie Sue?" asked the Sheriff.
"Yes, sir; I am very sure," she returned. "Judy and I were talking about it yesterday."
"Who is Judy?" asked the detective.
The Sheriff answered, "Just a girl that lives with Auntie Sue."
And Auntie Sue added: "I know Judy has seen no boats passing, because, as I say, we were talking about it."
"I see," said the detective. "And may I ask, Miss Wakefield, if any one—any stranger, I mean—has called at the house lately, or if you have seen any one in the vicinity?"
The gentle old lady hesitated.
The officers thought she was searching her memory to be sure before she answered.
Then Auntie Sue said, deliberately: "No, sir; we have not seen a stranger in this vicinity for several weeks. The last one was a mule-buyer, who stopped to ask if he was on the right road to Tom Warden's; and that must have been fully six weeks ago."
The detective looked at Sheriff Knox.
"Well," said the big officer, "I reckon we might as well push along."
The two men arose.
"Oh, but surely you will stay for dinner," said Auntie Sue, while her dear heart was faint with fear lest they accept, and thus bring about who could say what disastrous consequences through their meeting with Judy.
"Not this time, Auntie Sue," returned the Sheriff. "Mr. Ross is anxious to get on down the river as fast as he can. He's got men on watch at White's Crossing, and if our man ain't passed there, or if we don't strike his trail somewhere before we get there, we will jump back on the railroad, and get some boy to bring the horses through later."
"I see," returned Auntie Sue. And to the detective she added, smiling: "I am sure it must be very difficult for any one to escape you, Mr. Ross. I have read such wonderful things about Mr. Burns and the work of his organization; and now that I have met you,—a real live detective,—I shall be very careful, indeed, about what I do in the future. I shouldn't want to have you on my track, I assure you."
The two men laughed heartily, and the detective, as he extended his hand in farewell, returned: "I count it a great privilege to have met you, Miss Wakefield; and if you will promise to do one thing for me, I'll agree to be very lenient with you if I am ever assigned to a case in which you are to be brought to justice."
"I promise," returned the old lady, quickly. "I really wouldn't dare to refuse under the circumstances, would I? What do you want me to do, Mr. Ross?"
"If this man Brian Kent should happen to appear in this vicinity, will you get a message as quickly as possible, at any cost, to Sheriff Knox?"
"Why, of course," agreed Auntie Sue. "But you have not yet told me what the man looks like, Mr. Ross."
"He is really a fine looking chap," the detective answered. "Thirty years old—fully six feet tall—rather slender, but well built—weighs about one hundred fifty—a splendid head—smooth shaven—reddish hair—dark blue eyes—and a high, broad forehead. He is of Irish extraction—is cultured—very courteous in his manner and speech—dresses well—and knows a lot about books and authors and such things."
"I would surely know him from that description," said Auntie Sue, thinking of the wretched creature who had fallen, sobbing, at her feet so short a time before. "But, you do not make him seem like a criminal at all. It is strange that a man such as you describe should be a fugitive from the law, is it not?"
"We come in contact with many strange things in our business, Miss Wakefield," the Burns operative answered—a little sadly, Auntie Sue thought. "Life itself is so strange and complex, though you in your quiet retreat, here, can scarcely find it so."
"Indeed, I find life very wonderful, Mr. Ross, even here in my little house by the river," she answered, slowly.
Sheriff Knox held out a newspaper to Auntie Sue: "Just happened to remember that I had it in my pocket," he said. "It gives a pretty full account of this fellow Kent's case. You will notice there is a big reward offered for his capture. If you can catch him for us, you'll make enough money to keep you mighty nigh all the rest of your life." And the officer's great laugh boomed out at the thought of the old school-teacher as a thief-catcher.
"By the way, Sheriff," said Auntie Sue, as they were finally saying good-bye at the door, "you didn't happen to ask at Thompsonville for my mail, did you, as you came through?" Her voice was trembling, now, with eagerness and anxiety.
"I'm plumb sorry, Auntie Sue, but I didn't. You see, we were so busy on this job, I clean forgot about stopping here; and, besides, we might have caught our man before we got this far, you see."
"Of course," returned Auntie Sue, "I should have thought of that; but I have been rather anxious about an important letter that seems to have been delayed. Some of the neighbors will probably be going to the office to-day, though. Good-bye! You know you are always welcome, Sheriff; and you, too, Mr. Ross, if you should ever happen to be in this part of the country again."
"A wonderful old woman, Ross," commented Sheriff Knox as they were riding away. And the quiet, business-looking detective, whose life had been spent in combating crime and deception, answered, as he waved farewell to Auntie Sue, who watched them from the door of the little log house by the river, "A very wonderful woman, indeed,—the loveliest old lady I have ever met,—and the most remarkable."
THAT WHICH IS GREATER THAN THE LAW.
When she had watched Sheriff Knox and his two companions ride out of sight, Auntie Sue turned slowly back into the house to face Judy, who stood accusingly in the kitchen doorway.
