E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE SOLDIER OF THE VALLEY
Illustrated by A. B. Frost
[Frontispiece: They called to me as a boy.]
Charles Scribner's Sons New York —————— 1904 Copyright, 1904, by Charles Scribner's Sons Published, September, 1904
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
They called to me as a boy . . . . . . Frontispiece
"Welcome home—thrice welcome!"
Tim and I had stopped our ploughs to draw lots and he had lost
"Well, old chap!"
He did not stop to hear my answer
Swearing terrible oaths that he will never return
No answer came from the floor above
The tiger story
He had a last look at Black Log
"He pumped me dry"
"Nanny is likely to get one of her religious spells and quit work"
I was back in my prison
"'At my sover-sover-yne's will'"
Perry Thomas stands confronting the English warrior
"You'll begin to think you ain't there at all"
I saw a girl on the store porch
"Her name was Pinky Binn, a dotter of the house of Binn, the Binns of Turkey Walley"
William had felt the hand of "Doogulus"
"Aren't you coming?" young Colonel seemed to say
Sat little Colonel, wailing
The main thing was proper nursing
Well, ain't he tasty
"But there are no ghosts," I argued
"Of course it hurts me a bit here"
"An seein' a light in the room, I looked in"
Tip Pulsifer leaned on my gate
The horse went down
"And I'm his widder"
Then Tim came
When we three sit by the fire
THE SOLDIER OF THE VALLEY
I was a soldier. I was a hero. You notice my tenses are past. I am a simple school-teacher now, a prisoner in Black Log. There are no bars to my keep, only the wall of mountains that make the valley; and look at them on a clear day, when sunshine and shadow play over their green slopes, when the clouds all white and gold swing lazily in the blue above them, and they speak of freedom and of life immeasurable. There are no chains to my prison, no steel cuffs to gall the limbs, no guards to threaten and cow me. Yet here I stay year after year. Here I was born and here I shall die.
I am a traveller. In my mind I have gone the world over, and those wanderings have been unhampered by the limitations of mere time, for I know my India of the First Century as well as that of the Twentieth, and the China of Confucius is as real to me as that of Kwang Su. Without stirring from my little porch down here in the valley I have pierced the African jungles and surveyed the Arctic ice-floes. Often the mountains call me to come again, to climb them, to see the real world beyond, to live in it, to be of it, but I am a prisoner. They called to me as a boy, when wandering over the hills, I looked away to them, and over them, into the mysterious blue, picturing my India and my China, my England and my Russia in a geographical jumble that began just beyond the horizon.
Then I was a prisoner in the dungeons of Youth and my mother was my jailer. The day came when I was free, and forth I went full of hope, twenty-three years old by the family Bible, with a strong, agile body and a homely face. I went as a soldier. For months I saw what is called the world; I had glimpses of cities; I slept beneath the palms; I crossed a sea and touched the tropics. Marching beneath a blazing sun, huddling from the storm in the scant shelter of the tent, my spirits were always keyed to the highest by the thought that I was seeing life and that these adventures were but a fore-taste of those to come. But one day when we marched beneath the blazing sun, we met a storm and found no shelter. We charged through a hail of steel. They took me to the sea on a stretcher, and by and by they shipped me home. Then it was that I was a hero—when I came again to Black Log—what was left of me.
My people were very kind. They sent Henry Holmes's double phaeton to the county town to meet my train, and as I stumbled from the car, being new to my crutches, I fell into the arms of a reception committee. Tim was there. And my little brother fought the others off and picked me up and carried me, as I had carried him in the old days when he was a toddling youngster and I a sturdy boy. But he was six feet two now and I had wasted to a shadow. Perry Thomas had a speech prepared. He is our orator, our prize debater, our township statesman, and his frock-coat tightly buttoned across his chest, his unusually high and stiffly starched collar, his repeated coughing as he hovered on the outskirts of the crowd, told me plainly that he had an address to make. Henry Holmes, indeed, asked me to stand still just one minute, and I divined instantly that he was working in the interest of oratory; but Tim spoiled it all by running off with me and tossing me into the phaeton.
So in the state-coach of Black Log, drawn by Isaac Bolum's lemon-colored mules, with the committee rattling along behind in a spring wagon, politely taking our dust, I came home once more, over the mountains, into the valley.
Sometimes I wonder if I shall ever make another journey as long as that one. Sometimes I have ventured as far as the gap, and peeped into the broad open country, and caught the rumble of the trains down by the river. There is one of the world's highways, but the toll is great, and a crippled soldier with a scanty pension and a pittance from his school is wiser to keep to the ways he knows.
And how I know the ways of the valley! That day when we rode into it every tree seemed to be waving its green arms in salute. As we swung through the gap, around the bend at the saw-mill and into the open country, checkered brown and yellow by fields new-ploughed and fields of stubble, a flock of killdeer arose on the air and screamed a welcome. In their greeting there seemed a taunting note as though they knew they had no more to fear from me and could be generous. I saw every crook in the fence, every rut in the road, every bush and tree long before we came to it. But six months had I been away, yet in that time I had lived half my life, and now I was so changed that it seemed strange to find the valley as fat and full as ever, stretched out there in the sunshine in a quiet, smiling slumber.
"Things are just the same, Mark, you'll notice," said Tim, pointing to a hole in the flooring of the bridge over which we were passing.
The valley had been driving around that same danger spot these ten years. There was a world of meaning to the returning wanderer in that broken plank, and it was not hard to catch the glance of my brother's eye and to know his mind.
Henry Holmes on the front seat, driving, caught the inflection of Tim's voice and cried testily: "You are allus runnin' the walley down. Why don't you tell him about the improvements instead of pintin' out the bad spots in the road?"
"Improvements?" said I, in a tone of inquiry.
"Theop Jones has bought him a new side-bar buggy," replied the old man. "Then the Kallabergers has moved in from the country and is fixin' up the Harmon house at the end of the town."
"And a be-yutiful place they're makin' of it," cried Isaac Bolum; "be-yutiful!"
"They've added a fancy porch," Henry explained, "and are gittin' blue glass panes for the front door."
"We've three spring-beds in town now," put in Isaac in his slow, dreamy way. "If I mind right the Spikers bought theirs before war was declared, so you've seen that one. Well, Piney Martin he has got him one—let me see—when did he git it, Henery?"
Old Holmes furrowed his brow and closed one eye, seeking with the other the inspiration of the sky.
"July sixth," he answered. "Don't you mind, Ike, it come the same day and on the wery same stage as the news of the sinkin' of the Spaynish fleet?"
"Nonsense," retorted Isaac. "You're allus mixin' dates, Henery. You're thinkin' of Tip Pulsifer's last baby. He come July six, for don't you mind how they called him Cevery out of pity and generosity for the Spayniards? Piney's spring-bed arrived the same day and on the same stage as brung us the news of Mark here havin' his left leg shot off."
"Mebbe—mebbe—mebbe," muttered Henry, shaking his head dubiously. "It certainly do beat all how things happens all at once in this world. Come to think of it, the wery next day six of my sheep was killed by dogs."
"It's good you're gittin' your dates cleared," snapped old Bolum. "On history, Henery Holmes, you are the worst."
Henry retorted with an angry protest against the indictment, declaring that he was studying history when Bolum was being nourished on "soft food." That was true. Isaac admitted it frankly. He wasn't his mother's keeper, that he could regulate his own birthday. Had that been in his power he would certainly have set it a half century earlier or later to avoid being constantly annoyed by the "onreasonablest argeyments" Six Stars had ever heard. This made old Holmes smile softly, and he turned and winked at me. The one thing he had ever been thankful for, he said, was that his life had fallen with that of Isaac Bolum. Whenever he done wrong; whenever the consciousness of sin was upon him and he needed the chastisin' rod, he just went to the store and set and listened to Ike. To this Isaac retorted that it was a wonder the rod had not worn out long ago; it was pleasing to know, at least, that he was made of tough old hickory. Henry admitted this to be a "good 'un" on him—an unusual one, considering the source—but that did not settle the exact date of the arrival of Piney Martin's spring-bed.
