THE SECRET OF THE STORM COUNTRY
BY GRACE MILLER WHITE
AUTHOR OF TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY, ROSE O' PARADISE, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY LUCIUS W. HITCHCOCK
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Made in the United States of America
Copyright, 1916, by Woman's World.
Copyright, 1917, by Woman's World.
Copyright, 1917, by The H. K. Fly Company.
I Lovingly Dedicate this Book to Lil And Arthur Miller
I. The Squatter Folk 9 II. The Coming of Andy Bishop 16 III. Tessibel Meets Waldstricker 25 IV. Tess and Frederick 33 V. A Gossip With "Satisfied" 38 VI. Waldstricker Makes a Proposal 44 VII. Waldstricker and Mother Moll 53 VIII. Tessibel's Marriage 58 IX. The Musicale 64 X. A Victim of Circumstances 72 XI. Frederick Intimidated 80 XII. Making Ready for the Warden 86 XIII. Sandy Proposes to Tess 94 XIV. The Warden's Coming 99 XV. The Search 105 XVI. Tessibel's Secret 112 XVII. Tessibel's Prayer 124 XVIII. A Letter 131 XIX. Its Answer 137 XX. Madelene Complains to Ebenezer 144 XXI. The End of the Honeymoon 149 XXII. The Repudiation 152 XXIII. The Quarrel 159 XXIV. Waldstricker Interferes 164 XXV. The Summons 168 XXVI. The Churching 171 XXVII. Daddy Skinner's Death 182 XXVIII. Young Discovers Andy 189 XXIX. The Vigil 195 XXX. Sandy Comes to Grief 202 XXXI. Waldstricker's Threat 207 XXXII. Helen's Message 211 XXXIII. Hands Stronger Than Waldstricker's 215 XXXIV. Love Air Everywhere the Hull Time 222 XXXV. Boy Skinner 227 XXXVI. Deforrest Decides 232 XXXVII. The New Home 238 XXXVIII. Dinner at Waldstricker's 244 XXXIX. Father and Son 250 XL. Husband and Wife 256 XLI. Tessibel's Discovery 261 XLII. A Man's Arm at the Window 266 XLIII. Sandy's Job 271 XLIV. Sandy's Visit 276 XLV. Andy Vindicated 279 XLVI. Sandy's Courting 286 XLVII. Waldstricker's Anger 294 XLVIII. The Sins of the Parents 302 XLIX. Tessibel and Elsie 311 L. Tessibel's Vision 321 LI. The Christmas Guest 328 LII. The Storm 334 LIII. The Happy Day 339
"I cast the first stone," he said swiftly Frontispiece
"I will," gritted Waldstricker, in spite of himself interested in the old woman's revelations 30
"I was wonderin' little one, when you say your prayers, if you'd pipe one for me?" 111
"Hush!" he cried, "Haven't you any heart?" 157
THE SQUATTER FOLK
The lazy warmth of a May afternoon, the spring following Orn Skinner's release from Auburn Prison, was reflected in the attitudes of three men lounging on the shore in front of "Satisfied" Longman's shack. At their feet, the waters of Cayuga Lake dimpled under the rays of the western sun. Like a strip of burnished silver, the inlet wound its way through the swamp from the elevators and railroad stations near the foot of south hill. Across the lake rose the precipitous slopes of East Hill, tapestried in green, etched here and there by stretches of winding white road, and crowned by the buildings on the campus of Cornell University. Stretched from the foot of State Street on either side of the Lehigh Valley track lay the Silent City, its northern end spreading several miles up the west shore of the Lake. Its inhabitants were canalers, fishermen and hunters, uneducated, rough and superstitious. They built their little huts in the simplest manner out of packing boxes and rough lumber and roofed them with pieces of tin and sheet iron. Squatters they were appropriately named, because they paid no attention to land titles, but stuck their shacks wherever fancy indicated or convenience dictated. The people of the Silent City slept by day and went very quietly about their work under the cover of darkness, for the game laws compelled the fishermen to pull their nets at night, and the farmers' chickens were more easily caught, his fruit more easily picked when the sun was warming China.
Summers, their lives were comparatively free from hardships. Fish were plentiful and easy to take; the squatter women picked flowers and berries in the woods and sold them in the city and the men worked occasionally, as the fit struck them. But the winters were bitter and cruel. The countryside, buried deep in snow, made travel difficult. When the mercury shrank timidly into the bulb and fierce winds howled down the lake, the Silent City seemed, indeed, the Storm Country.
"I were up to the Graves' place yesterday, helpin' Professor Young," said Jake Brewer, the youngest and most active of the three men.
"Never had no use fer that duffer, Dominie Graves, myself," answered Longman. The speaker turned a serious face to the third member of the party. "Ner you nuther, eh, Orn?"
Orn Skinner was an enormous man, some six and a half feet tall. Two great humps on his shoulders accentuated the breadth and thickness of his chest while they tended to conceal the length of his arms. A few months before he'd been in the death house at Auburn. Through the efforts of Deforrest Young, the dean of the Law College at Cornell, he'd been pardoned and sent home.
The gigantic squatter removed his pipe from his mouth and smoothed the thready white beard, straggling over his chin.
"Nope, I hated 'im," he muttered. "He done me dirt 'nough. If it hadn't been fer Tess an' Lawyer Young, he'd a hung me sure."
"Ye didn't git the deed to yer shack land afore he died, did ye, Orn?" interrupted "Satisfied" Longman. "Tessibel told ma the preacher promised it to ye."
A moody expression settled in Skinner's eyes. "So he did promise it," he explained. "He writ Tess a letter. He said as how he were sorry for his meanness an' would give me the deed. But he didn't!"
A shrill voice calling his name brought "Satisfied" Longman to his feet, and he hobbled away toward the shack.
"'Pears like 'Satisfied' ain't got much strength any more," said Skinner. "He ain't been worth much of anythin' sence I got back."
"Him an' Ma Longman've failed a lot sence Myry an' Ezry died," agreed Jake. "An' no wonder! Them two didn't amount to much to my way o' thinkin', but their pa an' ma set considerable store by 'em ... Ben Letts were a bad 'un, too. It used to make me plumb ugly to see 'im botherin' Tess when ye was shet up, Orn, an' him all the time the daddy of Myry's brat."
"Yep, Ben were bad," agreed Skinner. "I were sure he done the shootin', but 'tweren't till Ezry swore he saw 'im that the lawyer could prove I didn't do it. But Tess says Myry loved Ben. Women air queer critters, ain't they?"
"Myry sure was," assented Brewer, thoughtfully. "In spite of Ezry's tellin' her, Ben'd most drowned him, an' done the killin' they was goin' to hang you fer, up she gits an' takes the brat an' goes off with Ben. It were the worst storm of the year. No wonder him, Myry an' their brat all was drowned."
Longman, coming out of the shack, overheard the last remark. The other two fell silent. After he'd sat down again, he dissipated their embarrassment by saying,
"But Tess says Myry air happy now 'cause she air got Ben. Fer myself, I dunno, though. But, if Myry air satisfied, me an' ma air satisfied, too."
The other two nodded in solemn sympathy. After a moment, Jake took out his pipe and filled it. Holding the lighted match above the bowl, he glanced at Skinner.
"Where air Tess?" he asked.
"She air up to Young's. He air learnin' her book stuff, an' his sister air helpin' the brat sing. It air astonishin' how the brat takes to it. Jest like a duck to water."
"Tess air awful smart," sighed Longman, "an' she air awful good, too. She sings fer ma 'most every day. I heard her only yesterday, somethin' 'bout New Jerusylem. Ma loves Tessibel's singin'."
Then, for perhaps the space of three minutes, they lapsed into silence. At length, Jake Brewer spoke,
"Be ye goin' to let her marry the Student Graves, Orn?" he asked.
"I dunno," Skinner muttered, "but I know this much, I don't like high born pups like him hangin' 'round my girl. 'Tain't fittin' an' I told Tess so!"
Orn knocked the ashes out of his pipe and rose slowly.
"Guess I'll be moseyin' 'long, pals," he smiled. "The brat'll be back 'fore long."
"Wait a minute, Orn," Longman broke in. "Ma's got some pork an' beans she wants to send up to Mother Moll. She thought, mebbe, Tess'd take 'em to 'er."
"Sure, 'Satisfied,' I'll take 'em home an' the brat'll take 'em up the ravine next time she goes to the professor's."
"Mother Moll were the only one of us all," Jake told Skinner, while Longman was in the shack, "what stood by Tess. She allers says Tess air a goin' to surprise us all. She says as how the brat'll be rich an' have a fine home. I dunno—but old Moll do tell the future right good when she looks in the pot."
"She told the brat I were comin' home from Auburn," added Skinner, "when it looked certain I were goin' to hang."
Longman came out of the shack with a pan in his hands.
"Yep," he corroborated. "An' she told ma years ago she'd lose her brats in a storm. Old Moll air a wise woman, all right."
The dish of beans in his hand, the Bible-backed fisherman directed his steps toward his own home, some distance away beyond the ragged rocks.
The old squatter walked slowly. His health had broken in prison and his strength seemed hardly sufficient to move the big body. The path, an outcropping ledge of the precipitous cliff, was very narrow because of the unusually high level of the water in the lake. Picking his way slowly, he considered reminiscently the events which had almost destroyed him.
He recalled the long years of monotonous existence in the shack, the hard nights pulling the nets and the varied scrapes Tess had tumbled into. Then, suddenly, came the shooting of the game keeper, his own arrest, trial and conviction. The white glare of hateful publicity had been thrown, without warning, upon him and his motherless brat. He'd been torn away from his quiet haunts at the lake side and shut up in the narrow confines of a fetid cell. The enforced separation from his daughter, at the critical period between girl and womanhood, had left her alone in the shanty and exposed her to countless perils and hardships. Unmitigated calamities, especially the long imprisonment, they had seemed at the time, but the event proved otherwise.
Friends had arisen and helped him establish his innocence and win his pardon. The responsibilities thrown upon the squatter girl had been met with love and courage and had disciplined her high temper and awakened her ambition. The dirt and disorder that had formerly obtained in the shack had disappeared. Her housewifely arts had transformed the hut into a comfortable home, rough to be sure, small and inadequate, but immaculate and satisfactory.
The shanty stood on a little point of land projecting into the lake. Huge weeping willows shrouded it from the sun in summer. They mourned and murmured of the past, when the breezes of morning and evening stirred their whispering leaves. Their bare limbs thrashed and pounded the tin roof when the storm winds tore down the lake. In front and to one side, Tessibel's new privet hedge shone a dark, dusky green, and the flower beds were beginning to show orderly life through the blackish mold. The shack itself was rather more pretentious than most of the squatter shanties. It had two rooms and was thoroughly battened against the storms.
Coming into the path, Orn met his daughter and went with her to the house.