For what seemed a long time, the old gentlewoman and the deformed mountain girl stood silently looking at each other. Then Auntie Sue nervously crossed the room to lay the newspaper, which the Sheriff had given her, on the table beside her basket of sewing.
Without speaking, Judy followed her, watching every movement intently.
Turning to face her companion again, Auntie Sue stood, still speechless, clasping and unclasping her thin old hands.
Judy spoke in her shrill, drawling monotone: "You-all have sure fixed hit this here time, hain't you? Can't you-all see what a hell of a hole you've done got us inter?"
When Auntie Sue apparently could not reply, Judy continued: "Just as if hit wasn't more 'n enough for you-all ter go an' wear yourself plumb out a-takin' keer of that there ornery, no-'count feller, what I never ought ter dragged out of the river nohow. An', now, you-all got ter go an' just naturally lie like you did ter the Sheriff an' that there deteckertive man. I was plumb scared to death a-listenin' ter you through the crack in the kitchen door. I 'lowed every minute they'd ketch you, sure. My Lord-A'mighty! ma'm, can't you-all figger what'll happen ter weuns if they ever finds out that weuns done had him hid right here in this here house all the time? I never heard tell of such dad burned, fool doin's in all my born days! I sure wish ter God that there old John-boat had a-tuck him off down the river an' smashed him up agin Elbow Rock, like hit ort, an' not a-fetched him ter our door ter git weuns in jail for savin' his worthless, no-'count hide,—I sure do!"
"But, Judy, I never in all my life did such a thing before," said Auntie Sue in a tremulous whisper, too overwrought to speak aloud.
"You-all ain't a-needin' ter do hit but onct, neither. Onct is sure a heap plenty for that there big Sheriff man. Just look what he did ter my pap! He's jailed pap seven times, that I kin rec'lect. God-A'mighty knows how many times he ketched him 'fore I was borned. An' pap, he didn't do so mighty much ary time, neither."
"I just had to do it, Judy, dear," protested Auntie Sue. "It seemed as if I simply could not tell the truth: something wouldn't let me."
Judy, unheeding her companion's agitation, continued reviewing the situation: "An' just look at all the money you-all done lost!"
"Money?" questioned Auntie Sue.
"Yep, 'money:'—that there reward what they'd a-paid you-all if you-all hadn't a-lied like you did. I reckon as how there'd a-been as much, maybe, as what was in that there letter you-all done sent ter the bank an' ain't never heard tell of since. Hit's most likely clean gone by now, an' here you done gone an' throw'd this other away,—plumb throw'd hit away!"
At this, Auntie Sue's spirit suddenly flashed into fiery indignation.
"Judith Taylor," she said sharply, "how can you suggest such a wicked thing? Why, I would—I would—DIE before I would accept a penny for doing such a thing!"
And it was Judy, now, who stood silent and abashed before the aroused Auntie Sue.
"Don't ever speak of such a thing again!" continued the old lady. "And remember, we must be more careful than ever, now, not to let any one—not a soul—know that Mr.—Mr.—Burns is in the house, or that we ever saw him!"
"That there deteckertive man said as how the feller's name was Brian Kent, didn't be?" muttered the sullen Judy.
"I don't care what the detective man said!" retorted Auntie Sue. "I am telling you that his name is Brian Burns, and you had better remember it! You had better remember, too, that if anybody ever finds out the truth about him, you and I will go right along to jail with him!"
"Yes, ma'm; I sure ain't aimin' ter forgit that," replied the humbled Judy; and she slouched away to the kitchen.
Auntie Sue went to the door of Brian Kent's room. But, with her hand outstretched toward the latch, she hesitated. Had he heard? The Sheriff's voice had been so loud. She feared to enter, yet she knew that she must. At last, she knocked timidly, and, when there was no answer, knocked again, louder. Cautiously, she opened the door.
The man lay with his face to the wall,—to all appearances fast asleep.
She tiptoed to the bed, and stood looking down upon the stranger for whom, without a shadow of reason,—one would have said,—she had violated one of the most deeply rooted principles of her seventy years.
To Auntie Sue, daughter of New England Puritanism, and religious to the deeps of her being, a lie was abhorrent,—and she had lied,—deliberately, carefully, and with painstaking skill she had lied. She had not merely evaded the truth; she had lied,—and that to save a man of whom she knew nothing except that he was a fugitive from the law. And the strangest thing about it was this, that she was glad. She could not feel one twinge of regret for her sin. She could not even feel that she had, indeed, sinned. She had even a feeling of pride and triumph that she had lied so successfully. She was troubled, though, about this new and wholly unexpected development in her life. It had been so easy for her. She had lied so naturally, so instinctively.
She remembered how she had spoken to Brian Kent of the river and of life. She saw, now, that the river symbolized not only life as a whole, with its many ever-changing conditions and currents, amid which the individual must live;—the river symbolized, as truly, the individual life, with its ever-changing moods and motives,—its ever-varying and often-conflicting currents of instinct and training,—its infinite variety of intellectual deeps and shallows,—its gentle places of spiritual calm,—and its wild and turbulent rapids of dangerous passion.