It was time for me to protest that it mattered little whether the event occurred on July sixth or a week later, since what really interested me was the question as to who was the owner of the third of these luxuries. Isaac's serious, self-conscious look answered me, but I pressed the inquiry to give him an opportunity to sing the praises of this newest of his household gods. Mr. Bolum's pleasure was evident. Once launched into an account of the comfort of springs as compared to a straw-tick on ropes, he would have monopolized our attention to the end of the journey, but the sagacious Henry blocked him rudely by a tug at the reins which almost threw the lemon-colored mules on their haunches.
We were at the foot of the slope where the road to Buzzards Glory branches from the pike. The Arkers had spied us coming, and ran down from the tannery to greet us. Arnold, after he had a dozen times expressed his delight at my return, asked if I had seen any shooting. His son Sam's wife nudged him and whispered in his ear, upon which he apologized abruptly, explaining that he had dropped his spectacles in the tanning vat. Sam sought to extricate his father from these imaginary difficulties by demanding that I go coon-hunting with him on the next night. This set Sam's wife's elbow going again very vigorously, and the further embarrassment of the whole family was saved by Henry Holmes swinging the whip across the backs of the mules.
On went the state-coach of Black Log. We clattered quickly over the last level stretch. We dragged up the last long hill, and from its brow I looked on the roofs of Six Stars rising here and there from the green bed of trees. I heard the sonorous rumble of the mill, and above it a shrill and solitary crow. On the state-coach went, down the steep, driving the mules madly before it. Their hoofs made music on the bridge, and my journey was ended.
Home again! Even Tip Pulsifer was dear to me then. He was between the wheels when we stopped, and I planted a crutch on one of his bare feet and embraced him.
He grinned and cried, "Mighty souls!"
That embrace, that grin and that heart-born exclamation marked the entrance of the Pulsifer family into my life. Theretofore I had regarded them with a suspicion born of a pile of feathers at the door of their shanty on the ridge, for they kept no chickens. Now the six little Pulsifers, all with the lower halves of their faces washed and their hair soaped down, were climbing around me, and the latest comer, that same Cevery who arrived with Piney Martin's spring-bed, was hoisted into kissing distance by his mother, who was thinner and more wan than ever, but still smiling. But this was home and these were home people. My heart was open then and warm, and I took the seven little Pulsifers to it. I took old Mrs. Bolum to it, too, for she tumbled the clamoring infants aside and in her joy forgot the ruffles in the sleeves of her wonderful purple silk. At her elbow hovered the tall, spare figure of Aaron Kallaberger. Mindful of the military nature of the occasion he appeared in his old army overcoat, in spite of the heat. Rare honor, this! And better still, he hailed me as "Comrade," and enfolding my hand in his long horny fingers, cried "All's well, Mark!"
The mill ceased its rumbling. Already the valley was rocking itself to sleep. Out of the darkening sky rang the twanging call of a night-hawk, and the cluck of a dozing hen sounded from the foliage overhead. A flock of weary sheep pattered along the road, barnward bound, heavy eyed and bleating softly. The blue gate was opened wide. My hand was on Tim's shoulder and Tim's arm was my support.
"All's well!" I cried. For I was hobbling home.
Perry Thomas still had his speech to deliver. He hovered around the rocking-chair in which they had enthroned me, and with one hand he kept clutching violently at his throat as though he were suppressing his eloquence by muscular effort. His repeated coughing seemed a constant warning that at any moment he might be vanquished in the struggle for becoming silence. There was a longing light in his eyes and a look of appeal whenever our glances met. My position was embarrassing. He knew that I realized his predicament, but how could I interrupt the kindly demonstrations of the old friends who pressed about me, to announce that the local orator had a formal address of welcome that was as yet unspoken? And an opportunity like this might never again occur in Perry's life! Here were gathered not only the people of the village, but of the valley. His words would fall not alone on the ears of a few choice spirits of the store forum, or the scoffing pedants of the literary society, for crowded into that little room were old men whose years would give weight to the declaration that it was the greatest talking they had ever heard; were young children, who in after years, when a neglected gravestone was toppling over all that was left of the orator, would still speak of the wonders of his eloquence; were comely women to whom the household was the world and the household task the life's work, but who could now for the moment lift their bent forms and have their dulled eyes turned to higher and better things. Moreover, there were in that room a score of deep eyes that could not but quicken at the sight of a slender, manly figure, clad in scholastic black, of a thin, earnest face, with beetled brows and a classic forehead from which swept waves of black hair. Little wonder Perry was restless under restraint! Little wonder he grew more melancholy and coughed louder and louder, as the light without faded away, and the faces within were dimmed in the shadow!
From the kitchen came the clatter of dishes and pans and a babel of women's voices, the shrill commands of old Mrs. Bolum rising above them. The feast was preparing. Its hour was at hand. Apollo never was a match for Bacchus, and Perry Thomas could not command attention once Mrs. Bolum appeared on the scene. He realized this. Her cries came as an inspiration to action. In the twilight I lost him, but the lamp-light disclosed him standing over Henry Holmes, who had been driven into a corner and was held prisoner there by a threatening finger. There was a whispered parley that ended only when the old man surrendered and, stepping to the centre of the room, rapped long and loud on the floor with his cane.
Henry is always blunt. He has a way of getting right at the heart of things with everyone except Bolum. For Isaac, he regards circumlocution as necessary, taking the ground that with him the quantity and not the quality of the words counts. So when he had silenced the company, and with a sweep of his cane had driven them into close order about the walls, he said: "Mr. Thomas is anxious to make an address."
At this moment Mr. Thomas was about to step into the zone of fire of a hundred eyes. There was a very audible titter in the corner where three thoughtless young girls had squeezed themselves into one rocking-chair. The orator heard it and brought his heels together with a click.
"Mind what I told you, Henery," he whispered very loud, glaring at Mr. Holmes.
"Oh, yes," Henry returned in a casual tone.
He thumped the floor again, and when the tittering had subsided, and only the snuffling of Cevery Pulsifer broke the silence, he said: "In jestice to Mr. Thomas, I am requested to explain that the address was originally intended to be got off at the railroad. It was forgot by accident, and him not havin' time to change it, he asks us to make believe we are standin' alongside of the track at Pleasantville just as the train comes in."
Isaac Bolum had fixed himself comfortably on two legs of his chair, with the projecting soles of his boots caught behind the rung. Feet and chair-legs came to the floor with a crash, and half rising from the seat, one hand extended in appeal, the other at his right ear, forming a trumpet, he shouted: "Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!"
"This ain't a liter'ry meetin', Mr. Bolum. The floor is Mr. Thomas's, I believe," said Henry with dignity.
"But I didn't catch the name of the station you said we was to imagine."
"I said Pleasantville," cried Henry angrily.
"I apologize," returned Isaac. "I thought you said Meadowville, and never havin' been there, I didn't see how I could imagine the station."
"It seems to me, Isaac Bolum," retorted Henry with dignified asperity, "that with your imagination you could conjure up a whole railroad system, includin' the freight-yard. But Mr. Thomas has the floor."
"See here, Henery Holmes," cried Isaac, "it's all right for us old folks, but there's the children. How can they imagine Pleasantville station when some of 'em ain't yet seen a train?"