The greatest change the year had brought was in the girl herself. She had ripened into the early maturity common to the squatter woman. She was no longer the red-haired tatterdemalion who had romped over the rocks and quarreled with the boys of the Silent City. Her tom-boy days, amid the ceaseless struggles against the hardships of the Storm Country, gave to her slender body strength and lent to it poise and grace. Bright brown eyes lighted by loving intelligence illumined her face, tanned by sun and wind, but very sweet and winsome, especially when the curving red lips melted into a smile. A profusion of burnished red curls, falling about her shoulders almost to her hips, completed the vivid picture. Tess of the Storm Country, the animate expression of the joy and beauty of the lake side in spring, was the boast of the Silent City.
* * * * *
Late that same night, Tessibel lay asleep in the front room of the shanty. Four miles to the south, Ithaca, too, slept,—the wholesome sleep of a small country town, while Cayuga Lake gleamed and glistened in the moonlight, as if fairies were tumbling it with powdered fingers. Above both town and span of water, Cornell University loomed darkly on the hill, the natural skyline sharply cut by its towers and spires.
An unusual sound awakened her. She lifted her lids and glanced about drowsily, then propped herself on one elbow. Her sleep-laden eyes fell upon the white light slanting across the rough shanty floor. Suddenly, like a dark ghost, a shadow darted into it—the shadow of a human head.
At the first glimpse at it, Tessibel looked cautiously toward the window, and there, as in a frame, was a face—a man's face. Tess dropped on her pillow. For possibly two minutes, she lay quietly waiting, while the shadow moved curiously to and fro on the floor. Twice the head disappeared, and as suddenly returned, poised a moment, then, like an image moving across a screen, was gone. Instantly Tess sat straight up in bed. Perhaps one of the squatters needed her. She crept to the floor, yawning, tiptoed to the door, and unbarred it. Without pausing to cover her feet, she stepped outside, the fresh scent of May blossoms sweeping sweet to her nostrils. The warm night-wind, full of elusive odors, brushed her face like thready cobwebs, that broke at her touch, only to caress her anew.
Midnight held no fear for Tessibel, for she loved every living creature, those traveling by day being no dearer than those flying by night. She felt no deeper thrills for the bright-winged birds singing in the sun than for yonder owl who screeched at her, now, from the weeping willow tree.
After picking her way to the front of the shanty, she made a tour of the house and encircled the mud cellar, calling softly the while. No one appeared; no voice, either of friend or stranger, answered the persuasive importunity of Tessibel. But, after she was again in the doorway, she heard north of the shanty the crackling of twigs as if some stealthy animal were crawling over them. If there were an intruder, he'd gone, and the girl, satisfied, went back into the house and once more lay down to sleep.
When she woke again, Daddy Skinner was moving softly near the stove, kindling the fire, and Tessibel lay in languid silence. She watched him yearningly until he felt her gaze and looked at her. His twisted smile of greeting brought an exclamation of love from the girl. All the inhabitants of the Silent City knew this crippled old man could play on the emotions of his lovely young daughter as the morning sun plays upon the sensibilities of the lark. How she adored him, in spite of his great humps and his now hobbling legs!
Soon, her father went to the lake for a pail of water, and she sprang from the cot and dressed hastily.
THE COMING OF ANDY BISHOP
Later in the forenoon, when Tessibel returned home from an errand to Kennedys', she found Daddy Skinner on the bench at the side of the shanty, one horny hand clutching the bowl of a pipe in which the ashes were dead. It took but one sharp glance from the red-brown eyes for Tess to note that his face was white, almost grey; she saw, too, with a quiver of loving sympathy, that his lower lip hung away from his dark teeth as though he suffered. She sprang toward him, and dropped to her knees, at his side.
"Daddy Skinner!" she exclaimed. "Daddy Skinner, ye're sick! Ye're sick, darlin'!... Tell me, Daddy, what air the matter? Tell Tessibel."
She laid her hand tenderly on his chest. His heart was beating a heavy tattoo against the blue gingham shirt.
"Ye hurt here?" she queried breathlessly.
The pipe dropped to the soft sand, and Skinner's crooked fingers fell upon the profusion of red curls. Then he slowly tilted up her face.
"Yep, I hurt in there!" he muttered brokenly.
And as ashen and more ashen grew the wrinkled old countenance, Tessibel cried out sharply in protest.
"Why, Daddy, what d'ye mean by yer heart's hurtin' ye?... What do ye mean, Daddy?... I thought the doctor'd fixed yer heart so it wouldn't pain ye no more."
The man considered the appealing young face an instant.
"I want to talk to ye about somethin'," said he, presently, "and I know ye'll never tell anythin' Daddy tells ye."
With a little shake of her head that set the tawny curls a-tremble, Tessibel squatted back on her feet.
"'Course I won't tell nobody, but if ye've got a pain in yer heart, daddy, the doctor—"
"I don't need no doctor, brat. I jest—jest got to talk to ye, that air all."
A slender girlish figure cuddled between Daddy Skinner's knees, and warm young lips met his. Never had Tess seen him look just that way, not even when he had been taken from her to prison. The expression on his face was hopeless, forlornly hopeless, and to wait until he began to speak took all the patience the eager girl-soul could muster.
"Brat, dear," he sighed at length, "I ain't needin' to tell ye again what I went through in Auburn, hev I?"
Brown eyes, frightened and fascinated, sought and found the faded greys.
"'Course not, Daddy Skinner! But what fer air ye talkin' about Auburn Prison?... Ye promised me, Daddy, ye'd forgit all about them days, an' now what're ye rememberin' 'em fer?"
Skinner's face blanched, and drops of sweat formed in the spaces behind his ears and trickled in little streams down his neck.
"I got to remember 'em, child," he groaned.
"What fer I want to know? Ye'd best make a hustle an' tell me or, in a minute, I'll be gettin' awful mad."
The pleading, sorrowful face belied the threat, and a pair of red lips touched Skinner's hand between almost every word.
"Do ye bring to mind my tellin' ye about any of the fellers up there, Tessibel?" came at length from the man's shaking lips.
Tess stroked his arm lovingly.
"Sure, Daddy, I remember 'bout lots of 'em, an' how good they be, an' how kind, an' how none of 'em be guilty."
"Ye bet none of 'em be guilty," muttered Daddy Skinner. "Nobody air ever guilty who gets in jail.... Folks be mostly guilty that air out o' prison to my mind."
"That air true, Daddy Skinner," she assented, smiling. "Sure it air true, but it ain't no good reason fer you to be yappin' 'bout Auburn, air it?... Now git that look out of yer eyes, an' tell Tessibel what air troublin' ye!"
But Daddy Skinner's grave old face still kept its set expression. The haunted look, born in his eyes in the Ithaca Jail, had returned after all these happy months. Tess was frantic with apprehension and dread.
"Ye know well's ye're born, Daddy, nobody can hurt ye," she told him strenuously. "Ye've got Tessibel, and ye've got—" She was about to say, "Frederick," but substituted, "Professor Young."
The girl lovingly slipped her fingers over her father's heavy hand and drew it from her curls.
"Ye're goin' to peel it off to me now, ain't ye?" she coaxed.
"Let's go inside the shanty," said the fisherman, in a thick voice.
With the door closed and barred, the father and daughter sat for some time in troubled silence.
"I asked if ye remembered some of my pals in Auburn Prison, an' ye said ye did, didn't ye, Tessibel?" asked Skinner, suddenly.
Tess gave an impatient twist of her shoulders.
"An' I told ye I did, Daddy," she replied. "'Course I do. I ain't never forgot nobody who were good to you, honey."
"An' ye're pretty well satisfied, ain't ye, brat, most of 'em there air innercent?"
"Ye bet, Daddy darlin', I air that!"
"Well, what if one of them men who were good to yer old father'd come an' ask ye to do somethin' for 'im?"
With an upward movement of her head, Tessibel scrambled to her feet.
"Why, I'd help 'im!" she cried in one short, quick breath. "I'd help 'im; 'course I would."
"An' ye'd always keep it a secret?"
"Keep what a secret?"
Daddy Skinner's face grew furtive with fear.
"Why—well now, s'posin' Andy Bishop—ye remember Andy, the little man I told ye about, the weenty, little dwarf who squatted near Glenwood?"
Tess nodded, and the fisherman went on, hesitant.
"He—were accused—of murderin'—"
"Waldstricker—Ebenezer Waldstricker's father?" interjected Tess. "Sure, I remember!" Her eyes widened in anxiety. "Andy were sent up there fer all his life, weren't he? An' weren't he the one Sandy Letts swore agin?... 'Satisfied' Longman says Waldstricker give Sandy money for tellin' the jury what he did."
"Like as not," answered Skinner. "Anyhow, Bishop were there fer life! He air been there five years a innercent man.... My God, Auburn fer five years!"
The last four words were wailed forth, the look of hopeless horror deepening in his old eyes. Then he threw back his shoulders and spoke directly to Tess.
"Well, what if he skipped out o' jail, an' what if he'd come here an' say, 'Kid, 'cause what I done fer yer dad, now you do somethin' fer me!'"
Tess was trembling with excitement as she stood before her father. The generosity of her loving nature instinctively responded to his apparent need. She was instantly eager to show her love and loyalty.
"I'd do it, Daddy!" she exploded. "I'd do it quick!"
"But what if—if—if—if—it made ye lots of trouble an'—an'—mebbe some of yer friends—if they found it out—wouldn't think 'twere right?"
A queer, obstinate expression lived a moment in the girl's eyes. Then she smiled.
"I ain't got no friends who'd say it were wrong to help somebody what'd helped my darlin' old daddy."
Skinner bent his heavy brows in a troubled frown over stern eyes.
"But ye couldn't tell yer friends about it, kid," he cautioned.
A mist shone around the girl's thick lashes.
"Daddy, ye know I never blat things I hadn't ought to.... Slide yer arms 'round yer brat's neck, look 'er straight in the eye, an' tell 'er 'bout Andy; an' if she can help, she sure will."
A noise in the vicinity of the cot gave Tessibel an involuntary start. She turned her head slowly and saw two feet protruding from under her bed. Clinging to Daddy Skinner, she watched, with widening lids, a dwarfed figure crawl slowly into full view, and Tess found herself staring into a pair of beautiful, boyish, blue eyes.
A slow smile broke over the dwarf's face.
"Yer brat's the right sort, Orn," he cried, in the sweetest tenor voice Tess ever heard. "Ye don't need to make her promise no more.... Her word air good's God's law."
"So it air, Andy," replied Orn. "Tessibel, this air my friend, Andy Bishop, an' he were a good pal, as good as any man ever had."
For one single, tensely-strung moment, Tessibel contemplated the ugly little figure and the upraised, appealing face. Then as a sudden sense of protection spurred her to immediate action, she sent back a welcoming smile. Two or three quick steps took her to the dwarf's side.
"I air going' to help ye, Andy," she announced brokenly. "Ye was in prison fer life, wasn't ye, huh?"
"Yep, an'—an' I broke out, kid.... An' I ain't able to tell how I done it."
"Oh, never mind that!" soothed Tessibel. "Ye was lookin' in the window last night, wasn't ye?"
The dwarf rolled his eyes at the squatter, then back to the girl.
"Yep, that were me, but I didn't do no murder, brat; that air the main thing an' Sandy Letts lied when he told the jury I done it."