"What hitherto unsuspected currents in her life-river," she asked herself, "had carried her so easily into falsehood? What strange forces were these," she wondered, "that had set her so suddenly against honesty and truthfulness and law and justice? And this stranger,—this wretched, haggard-faced, drunken creature, who had been brought by the mysterious currents of life to her door,—what was there in him that so compelled her protecting interest? What was it within him, deeply hidden under the repellent exterior of his being, that had so awakened in her that strange feeling of possession,—of motherhood?"
It was not strange that, in her mental and spiritual extremity, the dear old gentlewoman's life-long habit should lead her to kneel beside the stranger's bed and pray for understanding and guidance. It was significant that she did not ask her God to forgive the lie.
And, presently, as she prayed, she felt the man on the bed move. Then a hand lightly touched her hair. She remained very still for a little,—her head still bowed. The hand that touched so reverently the silvery gray hair trembled a little. Slowly, the old teacher raised her face to look at him; and the Irish blue eyes of Brian Kent were wide with wondering awe and glowing with a light that warmed her heart and strengthened her.
"Why did you do it?" he asked. "You wonderful, wonderful woman! Why did you do it?"
Slowly, she rose from her knees to sit beside him on the bed. "You heard?"
He nodded his head, not trusting himself to speak.
"I was afraid the Sheriff talked too loud," she said.
"But, why did you do it?" he persisted.
"I think it was because I couldn't do anything else," she answered, with her little chuckling laugh. Then she added, seriously: "How could I let them take you away? Are you not mine? Did not the river bring you to me?"
"I must tell you," he answered, sadly, "that what the detective told you about me is true."
"Yes?" she answered, smiling.
"I was a clerk in the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank," he continued, "and I stole money,—for nearly a year I stole,—not large sums, but a little at a time. Then, when I knew that it was going to be discovered, I took quite a lot, and ran away."
"Yes?" said Auntie Sue.
"Do you not care that I am a thief?" he questioned, wonderingly.
"Oh, yes; I care very much," she returned. "But, you see, after all, your stealing is a little thing that can be made all right. Your being a thief is so small in comparison with other things which you might have been, but which you are not, and of so little importance in comparison with what you really ARE, that I can't feel so very bad about it."
"But—but—my drinking,—my condition when—" He could not go on.
"Why, you see," she answered, "I can't think of THAT man as being YOU at all. THAT was something that the accident of your being a thief did to you,—like catching cold, and being sick, after accidentally falling in the river."
After a little silence, the man spoke, slowly: "I suppose every thief, when he is caught, says the same thing; but I really never wanted to do it. Circumstances—" he paused, biting his lip, and turning away.
"What was she like?" asked Auntie Sue, gently.
"She?" and his face reddened.
"Yes, I have observed that, to a man, 'circumstances' nearly always mean a woman. To a woman, of course, it is a man."
"I cannot tell you about her, now," he said. "Some day, perhaps, when I am further away from it. But she is not at all like you."
And this answer, for some strange reason, brought a flush of pleasure to the face of the old schoolteacher.
"I did not mean for you to tell me now," she returned. "I only wanted you to know that, even though I am an old maid, I can understand."
She left him then, and went to attend to her simple household duties.
It was not until quite late in the evening that Auntie Sue took up the newspaper which Sheriff Knox had given her. Judy had retired to her room, and Brian Burns—as they had agreed he should be called—was fast asleep.
To-morrow, Brian was going to sit up. His clothing had been washed and ironed and pressed, and Auntie Sue was making some little repairs in the way of darning and buttons. She had finished, and was putting her needle and scissors in the sewing-basket on the table beside her, when she noticed the paper, which she had forgotten.
The article headed "BANK CLERK DISAPPEARS" was not long. It told, in a matter-of-fact, newspaper way, how Brian Kent had, at different times, covering a period of several months, taken various sums from the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, and gave, so far as was then known, the accumulated amount which he had taken. The dishonest clerk had employed several methods in his operations; but the particular incident—read Auntie Sue—which had led to the exposure of Kent's stealings was the theft of a small sum of money in bank-notes, which had been sent to the bank in a letter by one of the bank's smaller depositors.
The newspaper fell from Auntie Sue's hand. Mechanically, she fingered the garment lying in her lap.
She, too, had sent a sum of money in a letter for deposit to her small account in this bank from which Brian Kent had stolen. She would not have sent the familiar paper currency of the United States that way; but, this money was in Argentine notes. Her brother from far-away Buenos Aires had sent it to her, saying that it would help to keep her during the closing years of her life; and she had added it to her small savings with a feeling of deepest gratitude that her last days were now fully provided for. And she had received from the bank no acknowledgment of her letter with its enclosures.
Taking up the paper with hands that trembled so she scarce could distinguish the words, she read the paragraph again.
Suddenly, she recalled the man's puzzled expression when she had told him her name, and she seemed to hear him say, again, "Wakefield? Wakefield? Where have I seen that name?"