This routed even Henry Holmes. At the store he would never have given in, but he was not accustomed to hearing so loud a murmur of approval greet the opposition. He realized that he had been placed in a false position by the importunities of Mr. Thomas, and to him he now left the brunt of the trouble by stepping out of the illumined circle and losing himself in the company.
The fire-swept zone had no terrors for Perry. With one hand thrust between the first and second buttons of his coat, and the other raised in that gesture with which the orator stills the sea of discontent, he stepped forward, and turning slowly about, brought his eyes to bear on the contumacious Bolum. He indicated the target. Every optic gun in the room was levelled at it. The upraised hand, the potent silence, the solemn gaze of a hundred eyes was too much for the old man to bear. Slowly he swung back on two legs of his chair, caught the rungs again with the projecting soles, turned his eyes to the ceiling, closed them, and set himself to imagining the station at Pleasantville. The rout was complete.
Perry wheeled and faced me. The hand was lowered slowly; four fingers disappeared and one long one, one quivering one, remained, a whip with which to chastise the prisoner at the bar.
"Mark Hope," he began, in a deep, rich, resonant voice, "we welcome you home. We have come down from the valley, fourteen mile through the blazin' noonday sun, fourteen mile over wind-swept roads, that you, when agin you step on the soil of our beloved county, may step into lovin' hands, outstretched to meet you and bid you welcome. Welcome home—thrice welcome—agin I say, welcome!"
Both of the orator's hands swung upward and outward, and he looked intently at the ceiling. He seemed prepared to catch me as I leaped from a second-story window. The pause as he stood there braced to receive the body of the returning soldier as it hurtled at him, gave Isaac Bolum an opportunity to be magnanimous. He clapped his hands and cheered. In an instant his shrill cry was drowned in a burst of applause full of spirit and heart, closing with a flourish of wails from Cevery Pulsifer and the latest of the Kallabergers. Perry's arms fell gracefully to his side and he inclined his head and half closed his eyes in acknowledgment. Then turning to Isaac, measuring every word, in a voice clear and cutting, his long forefinger shaking, he cried: "From the bloody battlefields of Cuby, from her tropic camps where you suffered and bled, you come home to us to-day. You have fought in the cause of liberty. To your country you have give a limb—you——"
Poor Bolum! Awakened from the gentle doze into which he had fallen the instant Cevery Pulsifer relieved him of the duty of leading the applause, he brought his chair down on all four legs, and slapped both knees violently. Satisfied that they were still there, he looked up at the orator.
"You have give a limb," repeated Perry, emphasizing the announcement by shaking his finger at the old man.
Isaac's mouth was half open for a protest, when he remembered, and leaning over seized the toe of each boot in a hand and wriggled his feet. When we saw his face again he was smiling gently, and swinging back, he nestled his head against the wall and closed his eyes once more.
"You would have give your life," cried Perry.
But the only sign old Bolum made was to twirl the thumbs of his clasped hands.
"Six months ago, six short, stirrin' months ago you left us, just a plain man, at your country's call." Perry was thundering his rolling periods at us. "To-day, a moment since, standin' here by the track, we heard the rumblin' of the train and the engyne's whistle, and we says a he-ro comes—a he-ro in blue!"
Had Perry looked my way, he might have noticed that I was clad in khaki, but he was addressing Henry Holmes, whose worthy head was nodding in continual acquiescence. The old man stood, with eyes downcast and hands clasped before him, a picture of humility. The orator, carried away by his own eloquence, seemed to forget its real purpose, and in a moment, sitting unnoticed in my chair with Tim at my side, I became a minor figure, while half a hundred were gathered there to do honor to Henry Holmes. Once I even forgot and started to applaud when Perry raised his hand over the gray head as though in blessing and said solemnly: "He-ro in blue—agin we bid you welcome!"
A little laugh behind me recalled me to my real place, and with a burning face I turned.
I have in my mind a thousand pictures of one woman. But of them all the one I love most, the one on which I dwell most as I sit of an evening with my pipe and my unopened book, is that which I first saw when I sought the chit who noticed my ill-timed applause and laughed at me. I found her. I saw that she laughed with me and for me, and I laughed too. We laughed together. An instant, and her face became grave.
The orator, now swelling into his peroration, was forgotten. The people of the valley—Tim—even Tim—all of them were forgotten. I had found the woman of my firelight, the woman of my cloudland, the woman of my sunset country down in the mountains to the west. She, had always been a vague, undefined creature to me—just a woman, and so elusive as never to get within the grasp of my mind's eye; just a woman whom I had endowed with every grace; whose kindly spirit shone through eyes, now brown, now blue, now black, according to my latest whim; who ofttimes worn, or perhaps feigning weariness, rested on my shoulder a little head, crowned with a glory of hair sometimes black, and sometimes golden or auburn, and not infrequently red, a dashing, daring red. Sometimes she was slender and elf-like, a chic and clinging creature. Again she was tall and stately, like the women of the romances. Again she was buxom and blooming, one whose hand you would take instead of offering an arm. She had been an elusive, ever-changing creature, but now that I had looked into those grave, gray eyes, I fixed the form of my picture, and fixed its colors and fired them in to last for all my time.
Now she is just the woman that every woman ought to be. Her hair is soft brown and sweeps back from a low white forehead. She has tried to make it straight and simple, as every woman should, but the angels seem to have curled it here and mussed it there, so that all her care cannot hide its wanton waves. Her face is full of life and health, so open, so candid, that there you read her heart, and you know that it is as good as she is fair.
She stood before me in a sombre gown, almost ugly in its gray color and severe lines, but to me she was a quaint figure such as might have stepped out of the old world and the old time when men lived with a vengeance, and godliness and ugliness went arm in arm, for Satan had preempted the beautiful. Against her a homely garb failed. She was beautiful in spite of her clothes and not because of them. But this is generally true with women. This one, instead of sharing our admiration with her gown, claimed it all for herself. Her face had no rival.
I did not turn away. I could not. The gray eyes, once flashing with the light of kindly humor, now softened with sympathy, now glowed with pity. Pity! The thought of it stirred me with anger. The justice of it made me rage. She saw in the chair a thin, broken figure, a drawn brown face, a wreck of a man. Yesterday—a soldier. To-day—a hero. To-morrow—a crippled veteran, and after that a pensioner drifting fast into a garrulous dotage. She, too, was looking into the future. She knew what I had lost. She saw what I dreaded. Her eyes told me that. She did not know what I had gained, for she came of a silly people whose blood quickened only to the swing of a German hymn and who were stirred more by the groans of a penitent sinner than the martial call of the bugle.
So it came that I struggled to my crutches and broke rudely in on Perry Thomas's peroration. I had gathered all my strength for a protest against the future. The people of the valley were to know that their kindness had cheered me, but of their pity I wanted none. I had played a small part in a great game and in the playing was the reward. I had come forth a bit bruised and battered, but there were other battles to be fought in this world, where one could have the same fierce joy of the conflict; and he was a poor soldier who lived only to be toted out on Decoration days. I was glad to be home, but gladder still that I had gone. That was what I told them. I looked right at the girl when I said it, and she lifted her head and smiled. They heard how in the early spring in the meadow by the mill-dam Tim and I had stopped our ploughs to draw lots and he had lost. He had to stay at home, while I went out and saw the world at its best, when it was awake to war and strife, and the mask that hid its emotion was lifted. They heard a very simple story and a very short one, for now that I came to recount it all my great adventure dwindled to a few dreary facts. But as best I knew I told them of the routine of the camp and of the endless drills in the long spring days down there at Tampa before the army took to sea. I spoke of the sea and the strange things we saw there as we steamed along—of the sharks that lolled in our wake, of the great turtles that seemed to sun themselves on the wave-crests, of the pelicans and the schools of flying fishes. Elmer Spiker interrupted to inquire whether the turtles I had seen were "black-legs, red-legs, or yaller-legs." I had not the remotest idea, and said that I could not see how the question was relevant. He replied that it was not, except that it would be of interest to some of those present to learn that there were three distinct kinds of "tortles"—red-legs, black-legs, and "yaller-legs." They were shipped to the city and all became "tarripine." This annoyed me. Elmer is a great scholar, and it was evident that he was simply airing his wisdom, and rather than give him a second opportunity I tried to hurry to land; but Isaac Bolum awoke and wanted to know if he had been dreaming.