"He said as how ye gunned Ebenezer Waldstricker's father, eh?" Tess interrupted. "Eb air the richest man in Ithaca, an' him an' his sister air been to Europe, but they come back early in the spring. I see 'em every Sunday at Hayt's when I go there to sing. He air goin' to marry Mr. Young's sister, Helen, an' he air gittin' some pink peach when he gets her, ye can bet on that."
"But he'll get me by my neck if he can," lamented the dwarf, in despair. "Waldstricker air a mean duffer—a mighty mean duffer."
"He air awful religious," reflected Tess, soberly. "I s'posed he were awful good."
The dwarf made a gesture of disgust with his hand.
"Well, good or bad, I never killed his daddy," he returned. "I saw Owen Bennett when he done it, but him an' Sandy socked it off on me. I got life an' Owen got ten years.... There ain't no makin' him own up he done it, air there, Orn?"
"Nope," mumbled the fisherman. "Most men won't take life sentence by confessin' when by keepin' still they c'n git off with ten years."
"Mr. Waldstricker air a awful big, handsome lookin' man," asserted Tess, thoughtfully. "Folks says he air good to the poor, too. He air the biggest, fattest, elegantest elder in our church."
Andy flipped his fingers in the air and summed up what he thought of the last statement in five words.
"Shucks! That fer the church," mocked he.
"It air just like Sandy Letts to lie about ye," remarked Tess, changing the subject abruptly. "There ain't a hatefuller man in the Silent City 'n him. He makes a pile of money, though.... Once last fall he dragged the lake fer two students an' got a thousand apiece fer handin' 'em over to their folks, dead."
"He'd git five thousand fer handin' me over to Waldstricker, alive," replied Andy, solemnly. "I wouldn't a gone up if 't 'adn't been fer him. He can lie faster'n a horse can trot."
Heaving a deep sigh, Orn turned to his daughter.
"What we goin' to do with my pal, Tess?" he asked. "He's got to keep out of sight of folks.... Eb Waldstricker's five thousand bucks fer gettin' 'im back to Auburn will be settin' men like Sandy flyin' all over the state."
The dwarf shivered from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.
"I don't want 'em to git me," he whimpered disconsolately. "Ye won't let 'em git me, will ye, Orn?... Will ye, kid?"
Tess cheered the dwarf's despairing mood by a reassuring smile and confident nods of the shining curls.
"Nope," she promptly promised.
And, "Nope," repeated Orn, grimly. "Git back under the bed, now, old man. Any minute Sandy might be comin' in. Ye can't depend on that squatter. He'd steal the pennies off'n his dead mammy's eyes."
As was her habit when thinking, Tess threaded her fingers through several red curls, while her eyes followed Andy Bishop crawling feet first under her cot.
"I bet ye didn't do nothin' wicked, ye poor little shaver," she remarked.
"Bet I didn't do no Waldstricker murder," answered the dwarf.
"I know where I can hide 'im," she then said, with a satisfied smile. "I'll fix up the garret fer 'im. 'Tain't very big, but no one but me ever goes up there. You, there, under the bed, ye ain't 'fraid of bats or owls, air ye?"
"Nope," came forth a sweet voice. "I ain't 'fraid of nothin' nor nobody but Ed Waldstricker and Sandy Letts."
Tess giggled in glee.
"Well, they nuther one of 'em gits in my garret if I see 'em first," said she, "an' the owls air as tame as cats, an' 'll be company when ye're lonely nights. Deacon air the speckled one an' he loves every inch of Daddy an' me. If ye're good to 'im, he'll love you, too, Andy." Turning to her father, "The person what'll help Andy air Professor Young, I bet."
Daddy Skinner's face fell perceptibly, and two long lines marked off the sides of his nose.
"Who's he?" came from under the bed in a stifled breath.
"He air a awful nice man," explained Tess. "He lives in Graves' old place on the hill, an' he learns me new things out of books every day.... His sister's teachin' me to sew, too. I told ye she air goin' to marry—"
"Tessibel," interrupted Skinner, gravely fearful. "Ye said jest now Waldstricker were a goin' to marry Young's sister. That makes them two families kinda like one. Ye bet Young'd stand by his sister's man.... See?... Besides that, Young air a lawyer, an' if ye tell 'im about Andy, it'll sure be 'is duty to pinch 'im an' put 'im back where he were."
"He helped you once, Daddy!" the girl rebuked him.
"But I were in jail all the time, don't ye see the difference, brat?... Till 'twere proved Ben Letts done the murder, I were kept in jail, too, an' they'll put Andy back if ye say anythin' to Young 'bout it."
"They sure will," came the dwarf's sobbing tones.
"Well, us uns'll have to keep our clacks shut 'bout 'is bein' here, then," she acquiesced, "an'—an'—Andy'll have to keep in the garret till the man in Auburn coughs up, that air all, huh?... He can come down sometimes when it air a rainin' hard or dark nights when there ain't nobody around, an'—an'—darlin', ye can offen chat with 'im when I air outside watchin' fer folks.... Now, can't ye, Daddy?"
The young speaker went close to her father, smiling. She wanted to chase that hunted look from his eyes, to make him feel a little more secure about his prison friend.
"Please don't be lookin' like that, sweety," she pleaded. "Ye're just like ye was goin' dead.... I tell ye nobody'll hurt the poor little feller in the garret.... I'll see to that.... I'll fix it up all comfy fer 'im."
With this idea of future protection for the little man, Tessibel began to reconstruct the shanty. Dark curtains were hung at the square little windows, for it was quite a daily occurrence for Sandy Letts to peek through them before entering the door. Tessibel didn't wish to shut out the sunshine and moonbeams, but then there was Andy Bishop to think of, and Andy already had a warmer place in the squatter girl's heart than even the sun or moon. Tessibel was beginning to love him, not only because he'd been a friend to Daddy, but on his own account, because he was a soul in torment and needed her.
It took quite three hours to arrange the garret for the dwarf's occupancy. There were many pieces of fishing tackle to be sorted and hung in the kitchen rafters. The nuts that had been spread out on the floor to dry, now had to be gathered in sacks and stored in the mud cellar. The cobwebs must come down, and a cotton tick filled with new, fresh straw to be put in the garret. It was about three o'clock when Tessibel ushered the little man up the ladder and displayed the clean attic.
"'Tain't high 'nough fer me to stand up in," she told him, "but ye'll get along all right, an' I air goin' to fix ye somethin' so ye can see to read.... Can ye read?"
"Sure, I can read." Andy's voice rang with pride. "My ma, she's dead now, she learned me how, she did!"
"Then I'll get ye lots of books," replied Tess, "an' ye'd best always keep hid less'n I let ye down, 'cause Sandy might catch onto yer bein' here. Waldstricker's money'll set loose a lot of sneaks like him lookin' fer ye!"
Late that afternoon the dwarf ate his first meal in the garret, and Tessibel and Orn Skinner ate theirs at the table, but the conversation of the father and daughter intermingled now and then with a soft statement or a question from above, and there was happiness in the Skinner hut.
As soon as they finished supper, Tess went to the foot of the ladder and called softly.
"I air goin' to tell ye somethin', Andy,—ye listenin'?"
"Yep, brat. Sure, I air listenin'."
"I air a goin' somewheres to find out somethin'," announced the girl mysteriously. "Mebbe when I get back I'll tell ye what ye'll like to hear.... Ye'll stay hid, won't ye?"
"Sure so," agreed Andy.
After bending to kiss her father affectionately, the girl said to him,
"Now, Daddy, I air goin' out a little while, an' you two be awful careful how loud ye talk.... Somebody might hear ye!"
And for a short moment after the girl had gone there was silence in the shack. Then a prolonged sigh drifted from the garret.
"My God, Orn, but she air a fine young thing fer ye to be fatherin', huh? Ain't she?"
Andy's voice, though but little more than a whisper, expressed his wonder and admiration.
"God's best," muttered Orn, and once more they lapsed into the companionable silence of good friends.
TESSIBEL MEETS WALDSTRICKER
The shanty door closed behind Tessibel, and her hand still on the knob, she hesitated a moment before starting for Mother Moll's. The girl had kept her promise of the year before, for every week she had caught and cleaned a mess of fish and carried them up the ravine to the woman's shanty. But today, Tess wanted to consult the seeress about Andy. She believed implicitly in the fortune-pot. Hadn't the old, old hag told her, long ago, when Daddy Skinner was in prison, that the state couldn't hurt him, and other things, too?
Turning into the lane up the hill, she met Sandy Letts carrying his drag and a great coil of rope.
"Hello, kid," he greeted her. "How air yer Daddy?"
He eased his load to the ground and straightened up, slowly stretched his mighty arms, and shrugged the stiffness out of his powerful shoulders. Sandy and his burden filled most of the path.
Tess, desiring to avoid contact with him, stopped a few paces away.
"Daddy ain't so well these days, Sandy," she answered. "His heart hurts 'im."
"Ain't that too bad?" the man sympathized. "But, then, brat, yer daddy ain't so young as he were once. Reckon he air not long fer this world. When yer Daddy croaks, what'll you do, Tess? Ye'll need a home. Ye ought to be gettin' a man."
The squatter'd stepped forward directly in front of her while he was urging his suit.
"My daddy ain't old an' he ain't goin' to die, uther," flared Tess, an angry light in her brown eyes. Oh, how she loathed and hated this fellow who blocked her way! "You shan't say such things about my daddy! I don't want any man but 'im." Noting his unshaven cheeks, loose hanging lips, the lips and his large irregular teeth discolored with tobacco, the girl drew back with a gesture of instinctive repulsion. "I wouldn't take you anyway."
Instead of answering her, the squatter placed his great hands upon her shoulders, and holding her thus at arm's length, looked down at her. Her straight young figure, glowing face, and flaming eyes under the ruddy aureole of her hair made a picture of grace, beauty and passion that would have fascinated a more fastidious observer than Sandy Letts.
"God, girl, but ye air a beauty!" he cried, enraptured.
Tessibel's struggles to get away from the grip of the heavy hands aroused the evil passions of the man's nature into insistent activity.
"Here, brat, give yer man a kiss," he commanded, and at the words, his hands slipped from her shoulders, and his strong arms began to close around her body. His face was so close she had to force her hand in between his lips and hers. Then she made a desperate struggle. Rearing the red head backward, she succeeded only in freeing herself partially.
"You let me go, you Sandy!" she cried out sharply. "I'll tell my Daddy on you. Let me go!"
Then she went at him, kicking his shins with her feet, poking him with her knees, and gouging his eyes and digging his face with her nails. As well might Sandy try to make love to a cornered wildcat. He threw her from him, and Tess, springing up, uninjured, raced up the hill. Sandy's words, broken by fierce oaths, overtook her,
"You just wait! I'll tame ye yet, ye devilish brat, ye!"
At the top of the lane, Tess stopped to get breath. The familiar sounds of the early summer evening assailed her ears. The narrow lake shone in the clear light of the dying day like a broad strip of silver set in the bosom of the hills. Her eyes rejoiced in its calm beauty, and a feeling of peace and security grew in her thought.