"I thot I heard some one speakin' of flyin' fishes," he said.
It was reckless in me to mention these sea wonders, for now in defence of my reputation for truthfulness, I had to prove their existence. The fabric of my story seemed to hang on them. Elmer Spiker declared that he had heard his grandfather tell of a flying sucker that inhabited the deep hole below the bridge when he was a boy, but this was the same grandfather who had strung six squirrels and a pigeon on one bullet in the woods above the mill in his early manhood. There Elmer winked. Isaac Bolum allowed that they might be trout that had trained themselves in the use of wings, but he did not believe that any ordinary fish such as a chub or a pike or a sunny would care to leave its natural element to take up with the birds. Perry Thomas began to cough. That cough is always like a snake's warning rattle. Before he had time to strike, I blocked the discussion by promising that if the company suspended judgment I would in the near future prove the accuracy of my statements on flying fishes by the encyclopaedia. This promise met with general approval, so I hurried over the sea to the dry land where I knew the ways better and was less likely to arouse higher criticism. I told them of the stirring times in Cuba, till the day came when we stormed the hill, and they had to carry me back to the sea. I told them how lucky I was to get to the sea at all, for often I had closed my eyes, worn out by the pain and the struggle for life, little caring whether ever again I opened them to the light. Then strength came, and hope, and I turned my face to the North, toward the valley and home. It was hard to come back on crutches, but it was better than not to come at all. It was best, to have gone away, else I had never known the joy of the return, and I was pretty sure to stay, now that I was home, but if they fancied me dozing away my life at the store stove they were mistaken; not that I scorned the learned discussion there, but the frosts were coming soon to stir up sluggish blood, and when the guns were barking in the woods, and the hounds were baying along the ridges, I would be with them.
I looked right at the girl when I said it. I was boasting. She knew it. She must see, too, what a woful figure I should make with strong-limbed fellows like Tim there, and strong-limbed hounds like old Captain, who was lying at my side. But somehow she liked my vaunting speech. I knew it when our eyes met.
The gate latch clicked. From the road Henry Holmes called a last good-night, and Tim and I were alone. We sat in silence, watching through the window the old man's lantern as he swung away toward home. Then the light disappeared and without all was black. The village was asleep.
By the stove lay my hound, Captain, snoring gently. He had tried to keep awake, poor beast! For a time he had even struggled to hold one eye open and on his master, but at last, overcome by weariness, his head snuggled farther and farther down into his fore paws, and the tired tail ceased its rhythmic beating on the floor.
What is home without a dog! Captain is happy. He smiles gently as he sleeps, and it seems that in that strange dog-dreamland he and I are racing over the ridges again, through the nipping winds, on the trail of a fox or a rabbit. His master is home. He has wandered far to other hunting grounds, but now that the tang is in the air that foretells the frost and snow, he has come again to the dog that never misses a trail, the dog that never fails him.
The hound raised his head and half opened one eye. He was sure that I was really there, and the gleam of white teeth showed a broadening dog-smile. And once more we were away on the dreamland trail—Captain and I.
"He's been counting the days till you got home, Mark," said Tim, holding a burning match over my pipe. "It was a bit lonely here, while you were gone, so Captain and I used to discuss your doings a good deal after the rest of the place had gone to bed. And as for young Colonel, why he's heard so much of you from Captain there, I'm afraid he'll swallow you when he gets at you in the morning."
Young Colonel was the puppy the returning soldier had never seen. He had come long after I had gone away, and as yet I knew him only by his voice, for I had heard his dismal wails down in the barn. In the excitement of the evening I had forgotten him, but now I raised a warning finger and listened, thinking that I might catch the appealing cry. And is there any cry more appealing than that of a lonely puppy? There was not a sound outside, and I turned to Tim.
My brother lighted his pipe, and leaned back in his chair, and looked at me. I looked at him very, very hard. Then we both began to blow clouds of smoke in each other's faces. Hardly a word had Tim and I passed since that day in the field when I drew the long twig that sent me away and left him behind to keep our home. What a blessing a pipe is at a time like this! Tim says more by the vigor of his smoking than Perry Thomas could express in a year's oration. So we enshrouded our emotions in the gray cloud; but if he did not speak, I knew well what he would be saying, and the harder I puffed the easier did he divine what was uppermost in my mind. For we were brothers! This was the same room that for years had been our world; this the same carpet over which we had tumbled together at our mother's feet. There was the same cupboard that had been our mountain; here the same chairs that formed our ridges and our valleys. At the table by my side, by the light of this very lamp, we sat together not so very long ago, boys, spelling out with our father, letter by letter, word by word, the stories of the Bible. Here we had lived our little lives; here we were to live what was to come; and where life is as simple as it is with us we grow a bit like the animals about us. We sit together and smoke; we purr, as it were, and know each other's mind. Tim and I purred. Incident by incident, year by year, we travelled down the course of our lives again, over the rough ways, over the smooth ways, smoking and smoking, until at last we brought up together at the present. Not a word had either of us spoken, but at last when our reminiscent wanderings were over and we paused on the threshold of the future, Tim spoke.
"Attractive?" he said in a tone of inquiry.
He was looking at me with eyebrows arched, curiously, and there was a faint suggestion of hostility in the set of his mouth.
Poor Tim! He has seen so little of women! We have them in our valley, of course. But he and I lived much in the great book-land beyond the hills. We had read together of all the heroines of the romances, and we knew their little ways and their pretty speeches as well as if we had ourselves walked with them through a few hundred pages and lived happily ever after. They had been the women of our world as distinct from the women of our valley. The last we knew as kindly, honest persons with a faculty for twisting their English and a woful ignorance of well-turned speeches. They never said "Fair Sir" nor "Master." But I had gone from that book-world and had seen the women of the real world. Here I had the advantage of my brother. Into his life a single woman had come from the real world. She was different from the women of our valley. I had known that the moment our eyes met, and by the way Tim smoked now, and by the tone of his terse inquiry, I knew that he had met a woman who had said "Fair Sir" to him, and I feared for him. It was disturbing. I felt a twinge of jealousy, but whether for the tall, strong young fellow before me, to whom I had been all, or for the fair-faced girl, I could not for the life of me tell. It seemed to be a bit of both.
"I remarked that she was attractive," said Tim aggressively, for I had kept on smoking in silence.
"Rather," I answered carelessly. "But who is she—a stranger here?"
"Rather," repeated Tim hotly. "Well, you are blind. I suppose you judged her by that ugly gray gown. You thought she was some pious Dunkard."
"I am no enemy of piety," I retorted. "In fact, I hardly noticed her clothes at all, except to think that their simplicity gave her a sort of Priscilla air that was fetching."
Tim softened. "That's it exactly," he said. "But, Mark, you should have seen Mary Warden when she came here."
"From where?" I asked.
"From Kansas. She lived in some big town out West, and when her mother died there was no one left to her but Luther Warden, her uncle. He sent for her, and now she is living with him. The old man sets a great store by her."
Luther Warden is rich. He has accumulated a fine lot of property above Six Stars—several good farms, a mill and a tannery; but even the chance of inheriting all these did not seem fair compensation for being his niece and having to live with him. He was good to a fault. He exuded piety. Six days of the week he worked, piling up the passing treasures of this world. One whole day he preached, striving for the treasures in that to come. You could not lay a finger on a weak spot in his moral armor, but Tip Pulsifer protected from the assaults of Satan only by a shield of human skin, always seemed to me the better of the two. Tip wore leaky boots all last winter, but when spring came he bought Mrs. Pulsifer a sewing machine. Have you ever worn leaky boots when the snow was banked fence high? Luther Warden's boots never leak. They are always tight and well tallowed. His horses and his cows waddle in their fat, and the wool of his flocks is the longest in the valley. Luther gets up with the sun and goes to bed with it. Some in our valley think his heavy crops come from his six days of labor, and some from his one day of preaching. He says that the one day does it all; but he keeps on getting out with the sun on the other six. I knew that the poor girl from Kansas must get up with the sun, too, for her uncle was not the man to brook any dawdling. I knew, further, that Sunday could not be a day of rest for her, for of all his people she would have to listen to his preaching.
That was why I murmured in a commiserative tone, "Luther's niece—poor girl!"
"You needn't pity her," Tim snapped. "She knows a heap more about the world than you or I do. She—"
"She is not a Dunkard, then?" I interrupted.
"Not a bit," Tim answered. "I don't know what she was in Kansas, but Luther has preached so much on worldliness and the vanity of fine clothes that it wouldn't look right for his niece to go flaunting frills and furbelows about the valley. That plain gray gown is a concession to the old man. He'd like her to wear a prayer-cap and a poke bonnet, I guess, but she has a mind of her own. I think she drew the line there."
She had not given up so much, I thought. Perhaps in her self-denial there was method, and her simple garb became her best. Even a prayer-cap might frame her face the fairest; but she must know. And I had seen that in the flash of her eye and the toss of her head that told me that a hundred Luther Wardens, a hundred Dunkard preacher uncles, could not abate her beauty one jot.
"She's rich," said Tim.
He blurted it out. As long as I had seen her and found her beautiful, this announcement seemed uncalled for. Had she been plain of face and figure it might have served a purpose, were my brother endeavoring to excuse the sentimental state of mind he had disclosed to me. He knew that the place he held in my heart was first. This had always been true, and in our lonely innocence we had promised it should be true to the end. There was to be a fair return. He had promised it, and now he was learning how hard it was to keep faith. His attitude was one of half penitence, half defiance. Had I not seen the girl, had he told me that she was beautiful, and even rich and good, all our boyish pledges would have been swept aside, and I should have cheered him on. But I had seen her. She had laughed with me. Somehow we had understood each other. And now I cared not so much what he felt for her as how she looked on him. For once in our lives Tim and I were fencing.
"She's pretty, Tim," said I, "and rich, you say?"
"Mary has several thousand dollars," he answered. "Besides that, she'll get all old man Warden has to leave, and that's a pretty pile."
"Little wonder she wears that Dunkard gown," said I with the faintest sneer.
It angered Tim.
"That's not fair," he cried. "She's not that kind. Luther Warden is all she has of kin, and if it makes him any happier to see her togged out in that gawky Dunkard gown——-"
"Gawky?" said I. "Why, man, on a woman like that a plain dress is simply quaint. She looks like an old Dutch picture. You must not let her change it."
The insinuation of his authority made Tim pound the table with his pipe. He was striving to be angry, but I knew what that furious flush of his face meant. He tried to conceal it by smoking again, but ended in a laugh.
"Oh, nonsense!" he said. Then he laughed again.
"Tell me," I went on, following up my advantage, "when is she coming here, or when are you going to move up there?"
My brother recovered his composure.
"It's all silly, Mark. There is no chance of a girl like that settling down here with a clumsy fellow like me—a fellow who doesn't know anything, who's never been anywhere, who's never seen anything. Why, she's travelled; she's from Kansas; she's lived in big cities. This is nothing but a lark for her. She'll go away some day, and she'll leave us here, grubbing away on our bit of a farm and spending our savings on powder and shot—until we get to the happy hunting grounds."
Tim laughed mournfully. "I've been just a little foolish," he went on, "but I couldn't help it, Mark. It doesn't amount to anything; it never did and never will, and now that you're here and the rabbit season will soon be in, we'll have other things to think of. But you must remember I'm not the only man in the world who's been a bit of a fool in his time."
"No," said I. "May I be spared myself, but see here, Tim, how does it feel?"
"How does what feel?" snapped Tim.
"To be in love the way you are," I answered.
"Oh!" he exclaimed.
He had been taken back, and hesitated between anger and amusement. When Tim hesitates he loses his temper as a sensible man should lose it—he buries it, and his indomitable good humor wins.
"Tip Pulsifer says it's like religion," he answered. "At first it makes you feel all low-down like, and miserable, and you don't care. Then you either get over it entirely or become so used to it you don't feel it at all."
"May I be spared!" I cried, "and may you get over it."
But the youngster refused to commit himself. He just smiled and smoked, and it seemed as though in his suffering he was half happy. I smoked, too. We smoked together. The silence startled Captain, for the clock struck, and yawning, he arose, trotted to my side, and with one leap he brought his ponderous paws into my lap.
You can trust your dog. He never fails you.
"Well, old chap," I said, as I scratched his nose ever so gently, "you at least have no one to think of but me and Tim there, eh?"
"No," cried Captain heartily.
That was not the exact word that he used, but he expressed it by beating his tail against the table and giving a long howl.
"And if Tim, there, goes dawdling after a woman, we shall stick to the ridges, and the foxes, and the rabbits. We can't go as fast as we used to, Captain, but we can go together, eh?"
"The same as ever and the same forever," cried Captain.
Those were not his exact words, but I saw his answer in his eyes, for he had climbed higher and they were close to mine. He seemed ready to swallow me.
"And when he brings her home, Captain," said I, "and fills the whole house with young ones who'll pull your tail and tickle your ears and play horse with my crutches, we shall sit outside and smoke our pipes alone, in peace and quiet, eh, Captain?"
"Oho!" cried Captain. "That we will, and you never need want, Mark, for I've many a fine bone buried away against old age and rainy weather."
"Spoken like a man," said I, slapping the hound on the back.
Tim had lighted a candle. Now he blew out the lamp and stood over me in the half-light, holding out a hand.
"Come," he said. "That's right, put your hand on my shoulder, for the stairs are steep and will trouble you. That's the way. Come along, Captain; to-night we'll all go up together. And when she comes—that woman—we'll go to your house—all three of us—the same as now—eh, Captain?"
"I love soldiers—just love 'em," she said.
"The sentiment is an old one with women," said I. "Were it not so, there would be no soldiers."
"And for that reason you went to war?" she said.
"In part, yes," I answered.
"How I should like to see the woman!" she cried. "How proud she must be of you!"
"Of me?" I laughed. "The woman? Why, she doesn't exist."
"Then why did you turn soldier?"
"I feared that some day there might be a woman, and when that day came I wished to be prepared. I thought that the men who fought would be the men of the future. But I have learned a great deal. They will be the men of the past in a few months. The memory of a battle's heroes fades away almost with the smoke. In a little while, to receive our just recognition we old soldiers will have to parade before the public with a brass band, and the band will get most attention. Would you know that Aaron Kallaberger was a hero of Gettysburg if he didn't wear an army overcoat?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "I have heard about it so often. He has told me a hundred times."