Tess was about to cross the ravine when a step behind her caused her to turn. Ebenezer Waldstricker, riding whip in hand, was coming toward her. At his unexpected appearance, the blood fled from her face, leaving her quite pale and trembling. This was the man who was seeking Andy Bishop as at one time Dominie Graves had sought her father. How lordly he seemed, looking down upon her unsmilingly from his great height. Arrogantly he surveyed her from head to foot.
"You're the little church singer, aren't you?" he questioned after a while.
Tess noticed with fascination that one corner of his mouth curled up as if smiling, while the other was rigidly drawn down. She'd never seen an expression just like that before.
"Yep," she murmured, dropping her lids.
"Where are you going?" asked the man, tersely.
Tess glanced about. She wanted to turn and run, anywhere to escape from the brilliant dark eyes and the unmatched lips.
"I were goin' to see Mother Moll," she stammered, slowly. "She lives over there in the gully." She hesitated, pointing to Moll's shack. "Sometimes she reads out of the fortune-pot fer me."
Waldstricker glanced first at the little hut, then back at Tess.
"You don't mean you have faith in witchcraft?" he ejaculated, incredulously. "Why, girl, that's positively against the Bible commandments."
"Air it? Well I swan!" She nodded her head as though digesting a new idea. "Anyway, Mother Moll always tells me the truth. She can see things comin' years and years."
Waldstricker contemplated the grave young face for an instant, noting involuntarily the abundance and beauty of the wind-blown hair. He turned about on the path.
"I shall go with you," he said.
Her desire to forbid the proposed visit, struggling with her awe of the powerful man at her side, confused her. She couldn't think clearly. She twisted her fingers into her red curls.
"I'd ruther ye wouldn't," she explained. "Ma Moll hates strangers worser'n she does the old nick!"
Waldstricker ignored the girl's speech except that the frown deepened on his brow.
"Nevertheless I'm going," he returned, sternly. "I can't realize that God-fearing men and women have such iniquity among them. Come on; I'll go with you!"
Tess would gladly have deferred her visit until another day, and returned home, but she feared he'd follow her there. Here was a man of whom she was heartily afraid, and as she dared not defy him, she obediently walked across the gully bridge, and hurried along the path.
Then she paused, looking at Mother Moll's shack, snuggled in a jut in the ravine. It was quite close now. Tess knew the witch was at home, for a thin line of smoke drifted zig-zag from the toppling chimney.
She looked back and found Waldstricker eyeing her. She noted both corners of his lips were down now.
"I came from Ithaca purposely to see you and your father," said he.
Tess was so startled she took two sudden steps backward.
"My daddy ain't very well!" she exclaimed, nervously. "He don't like strange folks comin' around, Daddy don't."
Waldstricker shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
"However, I must see him," he responded.
Tessibel felt a surging anger against this man. He had the same imperious bearing she remembered in Dominie Graves.
"What fer? What d'ye want to see Daddy fer?" Her voice was compelling.
"About a matter that may make him a lot of money," the man explained, pompously. "When may I come?"
She considered a moment before replying. This put a different face on the matter.
"Could ye come tomorrow?" she demanded finally.
"Yes, at two, then. Tell your father, please."
"All right," muttered Tess.
Waldstricker's whip cut a cluster of wild flowers and nipped clean the stems of their upraised heads.
"Oh!" cried Tess, sharply, hurt to the quick.
As if reading her thoughts, he retorted, "A flower hasn't a soul, so what does it matter?"
Tess turned tear-dimmed eyes from him to Mother Moll's shack. Shocked at his brutality, his arrogant cruelty to the flowers she cherished so tenderly left her dumb. That his statement was false, she knew. To her the flowers expressed Love's sweetness and beauty, but she couldn't explain her faith to this haughty, dictatorial millionaire at her side.
She was all of a tremble as she mounted the narrow shanty steps.
An aged voice croaked, "Come in," in response to her knock. Before pulling the latch string, Tessibel paused and said to Waldstricker,
"Wait a minute! I'll go first, an' tell Mother Moll you're here."
She crossed the threshold and saw the old woman swaying to and fro in a wooden rocker.
"It air Tessibel, Mother Moll," she said gently. "I want to see what's in the pot."
Mother Moll smiled a withered, joyous smile.
"Come in, my pretty," she clacked. "Yer Moll's allers glad to see yer shinin' eyes. Come in, my love."
Tess advanced into the kitchen.
"That duffer Waldstricker's come along with me," she told her in a low tone.
The old woman struggled to her feet with the aid of her cane. Her watery eyes glared at the tall man in the doorway, and he as angrily stared back at her. The woman hobbled two steps forward.
"If ye've come for me to tell ye somethin', it won't be nothin' very pleasant," she growled at him. "Git me the pot, brat, dear!"
Tessibel went to the grate and lifted the iron kettle from the fire. It was steaming hot, and she brought it over, placing it at the woman's feet.
"Set down," the hag commanded Waldstricker. "I'll tell ye what's doin' in the pot, an' then git out! I hate ye!"
Waldstricker, with the peculiar down twist of his mouth, glanced darkly at Tessibel, but the girl's unresponsive, serious face turned his attention again to the witch.
"You're a wicked old woman," he said grimly. "The county should care for such as you."
But Mother Moll did not catch his words. She was crooning over the pot inarticulately. The seams in the skin around her eyes netted together, almost closing the flaming red lids. Through the narrow slits she was following the steam as it rose and disappeared in the air. Then slowly her finger began to trace shadow outlines in and about the pot.
"Mister, I see ye crowin' like a barnyard cock," she croaked, "and ye think ye're awful smart and awful rich. An' so ye be, but some day—" She stopped, sank back, then looked again into the steaming kettle. "I see a wee leetle man like this—" She raised the cane beside her, and Waldstricker, startled, leaned nearer the ragged grey head. "I see ye huntin' the leetle man—like a dog hunts a rat."
"Yes, yes!" from Waldstricker, "and what else, woman?"
Lowering her stick again to the floor, Mother Moll rested her weight upon its crooked handle and for a time muttered over the pot with raven hoarseness.
"Ye think ye're smart, but ye ain't as smart as ye think ye air. The leetle man sets on yer head—"
The hag paused, cracked forth a gurgling scream, then proceeded. "He sets on yer head and lays on yer heart, an' with all yer money, ye can't find 'im."
"I will!" gritted Waldstricker through his teeth, now, in spite of himself, intensely interested in the old woman's revelations.
"Ye won't," rapped out the seeress. "Not till it air too late. I see—I see—" Lifting one hand, the bony old finger made rapid gyrations above the pot.
"What do you see?" burst forth the man impatiently.
"Hair," cried Mother Moll, swaying nearer him, "hair stranglin' yer throat till ye can't speak, curls weavin' round yer neck like a hangman's rope."
Waldstricker glanced backward at the squatter girl. She stood in rigid silence, listening intently. Her hair, copper-colored in the light from the window at her side, framed in its shining curls a face rapt and absorbed. Waldstricker leaned forward again, the better to see the rising steam wraiths.
"I see all ye love best sufferin'." Letting the cane fall clattering to the floor, Mother Moll continued, doubled-fists outstretched to the man before her. "I see the shadow of shame gathering about ye, I see a girl—a little girl—yer sister—holdin' out her hands pleadin' to some other man—" Again the aged voice trailed into that chattering laugh. "An' I air seein' somethin' else." The old woman rubbed the palms of her horny hands together and pitched forward on her toes. She lifted her shaking, wizened face and thrust it so near the man that he drew back with a rough ejaculation. Then smiling a wide, toothless smile, she laid her finger on her lips. Drawing it away again, she mumbled.
"Hair stranglin' 'em both, same as you, long curls like snakes stranglin' all of ye. God! what hair!"
Waldstricker, with flashing eyes, suddenly got to his feet.
"Come out of here," he ordered Tess, roughly. "That hateful hag! The hateful wicked old woman!"
A wild, exultant yell left Mother Moll's lips.
"Yep, get out o' here!" she shrieked. "Get out quick, both of ye! Yer lives'll twine like this, an' this, an' this." Tensely she locked together her bony fingers. "An' hair'll strangle ye, wretched man, an' may ye never breathe a fine breath after it touches yer proud throat!"
Moved by a kind of superstitious horror of the prophecies of the old witch, Waldstricker pushed her roughly aside, seized Tess by the arm and dragged her out of the house. On the path he let her go and stood transfixed, as though the length and abundance of the red curls, falling in disordered confusion to her hips, fascinated him. Then he lifted his great shoulders, and a tense breath slipped through his teeth.
"What an awful old woman!" he flung out disgusted. "If there's any power in law or money, I'll root her out of that shanty as I will the rest of her tribe."
Tess was thoroughly frightened. His ruthless roughness hurt her and his threats against Mother Moll and the squatters terrified her. Would he try and root Daddy Skinner and herself from their shanty? No, he couldn't! He couldn't! Neither would his long, powerful hands place their grip upon the life of the dwarf. Mother Moll had said so, and she believed—oh, how she believed it!
Waldstricker started to speak again, but unable to bear longer the cruel corner-curl of his lips, Tess of the Storm Country turned and fled swift-footed away toward the lake. The man watched the flying figure bounding along toward the span of blue water. Then with another flip of his whip, which struck the heads from the flower stems, he wheeled about and walked swiftly up the hill.
TESS AND FREDERICK
Tessibel left Waldstricker with but one idea buzzing in her active brain; to reach Daddy Skinner—to tell him all that had just happened. She fled around the mud cellar and opened the door with swift-coming breath. When she entered the kitchen, her father was seated on her cot. He raised his eyes and greeted her.
"Daddy," panted the girl, closing the door, "I jest seen Waldstricker an' he air a comin' down here tomorrow. I don't know what he wants, but Andy mustn't come out of the garret, not fer anythin'. An', Daddy!" She paused with a sudden sob, "He says he air a goin' to root Mother Moll off'n her place. But don't let 'im turn us out of our shanty, will ye, Daddy?"
"Nope," answered Skinner, grimly. "I ain't held it all these years to let it go now fer a duffer like him."
"An', Daddy dear," blurted Tess, "Mother Moll told old Waldstricker's fortune out of the pot, an' she says as how he ain't never goin' to git Andy back to Auburn till it air too late, even if he uses up all the money he air got. What d'ye think o' that?"
A little groan came from the garret. It no sooner fell on Tessibel's ears than she scurried, nimble-footed, up the ladder. Poking her head through the hole in the ceiling, she peered around. It was very dark, and even straining her eyes, she could see nothing.
"Andy!" she whispered. "Andy, dear!"
"I air here, kid," murmured the dwarf from a dark corner.
"Don't be worrin'," encouraged Tess, softly. "I air begun to love ye, Andy, an' you bet nobody durst touch ye. Whatever ye hear, be mum. Daddy and me'll take care of ye, an' God will too."
Later she left the shanty in deep thought, and by the time she had wended her way to the ragged rocks to meet Frederick Graves, she had uttered many tense little prayers for the suffering dwarf in her attic.
These rocks were a bower of delight to the sentimental girl. It was here in the gloom that in every expression of nature Tess heard Frederick's voice; his clear tones came swiftly on the wings of the wind, in the sonorous clap of the chimes as they spread their chant over the lake.
She was now seated on a broad, grey rock-slab, bending slightly forward, listening for her lover's step.
"Frederick!" she breathed in delight as a tall form loomed from the shadowy path.
In another moment she felt herself gathered into strong arms, and for a while the boy and girl were silent in their mutual happiness. The lakeside was quiet except for the sound of the tumbling waves and the intermittent rumble of a train on the tracks above.
Now and then, far back in the forest, an owl whoo-whooed in croaking tones, and in a nearby tree a family of baby birds twittered continuously in their sleep.
All the daisies in the meadows, all the nodding buttercups in the fields, seemed to be blossoming in Tessibel's heart at one time. She was in Frederick's arms, and the whole world could offer her nothing more.
"Tessibel, my little love," began Frederick, between caresses, "you remember what I begged you to consent to early in the spring?"
Tess made a movement to sit up.
"Ye mean—?" she stammered, confused.
Frederick drew her close.
"I want you to marry me right away," he murmured, entreatingly.
The words were whispered in passionate sighing out of the darkness into her ear. Tess drew back a little.
"Right away?" she repeated, gulping. "What do ye mean by right away, darlin'?... Now?"
Again strong arms evidenced strong affection.
"Yes—now," answered Frederick, earnestly. "You must! You must!... I can't be happy unless you do—Oh, Tessibel! Won't you, Tess?"
Never had anything thrilled her as his halting insistence.
"An' Daddy Skinner—air he to know?" she stammered, chokingly.
"Well, not—not quite yet, dear."
Two slender hands covered a scarlet face, and tears trickled between tense fingers.
"Then I can't!" Tess caught her breath in a sob. "I jest can't! Oh, why couldn't Daddy know—an' yer mother, too?"
Frederick strained her against his breast.
"Because they can't—not yet," he whispered. "Not a soul must know. Just you and I, darling. It'll be all right, dear, and I need you more and more—every day."
The deepening tones in his voice frightened, while they thrilled her. She pressed him back to look into his eyes, but even through the growing gloom she could see the blue-veined lids were closed.
"Frederick," she murmured, drawing her face backward. "Frederick, let me tell ye somethin'. Everybody had ought to know when a girl gets married. Oh, they ought to know, so they ought. Daddy Skinner an' yer mother, too."
Then of a sudden she was attacked by a strange tugging in her own heart. She tried to free herself from his arms, but her resistance only made him the more determined to bend her to his wish. She had always been submissive, and he'd worshiped her for her womanly acquiescence to his will. Trembling fingers forced her face upward and hot lips sought and found hers. She shivered under the strong masculine pressure.
"Now listen to me, my love," he continued between fierce kisses. "Come with me tomorrow night, and we'll get married and—and—"
Tess was trying heroically to hold to the principle she knew was right, even though her heart directed otherwise.
"Not less'n I tell Daddy," she breathed back.
Her low denial served only to lock Frederick's arms more tightly around her.
"You've got to come and you mustn't tell him, either," he urged. "You mustn't!"
Succeeding at last in releasing herself, Tessibel sighed. She wanted to be firm with him, to impress lovingly upon him her reason for refusing him; but when he reached forth and folded her again in his arms, that fine firmness gave way. She burst into wild weeping, holding him close as he held her, trying through broken sobs to tell him what was burdening her heart.
"It air like this, dear," she wailed, dismally. "Oh, I want to marry ye more'n anything, but I've never deceived Daddy a bit in all my life. I never done nothin' less'n I told 'im, and, Oh, I want to tell him, Frederick! I do want to tell 'im!"
Frederick hadn't anticipated this resistance on Tessibel's part.
"Tess," he said, almost angrily, "I wouldn't ask you to do anything wrong." Then softening, he pleaded accusingly, "You don't love me well enough to be my wife."
"It'd be wicked," whispered Tess, falteringly.
"It would be right!" cried Frederick, in quick contradiction. "Tess, you will, you will!"
The red curls shook slowly a mute negation.
"I don't believe you love me at all," groaned Frederick. Then taking a long breath, "You want me to be unhappy, I know you do."
She lay limply in his arms while through the sensitive, honest mind raced all the objections against his desire. There were his powerful friends—his college—his—
"Yer mother—don't want ye to marry me," she cried, suffering.
"I know it," returned Frederick, promptly. "Still a man can't always please his mother. Why, darling, what kind of a world would this be if mothers picked out their sons' wives? A poor place! I can tell you."
"But yer mother air awful good and loves ye just like Daddy loves me," argued Tessibel, "an' when ye don't do right, everything goes wrong. If Daddy Skinner ain't to know—"
"Nor anybody else," cut in the boy, growing moody after his sharp retort. "I won't have any one know about it. Tessibel, I want this more than anything else in the world. I love you—I love you, and you love me. Then why not? You do love me, don't you?"
"That air why—I do what—ye want me to, I s'pose."
And as the halting words fell from her lips, the student crushed her to him.
"I want you, dear," he breathed warm in her ear, "and it won't have to be a secret over a year, not much over a year, darling, and I'll——I'll——Oh! You will, Tessibel? You will?"
"Frederick!" she acquiesced, weakly. "Oh, Frederick darlin'!"
And for some time after her sudden consent, they sat on the rocks close in spirit—close in thrilling nearness. Perhaps twenty minutes later, Tess drew from the boy's arms.
"Daddy air callin' me," she said, softly.
And she went back to the shanty with the words, "I'm goin' to be married tomorrow," ringing in her heart.
A GOSSIP WITH "SATISFIED"
The next day, directly after the midday meal, Tessibel went to see Mrs. Longman, whose triple tragedy had made the woman an invalid, with broken nerves and useless hands. Every few days since the drowning of Myra Longman and Ben Letts and the baby, the squatter girl had carried to the sick woman some little offering to gladden her lonely existence. As Tess walked along the rocks, the image of Frederick Graves persistently pervaded her thoughts. Before the going down of another sun he would be her husband. Of course, just now she couldn't leave Daddy Skinner and Andy Bishop, but by the time Frederick had a home ready, Andy would be free from the charge of murder, and Daddy would live with them.
Tess never paused on the rocks between her home and the Longman shanty that she did not think of Myra, and thinking of Myra brought the vision of Teola Graves. A lonely little heart twist followed for the dead baby who had been born in her hut. This day she did not hesitate as long as usual. She must return quickly to Daddy Skinner and help keep guard over Andy Bishop. Waldstricker was coming at two o'clock!
Rounding the lake point, on which stood the hut of her squatter friends, she spied "Satisfied" seated on the bench near the doorway. Tess waved her hand, and the old fisherman signaled in return.
"Ma thought ye'd be comin' soon, brat," was Longman's greeting.
"I air brung her some salt-risin' bread," Tess announced, sitting down beside the fisherman.
Longman moved his pipe to one corner of his mouth.
"It air good o' ye, Tess," he thanked her, puffing. "Me an' ma air lonesome—me an' ma air."
Tessibel touched him with affectionate assurance.
"I love ye, an' Mammy Longman, too," she smiled. "I air glad to bring somethin' when I can."
For a few moments they sat quietly, the man smoking his pipe. Then he slowly knocked the ashes from its bowl, giving it a final rap in the hollow of his hand.
"Every day me an' ma miss Myry an' Ezry more," said he, stolidly. "Us uns just plumb lately made up our minds both them kids was too good to live, but us uns'd be awful satisfied to know if they air happy."
Tessibel brightened. She flashed a radiant smile at the sad-faced man.
"Sure, they be happy!" she ejaculated. "Everybody air happy in Heaven; Ben Letts air a singin' 'round the throne jest the same's the rest of 'em air."
In open disbelief Longman slowly shook his head.
"Myry never could sing—Myry couldn't," he answered, moodily, and his voice sank on the last two words.
Tess knew that, too, for she had heard the young mother try many times to quiet the brat with the uneven, discordant tones of her voice; but she knew, too, the great difference between Heaven and earth. She gazed out over the lake dreamily.
"But ye see, 'Satisfied' darlin'—" she began.
"An' once, when Ben were soused," interrupted Longman, hoarsely, "I heard 'im singin', 'Did ye ever go into an Irishman's shanty?' It were more like a frog croakin' than a man singin'."
"But folks don't never get soused in Heaven," Tessibel imparted, reverently, "an' they got a mess o' angels up there—" She looked upward, a solemn expression on her young face—"angels what Jesus keeps jest to learn folks how to sing. The brat's singin' too, as much as a little kid can, 'Satisfied'."
She edged a little nearer and slipped an arm around the fisherman's shoulders.
"It air just like this, honey, down here there air such a lot of work jest to get fish an' beans. Up in Heaven they don't do nothin' but dance around the throne an' sing all day. So everybody's got to learn how or he wouldn't have nothin' to do."
"Well, I swan!" ejaculated "Satisfied," smiling wryly. "Will ye tell ma about it like ye did me, Tessie? Ma air been worryin' fearin' Myry weren't comf'table."
Tess bobbed her curly head.
"I'll tell 'er in a minute," she assured him; "but, 'Satisfied,' I were a goin' to ask ye somethin'."
"An' I were goin' to ask you somethin' too, brat," he said. "How air the singin' goin' in church?"
Tessibel sparkled like the morning dew.
"Oh, it air goin' fine, 'Satisfied.' I love it more'n more. Miss Young helps me with my songs an' she's learnin' me to sew, too. Why, I git my five dollars every Sunday jest as reg'lar as Sunday comes. I ain't never knew how far a fiver could go afore. We won't be needin' nothin' this winter, Daddy and me won't, dear."
She gave a delicious giggle to which Longman added a chuckle.
"That air good, brat," he replied. "There ain't nothin' like home comfort in this world."
"An' ye see, 'Satisfied,' I ain't lettin' my Daddy fish much now, only 'nough fer us an' fer Professor Young an' Ma Moll.... Daddy ain't very well."
"He air gettin' old," sighed Longman, taking up his pipe.
"No, he ain't," contradicted Tessibel, quickly. "He air got somethin' the matter with 'is heart. Mr. Young had a doctor fer him, an' he says he mustn't work. Now I got my singin' he don't have to.... Why, 'Satisfied,' I air savin' 'nough money to get a new bed an' a overcoat for Daddy. A bran new overcoat, too! Nothin' second-hand, ye bet! He ain't goin' to git no cold this winter, bless 'im!"
Longman allowed one of his thin arms to fall around the straight young figure.
"That air nice, Tessie," he returned admiringly. "Ye be a pert brat, you be!"
Tess paused a moment or two.
"'Satisfied,'" she hesitated, going back mentally to her former unspoken query, "do ye know the Waldstrickers?"
"I knowed the old man who was murdered—young Eb's father. Made some stir in town when he got shot!"
"Eb's been home quite a while now," observed Tess thoughtfully.
Longman's head and shoulders moved several times in affirmation.
"So ma read out'n the paper," he then said, "an' Bishop's lit out from the coop, too, ain't he?... Funny how he done it!... Bigger men'n him stay there all their days.... They'll find 'im, though, them prison folks will, poor little duffer!"