"I suppose you have told a hundred other persons of Aaron's prowess?" said I.
"No-o-o," she answered.
"And so," said I, "when Perry Thomas finished his oration last night, I had to catch it up; and if my soldiering is to result in any material good to me I must keep that oration moving to the end."
"But will you?" she asked.
How I liked the way she put it! It was flattering—subtly so. She seemed to imply that I was a modest soldier, and if there is a way to flatter a man it is to call him modest. Modesty is one of the best of policies. To call a man honest is no more than to call him healthy or handsome. These are attributes of nearly everyone at some time in his life. But to do a great deed or a good deed, and to rejoice that it has been done and the world is better for it, and not because you did it and the world knows it, that is different. So often our modesty consists in using as much effort to walk with hanging head and sloping shoulders as we should need for a majestic strut.
She called me modest. Yet there I sat in my old khaki uniform. It was ragged and dirty, and I was proud of it. It was a bit thin for a chilly autumn day, but in spite of Tim's expostulation I had worn it, refusing his offers of a warmer garb. I was clinging to my glory. While I had on that old uniform, I was a soldier. When I laid it aside, I should become as Aaron Kallaberger and Arnold Arker. A year hence people would ask me if I had been a railroad man in my time.
She called me modest. That very morning Tim told me she was coming. She had made some jellies, so she said, for the soldier of the valley. They were her offering to the valley's idol. She thought the idol would consume them, for bachelor cooking was never intended for bachelor invalids. Tim had mentioned this casually. I suspected that he believed that the visit to me was simply a pretence and that she knew he was to be working in the field by the house. But I took no chances. In the seclusion of my room I brushed every speck off the uniform and made sure that every inch of it fitted snugly and without an unnecessary wrinkle. Then when my hair had been parted and smoothed down, I crowned myself with my campaign hat at the dashingest possible tilt. Thus arrayed I fixed myself on the porch, to be smoking my pipe in a careless, indifferent way when she came. An egotist, you say—a vain man. No—just a man. For who when She comes would not look his best? We prate a lot about the fair sex and its sweet vanities. Yet it takes us less time to do our hair simply because it is shorter.
When Mary comes! The gate latch clicked and I whistled the sprightliest air I knew. Down in the field Tim appeared from the maze of corn-stalks and looked my way beneath a shading hand. There were foot-falls on the porch. Had they been light I should have kept on whistling in that careless way; but now I looked up, startled. Before me stood not Mary, but Josiah Nummler.
It was kind of Josiah to come, for he is an old man and lives a full mile above the village, half way up the ridge-side. He is very fat, too, from much meditation, and to aid his thin legs in moving his bulky body he carries a very long stick, which he uses like a paddle to propel him; so when you see him in the distance he seems to be standing in a canoe, sweeping it along. Really he is only navigating the road. He had a clothes-prop with him that day, and pausing at the end of the porch, he leaned on it and gasped. I ought to have been pleased to see Josiah.
"Well, Mark," he said, "I am glad you're home. Mighty! but you look improved."
He gasped again and smiled through his bushy beard.
"Thank you," said I, icily, waving him toward a chair.
Josiah sat down and smiled again.
"It just does me good to see you," he said, having completely recovered his power of speech. "I should have come down last night, Mark. I 'pologize for not doin' it, but it's mighty troublesome gittin' 'round in the dark. The last time I tried it, I caught the end of my stick between two rocks and it broke. There I was, left settin' on the Red Hill with no way of gittin' home. I was in for comin' down here to receive you—really I was—but my missus says she ain't a-goin' to have me rovin' 'round the country that 'ay agin. 'Gimme an extry oar,' I says. And she says: 'Does you 'spose I'll let you run 'round lookin' like a load of wood?' And I says——"
The gate latch clicked. Again Tim appeared from the maze of corn and stood shading his eyes and gazing toward the house. Now the footfalls were light. And Mary came! But how could I look careless and dashing, with Josiah Nummler in the chair I had fixed so close to mine? Rising, I bowed as awkwardly as possible. I insisted on her taking my own rocker, while I fixed myself on the floor with a pillar for a back-rest. Not a word did the girl say, but she sat there clutching the little basket she held in her lap.
"Eggs?" inquired Josiah.
She shook her head, but did not enlighten him.
"I should judge your hens ain't layin' well, figurin' on the size of the basket," said the old man, ignoring her denial. "There's a peculiarity about the hens in this walley—it's somethin' I've noticed ever since I was a boy. I've spoke to my missus about it and she has noticed the same thing since she was a girl—so it must be a peculiarity. The hens in this walley allus lays most when the price of eggs is lowest."
This was a serious problem. It is not usual for Josiah to be serious, either, for he is generally out of breath or laughing. Now he was wagging his head solemnly, pulling his beard, and over and over repeating, "But hens is contrary—hens is contrary."
Mary contrived to drop the basket to her side, out of the old man's sight.
"Speakin' of hens," he went on. "My missus was sayin' just yesterday how as——"
Tim was shouting. He was calling something to me. I could not make out what it was, for the wind-was rustling the corn-shocks, but I arose and feigned to listen.
"It's Tim," said I. "He's calling to you, Josiah. It's something about your red heifer."
"Red heifer—I haven't no red heifer," returned the old man.
"Did I say heifer? I should have said hog—excuse me," said I, blandly.
"But I have killed all my hogs," Josiah replied, undisturbed.
Tim shouted again, making a trumpet of his hands. To this day I don't know what he was calling to us, but when this second message reached Josiah's ears, it concerned some cider we had, that Tim was anxious to know if he would care for. At the suggestion Josiah's face became very earnest, and a minute later he was hurrying down the field to the spot where Tim's hat and Tip Pulsifer's shaggy hair showed above the wreck of a corn-shock.
"How could you hear what Tim was saying?" Mary asked.
It was almost the first word she had spoken to me, and I was in my chair again, and she was where I had planned so cunningly to have her.
"I know my brother's voice," I answered gravely.
"I couldn't make out a word," said she, "but it isn't like him to let an old man go tottering over fields to see him. He would have come up here."
"I guess he would." There was a twinkle in her eyes and I knew it was useless to dissemble. "Tim and I are different. I never hesitate to use strategy to get my chair, even at the expense of a feeble old man."
"How gallant you are," she said with a touch of scorn.
"You must not scold," I cried. "Remember I had reason, after all. You did not come to see Josiah Nummler."
She was taken by surprise. It was brutal of me. But somehow the old reckless spirit had come back. I was speaking as a soldier should to a fair woman, bold and free. That's what a woman likes. She hates a man who stutters love. And while I did not own to myself the least passion for the girl, I had seen just enough of her on the evening before and I had smoked just enough over her that morning to be in a sentimental turn of mind that was amusing. And I gained my point. She turned her head so as almost to hide her face from me, and I heard a gentle laugh.
"All's fair in love and war," I said, "and were Josiah twice as old, I should be justified in using those means to this end."
Then I rocked. There is something so sociable about rocking. And I smoked. There is something so sociable about smoking. For a moment the girl sat quietly, screening her face from me. Then she began rocking too, and I caught a sidelong glance of her eye, and the color mounted to her cheeks, and we laughed together.
So it came that she suddenly stopped her rocking, and dropping the little basket at my feet, exclaimed: "I love soldiers—just love them!"
Then I told her that I must keep Perry Thomas's oration going to the end, and she leaned toward me, her hands clasped, her eyes fixed on mine and asked: "But will you?"
"I can make no promises," I answered. "They say our bodies change entirely every seven years. Mark Hope, age fifty, will be a different man from Mark Hope, age twenty-three. He may have nothing to boast about himself, and his distorted mind may magnify the deeds of the younger man. Now the younger man refuses to commit himself. He will not be in any way responsible for his successors."