Tess caught the sympathy in the squatter's voice.
"I air hopin' they don't," she sighed quickly.
An inquisitive, almost furtive expression shot into the fisherman's face.
"When ye goin' to git married, Tess?" he hesitated.
Tessibel shook her red curls, flushing.
"Oh, I ain't knowin' jest the time yet," she parried. "Ye know, 'Satisfied,'—"
"Don't ye ever see much of the student nowadays, eh?" the squatter cut in.
Because of its sudden palpitation, Tess laid her hand over her heart. Oh, if she could only tell her old friend that that very night she'd belong to Frederick forever! Passion leapt alive into her eyes, and her cheeks flushed.
"I air a lovin' him, 'Satisfied,'" she murmured.
Longman made a nervous movement with one hand and shook his head.
"Tess, I been goin' to tell ye somethin' fer a long time," he stammered, almost inaudibly. "Ye won't git miffed with a old friend, will ye?"
"Sure not, 'Satisfied'," asserted Tess, gently.
"It air 'bout Student Graves," explained Longman.
A glint of gold flashed from under her lowered lids and a slow, deep scarlet ran in waves upward from her chin.
"What 'bout the student?" she demanded, dropping again to the bench and placing the basket at her feet.
The squatter looked down. It was hard to say what he must with the young face so confidently questioning.
"He air a goin' round with a nuther girl," he barked presently. "I been hearin' an' so air ma—"
Tessibel rose, startled, and once more took up the basket. Some gossiping tongue had been reviling her dear one.
"It air a big lie, 'Satisfied'," she uttered breathlessly. "I don't want to hear nothin' against 'im uther. What tongue told ye that only wanted to make ye feel sad fer me." She paused, then turned, but whirled back. "When ye love a person an' love 'im hard, lies told about 'im don't set well. Ye know they don't, Daddy Longman."
"Sure, I know it," replied the squatter, in quick-spoken sympathy. "Only ma and me thought as how ye ought to know the things we heard."
Tess was standing rigid, gazing stormily defiant into the weather-beaten old face. Wasn't she going to be married to the student that night! And how many, many times Frederick had told her he loved but her; that no other woman could ever take her place!
"I ain't goin' to believe it, if the hull hellish world tells me so," she flashed forth tempestuously. "Now I air goin' to give the bread to Mammy Longman, 'Satisfied'."
Longman stayed her with a word.
"Ye ain't mad at me, brat, be ye?"
Tess stretched forth impetuous fingers.
"Nope, only I love the student, that air all! An', 'Satisfied,' I air a cussed brat to be swearin' when Frederick says as how it air wicked. I keep forgettin' when I git mad."
The squatter sighed, making a quick shake of his head and several weird clicks with his tongue. Moodily he watched the bounding youthful figure until it disappeared through the shanty doorway. Fully ten minutes passed before Tess reappeared.
"Ma were satisfied with the bread, eh, brat?" asked Longman, in a cuddling tone. "Ain't she likin' it, honey?"
Tessibel choked suddenly. There was something in the quavering tones of the old fisherman, of the lonely, bereaved old man, that saddened her loving heart. She went to him and touched him impulsively.
"Yep, she liked it, 'Satisfied'," she murmured, "an' I told 'er all about the singin' in Heaven. She hadn't thought Ben Letts might be there with Myry an' the brat.... Most folks ain't knowin' how awful long the forgivin' arm of Jesus air."
And kissing the old squatter once more, Tessibel started homeward.
WALDSTRICKER MAKES A PROPOSAL
While Tess was making her call at Longman's, Helen Young was entertaining her fiance, Ebenezer Waldstricker.
"I shall never be satisfied until Bishop is back in Auburn, Helen," said he, snipping the end from a long cigar.
The girl held up her needle and deftly shot the thread through the eye of it.
"He's sure to be, dear," she soothed. "Here's Deforrest!" She hesitated, laid down her work and stood up.
Professor Young shook hands with Waldstricker as his sister went to his side smilingly.
"Ebenezer wants me to go down to Skinner's with him," she explained. "Won't you come along, too, Forrie?"
The lawyer threw an interrogative glance at the churchman.
"Certainly," he answered. "Why? Anything particular?"
The question was asked of Waldstricker, who lifted his shoulder with a long breath.
"Yes," he replied. "I've a little plan to get hold of Bishop! I'm certain sooner or later he'll land back here among his own people. If I can whet their appetites with money, they'll turn him over the moment he appears."
"No doubt," observed Young. "But the Skinners—What have the Skinners to do with him?"
Waldstricker thought a moment, inhaling the smoke the while.
"The girl, Tessibel, who sings at church might be of great assistance to me," he said presently.
"How?" interjected Deforrest.
"Why, she goes among the squatters daily and would be likely to know if Bishop sneaked into any of their huts. If I can interest her in the reward—I've an idea she'll be of service to me."
"Perhaps," responded Young, in a meditative manner.
Waldstricker looked at Helen smilingly. "I think I started to give you an account of what happened yesterday," he said. "Did I tell you I came to see you, dear?"
Helen sat down and resumed her work.
"Yes, Ebenezer, but I was out!" she smilingly nodded. "I'm so sorry. If I'd known, I wouldn't have gone to town!"
"It didn't matter at all." Then he laughed, coloring a little. "Of course, I always hate missing you."
A loving look passed between the two, and Waldstricker proceeded, "But as long as I was here, I thought I'd speak to Skinner. On the way down the hill I met his daughter coming up. Rather startling personality, that girl! But she's woefully ignorant!"
"She hasn't had much chance, poor little thing," excused Helen. "She really has a beautiful voice, though."
"So I've noticed on Sundays."
"And she studies every minute," Professor Young thrust in, "and is so eager to learn; she's advanced amazingly!" He laughed in a reminiscent manner.
"One day," he proceeded, much amused, "she ran up the hill after me. I didn't notice her until she was at my side, all out of breath. 'Well, some little girl's been running,' I said."
"I want to learn things," she panted.
"Then I asked, 'What things?' and she answered, 'Oh, all about readin' and writin' and the things big rich folks know. If I had books, I'd learn 'em too.' ... Naturally I bought the books."
"Naturally," laughed Waldstricker.
"Well, I stopped to ask where she was going and if her father was at home. Then she told me that she was on her way to a seeress, Mother Moll, she called her, wasn't it?"
"Yes," assented Young, nodding his head. "The old woman lives on the north side of the gully."
Waldstricker bent forward and pursued. "I went into the hut with the girl." He stopped and his lip took an upward curve. "The old hag tells fortunes from a pot, a steaming pot full of boiling water, I think."
Here he turned suddenly on Deforrest. "That's got to stop, Young. It's against the Bible, prophesying and the like."
"She's really a harmless old thing, though," replied the lawyer sententiously, "and every squatter on Cayuga Lake loves her. Believe me, Eb, she's absolutely harmless."
"Not harmless if she's disobeying God's law," contradicted Waldstricker, seriously. "Isn't there some way by which she can be turned out of the shack?"
Deforrest shook his head. "Not that I know of as long as she holds her squatter rights. Her people take care of her, and she tells their fortunes to pay for food." He broke off the explanation, only to take it up again, "No, there isn't any way to oust her. Frederick Graves' father tried to get the Skinners off, but failed."
"Oh, I didn't know," observed Waldstricker. "I must have been away at the time." He drew out his watch and looked at it. "Shall we go on down, Helen? It's a little early. I told the girl I'd come at two, but a half an hour doesn't matter.... I can't rest until I get hold of that dwarf."
During the interval in which Helen went for her garden hat, Waldstricker said to Deforrest,
"I may need you, Young, in this Bishop case. I'm privileged to call upon you, of course?"
"I'll do anything I can, Ebenezer," agreed Young.
So it happened that when Tess rounded the mud cellar, she glanced up the hill and saw the three making their way leisurely toward the lake. She gave one bound and literally hurled herself through the shanty door into the kitchen.
"Walderstricker air comin!" she hissed through her teeth in quivering excitement. "Scoot under the tick, Andy! An', Daddy, get on my cot, an' don't say no word less'n they ask ye something face to face.... Let me do the talkin'."
She had no more than settled her father on the cot and heard the last of the dwarf's burrowing in the attic when a long shadow fell across the threshold. Stepping forward, she met Deforrest Young, who held out his hand to her.
She greeted her friend with a dubious smile, and taking his hand, bowed awkwardly to his sister. In her confusion she ignored Waldstricker entirely. Their presence in the squatter's hut was so portentous and the time for the preparations to receive them so short, Tessibel's wits almost deserted her.
"Come in, all of ye," she stammered, at last, and stepped backward across the uneven kitchen floor toward the cot at the further side of the room.
Then she placed chairs for them, and when all were seated, settled herself on the floor near Daddy Skinner, and shaking her curls back from her face, looked with grave brown eyes from one to the other of the ominous group.
"I'm very glad to see you, Tessibel," said Helen graciously.
"I air awful glad to see you, too, Ma'am," returned Tess, still embarrassed.
Miss Young smiled toward Ebenezer, then back at the girl.
"You remember Mr. Waldstricker, don't you, Tess, dear?"
Tessibel allowed her gaze to rest on the elder. Of course she remembered him. What did he desire of Daddy Skinner? That was all she wanted to know.
"Yep," she answered, more calmly. "I remember 'im, sure I do! He—"
Waldstricker interrupted her with a quick interrogation.
"We had a little meeting yesterday, didn't we, Miss Tessibel? You didn't wait for me to tell you what I wanted." He delivered this most affably, and Tess counted him very handsome, indeed, when both corners of his mouth went up, but she knew that other trick of those lips. Not knowing how to explain her flight, she kept silent. Deforrest noted the shadow that clouded the lovely face and ascribed it to embarrassment. Thinking to put her at her ease, he asked,
"Have you been studying today, my dear?"
"Well I guess I have!" The girl sent him a radiant, grateful smile. "I studies every day, an' air learnin' my Daddy a lot of things now, ain't I, Daddy?" She looked backward at the man on the cot as she asked the last question.
"Yep," affirmed Skinner, faintly.
"Daddy air sick," she explained. "You'll be excusin' 'im if he don't talk. I'll do all the gabbin' if ye don't mind."
Tessibel had regained her self-control. She knew that Waldstricker's presence meant danger to her loved ones, Daddy and Andy Bishop. In their defense, eager to hinder him, her quick thought sought his purpose in coming to the shack. Could it be about Mother Moll, she wondered. She would ask him. Looking up at Waldstricker, she addressed him timidly,
"I hope, sir, ye ain't mad at Mother Moll any more?"
Waldstricker, intent upon his idea of interesting her in the search for his father's murderer, waived her question aside. He would attend to the witch and her fantastic mummeries later.
"Never mind the old woman now," he began pompously. "I came here today on purpose to see you about another matter."
Why, yesterday he had said he wanted to talk to Daddy; now today he wanted to speak to her. She sat up a little straighter, each shoulder carrying its load of red curls, the ends of which lay in a bronze tangle.