"How wise you are!" she cried.
"Wise?" I exclaimed, searching her face for a sign of mockery. But there was none.
"I mean you talk so differently from the others in the valley. Either they talk of crops or weather, or they sit in silence and just look wise. I suppose you have travelled?"
"As compared to most folks in Black Log I am a regular Gulliver," I answered. "My father was a much-travelled man. He was an Englishman and came to the valley by chance and settled here, and to his dying day he was a puzzle to the people. That an Englishman should come to Six Stars was a phenomenon. That Isaac Bolum and Henry Holmes should be born here was no mere chance—it was a law of nature."
"And this English father?"
"He married, and then Tim and I came to Black Log."
"Like Isaac Bolum and Henry Holmes?"
"Exactly; and we should have grown like them, but our father was a bookish man, and with him we travelled; we went with Dickens and Thackeray and those fellows, and as we came to different places in the books, he told us all about them. He'd seen them all, so we got to know his country pretty well. Once he took us to Harrisburg, and by multiplying everything we saw there, Tim and I were able to picture all the great cities of the world—for instance, London is five hundred times Harrisburg."
"But why didn't you go to see the places yourself?"
"Why doesn't everybody in Black Log go to Florida in winter or take the waters at Carlsbad? We did plan a great trip—father and mother and Tim and I—we were going to England together when the farm showed a surplus. We never saw that surplus. I went to Philadelphia once. It's a grand place, but I had just enough of money to keep me there two days and bring me home. Then the war came. And now Tim thinks I've been around the world. He's jealous, for he has never been past Harrisburg; but I've really gone around a little circle. I've seen just enough of flying fishes to hanker after Mandalay, just enough of Spaniards to long for a sight of Spain. But they've shipped me home and here I am anchored. Here I shall stay until that surplus materializes; and you know in our country we have neither coal nor oil nor iron."
"But they tell me that you are to teach the school," she said.
"For which I am grateful," I answered. "Twenty dollars a month is the salary, and school keeps for six months, so I shall earn the large sum of $120 a year."
"But your pension?"
"With my pension I shall be a nabob in Six Stars. Anywhere else I should cut a very poor figure. But after all, this is the best place, for is there any place where the skies are bluer; is there any place where the grass is greener; is there any place where the storms are wilder than over our mountains?"
"Sometimes I would say in Kansas," the girl answered. "Here the world seems to end at the top of the mountain. It is hard to picture anything beyond that. Out there you raise yourself on tiptoe, and you see the world rolling away for miles and miles, and it seems to have no ending."
"I suppose you will not be able to endure your imprisonment. Some day you will go back to Kansas."
"Some day—perhaps," she laughed. "But now I am a true Black Logger. Look at my gown."
It was the gray Dunkard dress—the concession to her uncle's beliefs on worldliness. It was the first time I had noticed it.
"That is not the garb of Black Log," I said. "It was designed long ago in Germany, after patterns from Heaven."
"And designed by men," said Mary, laughing; "forced by them on a sex which wears ribbons as naturally as a bird does feathers."
"In other words, when you came to live with your pious uncle, he picked you?"
"Exactly," she said; "but I submitted humbly. I came here, as I supposed, a fairly good Christian, with an average amount of piety and an average number of faults. My worldliness shocked my uncle, and being a peaceful person, I let him pick me. But I rebelled at the bonnet—spare me from one of those coal-scuttles—I'll go to the stake first."
In her defiance she swung her own straw hat wildly around on the string. Pausing, she smoothed out the gray gown and eyed it critically.
"Was such a thing ever intended for a woman to wear!" she exclaimed.
"For most women, surely not," said I. "Few could carry that handicap and win. But after all, your uncle means it kindly. He acts from interest in your soul's welfare."
Mary's face became serious.
"Yes," she said, "he has paid me the highest compliment a man can pay to a woman—he wants to meet me in Heaven."
How could I blame Luther Warden?
I had forgotten my uniform and my glory, my hair and my hat, and was leaning forward with my eyes on the girl. And she was leaning toward me and our heads were very close. The rebellious brown hair was almost in the shade of my own dashing hat-brim.
Then I said to myself in answer to the poet, "Here's the cheek that doth not fade, too much gazed at." For its color was ever changing. And again I said to myself and to the poet, when my glance had met hers, and the color was mounting higher: "Here's the maid whose lip mature is ever new; here's the eye that doth not weary." And now aloud, forgetfully, leaning back in my chair and gazing at her from afar off—"Here's the face one would meet in every place."
Mary's chair flew back, and it was for her to gaze at me from afar off.
"What were you saying?" she demanded in a voice not "so very soft."
"Was I saying anything?" I answered, feigning surprise. "I thought I was only thinking. But you were speaking of Luther Warden."
"Was I?" she said, more quietly, but in an absent tone.
"You said he had paid you a great compliment, but do you know——"
I paused, being a bit nervous, and flushed, for she was looking right at me. Not till she turned away did I finish.
"Do you know," I went on, "last night when I saw you, I thought we must have met before, and I thought if I had met you anywhere before, it must have been in Heaven."
I had expected that at a time like this Josiah Nummler would appear. In that I was disappointed. In his place, with a bark and a bound, came a lithe setter, a perfect stranger to me, and Mary seized the long head in her hands and cried: "Why, Flash—good Flash."
She completely ignored my last remark, and patted the dog and talked to him.
"Isn't he a beauty?" she cried. "He is Mr. Weston's."
"Whose?" I asked, concealing my irritation. "Mr. Weston—and who is Mr. Weston?"
Mary held up a warning finger. There were footfalls on the gravel walk around the house.
"Sh," she whispered, "here he comes—no one knows who he is."
To this day Robert Weston's age is a mystery to me; I might venture to guess that it is between thirty and fifty. Past thirty all men begin to dry up or fatten, and he was certainly a lean person. His face was hidden beneath a beard of bristling, bushy red, and he had a sharp hook nose and small, bright eyes. From his appearance you could not tell whether he was a good man or a bad one, wise or stupid, kind-hearted or a brute. He seemed of a neutral tone. His clothes marked him as a man of the city, for we do not wear shooting jackets, and breeches and leather leggings in our valley. In the way he wore them there was something that spoke the man of the world, for in such a costume we of Black Log should feel dressed up and ill at ease; but his clothes seemed a part of him. They looked perfectly comfortable and he was unconscious of them. This is where the city men have an advantage over us country-breds. I can carry off my old clothes without being awkward. I could enter a fine drawing-room in the patched blouse I wear a-hunting with more ease than in that solemn-looking frock-coat I bought at the county town five years ago. In that garment I feel that "I am." No one could ever convince me that I am a mere thought, a dream, a shadow. Every pull in the shoulders, every hitch in the back, every kink in the sleeves makes me a profound materialist. But I don't suppose Weston would bother spreading the tails out when he sat down. I doubt if he would know he had it on. He is so easy in his ways. I saw that as he came swinging around the house, and I envied him for it.
"Well, I am in luck!" he cried cheerfully. "Here I came to see the valley's soldier and I find him holding the valley's flower."
This to me was rather an astounding thing to say, and if he intended to disable me in the first skirmish he succeeded admirably, for my only answer was a laugh; and the more I laughed the more foolish and slow-witted I felt. I wanted to run to Mary's aid, but I did not know how, and while I was rummaging my brain for some way to meet him, she was answering him valiantly.
"Almost, but not quite," she said. "But he has earned the right to hold the valley's flower entirely—whoever she may he. It's a pity, Mr. Weston, you have not been doing so, too, instead of loafing around the valley all summer long."