"I'd do anything I could," she answered shyly, a lovely red dyeing her face.
"I knew you would! Mr. Young has told me how anxious you are to learn and to improve your condition.... Isn't that so?"
Tess nodded, looking from the speaker to Deforrest, who threw her his ever-ready smile. Her gaze returned to the churchman and he continued,
"Now, I've a plan which, if it succeeds, will give you lots of money! You could do almost anything you'd want to then."
Tess didn't move, only stared back at the handsome, swarthy face incredulously.
"I couldn't earn much," she ventured, gulping. "I get five bucks every Sunday fer singin' at the church, but—"
"Oh, I don't mean a few dollars," Waldstricker told her. "I was talking about a lot—thousands."
Daddy Skinner straightened out on the cot and Tess tried to swallow, but couldn't. She knew now that he referred to the reward for Andy.
"Lordy massy!" she got out at last, huskily.
Deforrest Young coughed, and Waldstricker's hand went quickly to his face.
"I'll explain about it," he said, "and then you can decide if you wish to do it."
"All right," replied Tess, leaning her chin on her hand. "Gowan an' blat it out."
"I suppose you know my good old father was murdered," the visitor asked her after a slight period of silence on his part.
Andy and what he had told her about the brawl in the saloon raced through Tessibel's mind.
"I heard 'bout it," she replied, nodding.
"And you've heard, too, probably, the man who murdered him escaped from Auburn a little while ago?"
Tess wanted to say "No," but she feared a long explanation would follow which might trouble Daddy and the wee man in the garret, so she acquiesced by bowing her head. "I guess he were the man Daddy were talkin' 'bout, weren't he, Daddy?"
She turned toward her father, but his red lids were closed, and he was breathing heavily.
"Daddy goes to sleep awful easy!" she excused to all three. Then she told Waldstricker, "Yep, Daddy said the man broke out o' jail."
The man she spoke to looked keenly at her.
"The officers feel pretty sure he'll make his way down the lake side," he explained, "eventually landing among his own people."
A flash of the brown eyes and a quick stiffening of the supple body under the red curls expressed the girl's resentment at the slur implied in the speaker's statement.
"Among us squatters, I s'pose ye mean?" demanded Tess, belligerently.
"Yes," nodded the elder, with a contemptuous smile at the angry young face.
Tess hated that tone in people's voices when they talked about squatters.
"And I was wondering if you wouldn't like to earn the reward offered for Bishop's capture," Waldstricker finished abruptly.
Tessibel's foresight had discounted the effect of this announcement. To save Andy, she must deceive Waldstricker and persuade him to leave the search of the Silent City in her hands. Her brown eyes were bright with her purpose; she smiled slowly up at him showing every white tooth.
"You bet I would!" she exclaimed, shaking her curls as she tossed her head. "How much air it, huh?"
"Five thousand dollars," replied Waldstricker.
"Jeedy!" gasped Tess. "That air a pile of money. I bet I earn it!... What'd ye bet?"
She turned impetuously to Deforrest Young, and he laughed.
"I hope you may!" was all he said.
Tess was all eagerness now, her cheeks flaming and her eyes dancing.
"But I wouldn't know the man if I seen 'im in any of the squatter's huts, huh?"
She flung this at Waldstricker, more of a question than a statement.
"He's a dwarf," he answered immediately, "and very small—like this. Sandy Letts knows him and is looking for him, too."
At his statement, Tessibel's quick imagination pictured Sandy's brutal face and greedy eyes, and for a moment her flaming courage almost faltered.
"If a dwarf sneaks down here," she observed with a sweep of her hand toward the door, "I'd get 'im easy. I know everybody."
"But would I have to halve up with Sandy, eh?" she continued, as though struck with a new thought.
"Not unless Sandy helped you find him," Ebenezer replied genially. "You could do as you pleased about that."
"Oh, Sandy couldn't help me, not a bit," Tess argued earnestly. "Sandy ain't liked any too well 'round here."
"Well, manage it as you choose."
Waldstricker smiled at his success with the girl. "I don't care for Sandy myself," he continued. "All I want is to get Andy Bishop." His face hardened with hate as he pronounced the dwarf's name.
Tess put her hands under the curls over each shoulder and drew them together beneath her chin.
"Five thousand dollars!" she ruminated. "I'd have a bully time a spendin' it, wouldn't I?... I'd buy my Daddy a new overcoat every day fer a year, an' I'd git 'im four new beds—one fer every corner of this here kitchen, an' I'd git 'im a flannel shirt thick as a board to keep the pains from 'is bones.... Then, I'd buy me a cow an' a calf an' a horse an' a little baby pig an' a few cats an' a lot of dogs, an' I'd let all the squatter brats play in my flower garden—"
Helen broke off this chatter with an amused laugh.
"Then mebbe I'd go to school a while," Tess kept on, "an' learn myself a lot out o' books, an' after that I'd take singin' lessons an' I'd sing to everybody what asked me—Then mebbe—" She dropped back for lack of words. "I wonder if that'd take the hull of the five thousand."
Waldstricker stood up.
"You've got the right idea of spending money," he laughed. "And now, young lady, we'll leave you, and if you hear that this dwarf is in any of your friends' huts, you let me know, and I'll come right down."
"Sure," said Tess, heartily. "Ye bet I will."
Scrambling to her feet, she lifted the ruddy curls and flung them back on her shoulders. To Ebenezer, watching her, came like a haunting memory the witch's cry, "Hair, stranglin' ye—God, what hair!"
But he dismissed the suggestion easily and turned to Helen, smiling.
"Why not bring Miss Skinner to the next musicale and have her sing?... Wouldn't you like that, Tess?"
"I'd get scared stiff," gasped Tessibel, terrified.
"But, Tess, dear," Helen thrust in, "I'd teach you the songs, and—"
The girl was looking down upon her dress, her face gathering a deep red.
Miss Young divined what was going on in the girlish mind.
"And I'd help you make a new dress," she went on.
"A hull lot of money folks'd be there, eh?" Tess demanded. Oh, how afraid she always was of a crowd of those—different people!
Her words directed Waldstricker's attention to the contrast between this squatter girl in the bare shack and the fashionable folk who'd throng his spacious drawing room.
"Well, a few," he answered, "but you come along with Miss Young just the same, will you?"
Tessibel took the outstretched hand awkwardly enough and as quickly dropped it and began to fumble with her own fingers. She looked down at the floor while she traced a line on it with her toe.
"Mebbe," she replied in a very subdued voice.
She stood in the door and watched them walk slowly up the hill. Then she turned back into the kitchen.
"My God, brat!" sobbed a voice through the hole in the ceiling. "Wasn't that a nice list of beautiful things ye was goin' to buy? Oh, kid, I air bettin' Waldstricker gits me."
Tess chuckled low, as she turned her face upward.
"Andy," she said, "ye needn't be worryin' 'bout me an' Jesus handin' ye over to that old elder. Why, Him an' me air goin' to stick to you like pitch to a nigger."
She turned to go, but hearing a sigh, took four steps up the ladder and finished,
"Why, honey, Waldstricker air got as much chance a ketchin' you as a tallow dog has chasin' an asbestos cat through hell."
WALDSTRICKER AND MOTHER MOLL
"Deforrest is so interested in the little Skinner girl," Helen Young explained to Ebenezer Waldstricker when they were alone after supper. "Ever since he helped to get her father out of Auburn, he's done all he could for her."
"He's a philanthropist at heart, I imagine," remarked Ebenezer, agreeably.
"Yes, and so good to everybody. Dear Forrie! I wish he'd meet the right woman and marry her. He'd be so happy in a home of his own. When I think of leaving him alone—"
The tender face flushed crimson, and happy eyes dropped under the man's bright gaze. He reached over and took a slender hand in his.
"But you're not sorry you're coming with me, are you, dear?" he chided gently, and Helen lifted her head with a glad cry.
"Oh, no, no, darling!... I'm the happiest woman in the world!"
"And I'll keep you so," replied Ebenezer, in earnest.
"I was thinking, though," observed Helen, after a moment, "that Deforrest might come with us if he hasn't made other arrangements."
Waldstricker contemplatively kissed each pink finger of the small hand he held, then pressed his lips to the soft palm.
"I should like very much to have him, Helen," said he. "I'm very proud of your brother, you know."
"You can't make me happier than to praise him," she smiled.
For several minutes no more was said. Then Waldstricker spoke as though thinking aloud,
"I wonder if that little Skinner girl will be of any assistance in the matter of locating Bishop?"
"Perhaps," replied Helen. "She seemed very eager to get the money! Don't you think so?"
"Yes, I think she did, but I've been wondering if she's trustworthy. Is she, Helen?"
Miss Young made a hasty affirmation.
"Yes, indeed, she's more than that!" she exclaimed. "She wouldn't deceive any one she loves for anything in the world, so Deforrest tells me."
"I sincerely hope so," sighed Ebenezer. "I've quite set my heart on her helping me. Money is no object in a matter like this."
"Of course not," murmured Helen, sympathetically.
"Letts also is doing some good work," Ebenezer continued. "He's been through nearly every hut on the Rhine."
Helen shivered. "I can't tolerate that man around," she replied. "Once in a while he comes here to see Deforrest or to sell something, and I can't get him away quickly enough."
"He's a good spy, though. That's all I want. He and the Skinner girl ought to produce that dwarf between them."
"I hope so for your sake, dear," murmured Helen.
Waldstricker took out his watch and glanced at it hurriedly.
"It's time for me to go, sweetheart," said he. "I want to get home before dark. Come as far as the lane with me—do!"
"The twilight is lovely, isn't it?" whispered the girl, when they were traversing the pear orchard.
"Made more lovely because of you," replied Waldstricker, sentimentally.
"How romantic you are tonight, dearest!" Helen laughed.
They had turned slowly up the hill, when suddenly Helen stopped and slipped her hand into Ebenezer's arm.
"There is that old woman you heard read from the fortune pot!" she exclaimed. "Let's step one side until she's passed us? She rarely lets a person go by without speaking."
Waldstricker threw up his head arrogantly.
"I'm not afraid of the hag," he replied pompously.
Together they advanced up the hill. Mother Moll, leaning on her cane, crept slowly down toward them. When her faded, nearsighted eyes caught sight of the two approaching figures, she halted in the middle of the road until they were almost upon her. She stared at Waldstricker fully fifteen seconds, while he looked steadily back at her. Then her withered lips spread wide in a sneering, cackling laugh.
"So he air aready been settin' on yer head an' layin' on yer heart, mister," she greeted him, "the leetle man like this, huh, ain't he?"
She shook her cane at the tall man and clacked at him again. Helen was conscious that at Moll's insults, Ebenezer's anger was rising by the minute. She was herself greatly moved by a kind of superstitious awe of the old woman's cryptic utterances. But seeking to avoid any further unpleasantness, she smiled in a friendly manner and asked,
"How do you do, Mother Moll?"
The hag thrust forward her face and raised one withered arm,
"I air fine, young lady," she screamed, crooking her fingers at the girl, "an' feel finer'n you can do this day, or ye'll ever with him." She pointed her cane at the scowling, dark-faced man; and slowly bobbed her head back to Helen. "Yer life'll draw out long an' terrible, till ye'll wish ye hadn't never seen 'im. He'll set up a knot hole an' drag ye livin' through it. Then he'll turn yer heart inside out an' haul ye back again."
She paused, while Waldstricker's face grew darker and darker. The frown on his brow roused Helen to action.
"Let's go on, dear," she whispered. "Don't pay any attention to her foolish talk."
"Not yet," returned Waldstricker, ominously. "Not yet!"
Moll laughed discordantly, shaking her head until the wisps of gray hair fell in strings about her face.
"He knows I ain't done tellin' ye what'll happen if ye line yer life with his'n," she croaked. "Lady, he air wicked, awful wicked, an' nothin' but misery, deep an' plentiful, air a goin' to make him any better. Every one he loves—"
Incoherently, she rambled on and the man's countenance took on an expression of such rage that Helen Young uttered a cry of dismay. She had never seen Ebenezer in one of his savage moods. Before she could draw him away, he had lifted his riding whip and a sudden twist of his arm brought it sharply down on the grandam's thin bent shoulders.
"Ebenezer!" screamed Helen, horrified.
"Drat ye, ye brute!" cried Moll, tottering back, "an' twice drat ye!" She swayed forward on her cane. "Ye can lick me till I die, an' 'twon't change yer own life any. It'll only add to the sufferin' ye got to go through yerself."
Waldstricker's arm went up again, but Helen grasped it frantically.
"Ebenezer, don't!... Don't strike her any more. Please!... Go home, Mother Moll.... Please go! Oh, do!"
The old woman leaned heavily on her stick, tearless sobs shaking her emaciated frame. For a space of sixty seconds her watery, faded eyes stared into Waldstricker's flashing dark ones—then she drew a long, convulsive breath.
"It air like ye to hit the awful young an' the awful old," she shrilled at him, "but, 'twon't do ye no good. Curls'll bring yer to yer knees, hair'll make yer heart bleed blood redder'n the sun, an' the leetle man'll jerk 'em tight 'bout yer throat till ye thunder out fer mercy."
"Come along," muttered Ebenezer, roughly, to Helen. "If she torments me any more, I fear I'll kill her."
His words were not so low but they caught the quick ear of the old woman.
"Kill me, yep, kill me, ye proud whelp! Go 'long; do it, ye big coward! Before ye're done with life, ye'll hate yerself worse'n uther folks hate ye."
She hobbled a little distance, reaching backward to rub her shoulders. Then she twisted completely around, facing the other two.
"Mind my word, pretty miss," she croaked in half grunt, half yelp. "Let 'im go like ye would a snake; like ye would a slimy worm a crawlin' at yer feet." Still snarling in pain, she lifted one shaking arm and pointed a crooked forefinger at Waldstricker. "She won't always stay with ye, ye skunk ye!" Then she staggered away, Helen and Ebenezer staring after her until she was lost in the gloom of the gully.
"Isn't she dreadful?" Ebenezer said, with a rueful laugh.
"She's so old," was Helen's gentle reproof. "She's not accountable for anything. Deforrest says she's very good to the other squatters."
"They're an unseemly mess." The man struck at an overhanging bough savagely. "And your brother has power enough to remove the worst of them if he wanted to. That old hag, for instance—"
"Deforrest wouldn't do it," interjected Helen.
"He may if I make it worth his while," replied Waldstricker. "But there, I was foolish to let 'er get on my nerves so. I beg your pardon, dear. My only excuse is I dislike to see the laws of God broken in such an iniquitous way. Why, I felt when I struck her the righteous indignation the Master must have felt when he drove the money changers from the temple."
Helen looked at him, startled. She was shocked at his words, as she had been terrified by his act.... A dreadful doubt darted into her mind. Was Mother Moll right? Could she be? Instantly she dismissed the suggestion, condemning herself for paying any attention to the empty vaporings of the half-witted, childish, old woman. She was sorry for Moll, of course, and grieved and hurt because Ebenezer had lost his temper and struck her. But her loving heart excused him. Certainly the provocation had been great. Old Moll was unusually impertinent.
Intent to repair the momentary disloyalty of her doubt, she pressed his arm lovingly.
"There, dear, let's not speak of it again. It's over now and we'll forget all about it."
A little later, when Waldstricker was moodily riding toward Ithaca, Mother Moll's hateful prophecies repeated themselves in his mind.
During the few hours after the departure of Waldstricker, Professor Young and Helen, Tessibel Skinner was preparing for her marriage. For the present she had dismissed her fear for Andy Bishop and had turned her attention to her own wonderful secret, her marriage to Frederick that evening. She went so nervously from one thing to another that when she stood fully dressed before her father, he scrutinized her inquiringly; but he confined his curiosity to the simple question,
"Goin' out, brat?"
"Yep, Daddy," admitted Tess, confused for an instant, "an' darlin', don't worry if I ain't back fer quite a little while. I air goin' to ride with Frederick." She leaned over him and cupped his bearded face with her hands, her eyes like stars, first shining, then shadowing. "Ye trust yer Tessibel, don't ye, Daddy Skinner?"
Since the first instant she'd been placed in his arms, a wee baby, the squatter had never ceased to marvel at her loveliness. An expression of adoring affection settled over his face.
"Sure, I air a trustin' ye, child," he assured her huskily, "or I wouldn't be lettin' ye run 'round wild on the rocks like ye're doin'.... Ye won't be gone too long, honey?"
"Nope," answered Tess, kissing him, "bar up, darlin', an' don't open to any knock lessen ye know who 'tis," and she ran out of the shanty and closed the door behind her.
"Fine lookin', yer girl, eh, pal?" remarked Andy, presently, from the ceiling.
"Yep," agreed Orn, morosely.
"She air got a beau, now, ain't she, old horse?"
The fisherman's face darkened with anger.
"Yep, an' I hate 'im like I hated his pa. But when a girl air fell in love with some feller, that air all there air to it."
"I hope he won't never hurt her," sighed the dwarf.
"He better hadn't!" mumbled Skinner.
During the silence that followed between the squatter and his prison pal, Tessibel was climbing the hill to meet Frederick. Many conflicting emotions took possession of her as she neared the summit. After tonight she would no longer be Tessibel Skinner, but Frederick's wife, and he, her husband, her own forever and forever. This night-ride would be her cherished secret until Frederick gave her permission to tell Daddy Skinner—until the whole world should know. Her mind was busy with the events of the last thirty-six hours. She was cogitating upon the happiness of her future, when she saw the waiting vehicle ahead of her, and Frederick's dark figure silhouetted in the moonlight. Faster and faster fluttered her heart, and faster and faster moved her feet. She reached the carriage without the student's realizing it.
"Frederick!" was all she had breath to say.
At the whispering of his name, the young man sprang to the ground. In another moment he had Tessibel in his arms.
"You've come!" he murmured low, kissing her. "Oh, my dearest, you're here!"
Then he lifted the slender figure into the buggy. Even in the pale light, Tessibel noticed his face gleamed white, and his eyes shone darker than usual. She sat very quiet as he gathered up the reins, and it was not until they were well on their way along the Trumansburg road that the boy turned to her. How beautiful she looked, her shoulders completely covered with dusky-dark curls and her head bowed in maidenly shyness! All his doubts as to the expediency of his act were set at rest. She was deeply essential to his happiness, to his progress. To know she was his wife, married to him, so that none could separate them, would make his absences from Tessibel much easier to bear. He had in the past feared Deforrest Young. Now that fear was being set at rest. He never had worried that Sandy Letts would win Tess any more than he had been apprehensive of Ben Letts before the drowning of the squatter. The one person he stood in awe of was his mother. Again his eyes sought the silent girl at his side. She had ever been a hallowing influence in his life, and to lose her would be worse than death. After tonight the glory in those unreadable brown eyes would ever shine for him. He threw one arm across her shoulder, and drew her closer. "My little moonlight girl!" he breathed in ecstasy, his cheek against hers. "Are you happy, my sweet?"
Tessibel couldn't have spoken if she had so desired. Her heart seemed filling her throat. Happiness hushed her voice, and gratitude to God for giving her Heaven's best prevented her expression of it.
The next twelve miles were passed in silence. And ever after, when Tessibel in imagination recalled the white road, winding its way into the hills, the quietude of the countryside, the shimmering moonlight, it seemed like nothing real. And she remembered, as in a daze, Frederick taking her in his arms after the minister had married them—how he had called her over and over his wife, his darling, and other whisperings divinely sweet.... In memory all those hours were like strangely mysterious dreams.
* * * * *
Daddy Skinner was waiting for Tessibel. He had sat listening for hours, mostly in silence, a deep brooding expression bending his ragged brows together in a stern frown.
From his position in the attic, Andy Bishop could see the fisherman's face. The dwarf was quick to recognize that something was wrong with his friend.
"The world air waggin' yet, Orn," he remarked soothingly.
"Sure, but 'tain't much of a world," grunted Skinner, sighing.
Andy bent his head a little farther through the hole.
"It air a lot, while we got Tess," he answered. "We got Tessibel, ain't we, pal?"
The squatter's mouth wrinkled at each corner.
"Yep, I guess we got 'er all right, but I wish to God she'd come home."
"She'll be along soon," assured Andy, with a smile.
For a few minutes they remained silent. Then Orn Skinner burst forth again,
"I ain't got as much use for that feller Tess loves as a dog has for a million fleas, an' I never liked 'is pa, uther...."
"Ye wouldn't wish she'd be lovin' Sandy Letts, even if he does make money, eh, Orn?" asked Andy.
"Thunder, no!" snorted Skinner. "I'd ruther she'd be dead 'n married to Sandy. But that ain't sayin' a honest squatter airn't better'n a high born pup.... I wish Tess loved a decent chap."
At that moment the speaker's daughter was standing alone on a small country inn porch, some miles from Trumansburg, waiting for her husband.
Frederick had gone to get the rig to take them back to the squatter settlement. There was absolute stillness, absolute calm everywhere but within herself. Her heart fluttered with new emotions, new desires, ambitions to make herself worthy of the man she'd married. Her eyes were on the sky, her soul among the stars, her own stars that had crept out one by one, each to look lovingly down upon her happiness.
What a glorious night it was! More wonderful than yesterday even! Or any of her many yesterdays! This hour, the climax of her love, had transported her through the mystery of immeasurable joy. She would never again be the old Tessibel. She was Frederick's wife! Her breath came in sudden, quick, happy sighs, for just then she heard his voice from out of the darkness. Ah, his tones, too, were deeper, richer than yesterday!
Even in the shadow, Frederick saw her distinctly as he came toward the house.
"My own little wife!" he whispered tumultuously. "How happy I am!"
"Won't ye take me home now?" murmured Tess. "It air late an' Daddy'll be worried."
"We'll start at once," promised Frederick tenderly, leading her down the steps.
* * * * *
Daddy Skinner heard the horse coming down the hill, heard Frederick as he said his low, "Good-night, my darling," and unbarring the door, the fisherman waited impatiently for his daughter to enter the shanty.