She did not speak sharply to him, and that angered me. She was smiling as she spoke, and he did not seem to mind it at all.
"I came to see the veteran," he said, "and not to be scolded."
"You may have my chair then." Mary was rising. "I shall leave you to the veteran—if he does not object."
She was moving away.
"Then I shall have to go with you," said the stranger calmly, "if the veteran doesn't object. He knows a woman should not go unattended around the valley. He'd rather see me doing my duty than having a sociable pipe with him and hearing about the war. How about it, Hope?"
He did not stop to hear my answer. Had he waited a moment instead of striding after the girl, with his dog at his heels, he might have seen my reply.
I raised my pipe above my head and hurled it against the fence, where it crashed into a score of pieces.
"Who is Robert Weston?" I asked of Tim.
"If you can answer that question Theophilus Jones will give you a cigar," replied my brother. "He has tried to find out; he has cross-questioned every man, woman, and child that comes to his store, and he admits that he is beaten."
"When Theop can't find out, the mystery is impenetrable." I recalled our suave storekeeper and his gentle way of drawing from his customers their life secrets as he leaned blandly over the counter with his sole thought apparently to do their commands. Theophilus had known that I was going to enlist long before I had made up my own mind. He had told Tim that I was coming home before he had handed him the postal card on which I had scrawled a few lines announcing my return. So when I heard that Weston was still a puzzle to him I knew that Six Stars had a mystery. For Six Stars to have a mystery is unusual. Occasionally we are troubled with ghosts and such supernatural demonstrations, which cause us to keep at home at night, but we soon forget these things if we do not solve them. But for our village to number among its people a man whose whole history and whose family history was not known was unheard of. For such a man to be here six weeks and not enlighten us was hardly to be dreamed of. Robert Weston had dared it. Even Tim regarded the matter as serious.
"It is suspicious," he said, shaking his head gravely.
He was cleaning up the supper dishes at the end of the table opposite me. By virtue of my recent return I had not fallen altogether into our household ways as yet, and sat smoking and watching him.
"It's mighty odd," he went on. "At noon one day, about six weeks ago, Weston rode up to the tavern on a bicycle and told Elmer Spiker he was going to stay to dinner. He loafed about all that afternoon, and stayed that day and the next, and ever since. First there came a trunk for him, and then a dog. You see him about all the time, for when he isn't walking, he's loafing around the tavern, or is over at the store, arguing with Henry Holmes or Isaac Bolum. Yet all we know about him is that he's undecided how long he'll stay and that he has lived in New York."
"Has no one asked him point-blank what he is doing here?"
"No. Isaac Bolum declares every day that he is going to, but when the time comes he breaks down. Every other means of finding out has been taken."
"Josiah Nummler told me to-day he believed Weston was a detective."
"That was Elmer Spiker's theory. But, as Theop says, who is he detecting?"
Theophilus settled that theory conclusively, in my mind, at least, for I knew every man, woman, and child in the valley; and taking a mental census, I could find no one who seemed to require watching by a hawkshaw.
"Perry Thomas guessed he was an embezzler," said Tim, putting the last dish in the cupboard and sitting down to his pipe. "Perry says Weston is the best-learned man he ever met, and that embezzlers are naturally educated or they would not be in places where they could embezzle."
"A truly Perryan argument," said I; "and after all, a reasonable one, for no one would think of looking here for a fugitive."
"That's just what Perry says," rejoined Tim. "But Theop has read every line in the papers for weeks, and he swears that no embezzlers are missing now."
"Perhaps his crime is still concealed," I ventured.
"That was just what Isaac Bolum thought," Tim answered. "But Henry Holmes says no missing criminal is likely to have a setter dog shipped to him. He says such a man might send for his clothes, but he would draw the line on dogs."
"Perhaps he has deserted his wife," I said, seeing at last a possible solution of the mystery.
"That's what Arnold Arker suggested just a few days ago," returned Tim; "but Tip Pulsifer allowed that no fellow would have to come so far to desert his wife."
"Tip ought to know," said I, "for he deserts his once a year, regularly."
"He always comes back the next day," retorted Tim stoutly.
My brother has always been Tip's champion in his matrimonial disagreements, and whenever Pulsifer flees across the mountain, swearing terrible oaths that he will never return, Tim goes straight to the clearing on the ridge and talks long and seriously to the deserted wife about her duty.
But there was reason in Tip's contention regarding Weston. Indeed, from Tim's account of events, I could see that the store had very thoroughly threshed out the whole case and that the problem was not one that could be solved by abstract reasoning. There was only one person to solve it, and that was Robert Weston himself.
I knew enough of the world to know that it was not an unheard-of thing for a man to settle for a time in an out-of-the-way village. I knew enough of men to understand that he might consider it nobody's business why he cared to live among us. I had enough sense of humor to see that he might find amusement in enveloping himself in mystery and sparring with the sly sages of the store and tavern. By right I should have stood by and watched the little game; I should have encouraged Isaac Bolum and Henry Holmes to apply the interrogating probe; I should have warned Weston of the plotting at the store to lay bare the secret of his life; I should have brought the contending parties together and enjoyed the duello. Instead, I had to admit to myself a curiosity as to the stranger's identity that equalled, if it did not surpass, that of Theophilus Jones. His was curiosity pure and simple; mine was something more. Weston had come quietly into my own castle, had taken complete possession of it for a moment, and then calmly walked away with the fairest thing it held—and all so quietly and with an air that in a thousand years of practice, I or none other in the valley could have simulated. The picture was still sharp in my mind as I sat there smoking and drawing Tim out; for when I had vented my anger on my pipe that morning I had hurried to the gate to watch my departing visitors as they swung down the village street. Weston, lanky and erect, moved with a masterful stride, not unlike the lean and keen-witted setter that flashed to and fro over the road before him. At his side was the girl, a slender body in drab, tossing her hat gayly about at the end of its long string. They passed the store and the mill, and at the bend were lost to my view. They seemed to find themselves such good company! Even Tim, so fine and big, had in this homely, lanky man a rival well worth watching.
And who was the quiet, lanky man? Over and over I asked myself the question, and when I touched its every phase I found that Henry Holmes or Isaac Bolum, some one of the store worthies, had met defeat there before me. At last I gave up, and by a sudden thought arose and pulled on my overcoat, and got my hat. Tim was surprised.
"You are not going out?" he said.
"I think I'll stroll down to the tavern and see this stranger," I replied carelessly. "No, you needn't come. I can find my way alone all right, for the moon will be up and it's only a step."
It did seem to me that Tim might insist on bearing me company, knowing as he did that I was still a bit rickety; but he saw fit to take my one refusal as final, and muttered something about reading. Then, I left him.
It has been years since they have had a license at our tavern, so there was a solitary man in the bar-room when I entered. Elmer Spiker, mine host of the inn, was huddled close to the stove, and was reading by the light of a lamp. Pausing at the threshold before opening the door, the sonorous mumble sounding through the deal panels misled me. Believing the Spiker family at prayers, I stood reverently without until the service seemed to last too long to be one of devotion. Then I opened a crack and peeked in. Seeing a lone man at the distant end of the room, I entered. Elmer's back was toward me and my presence was unnoticed. His eyes were on the paper before him.
"W. J. Mandelberger, of Martins Mills, was among us last Friday," he read, slowly, distinctly, measuring every word. "He paid his subscription for the year and informed us that Mrs. Mandelberger had just presented him with a bouncing baby boy. Congratulations, W. J."
I coughed apologetically, but Elmer rattled the paper just then, and did not notice me.
He went rumbling on: "William Arker, of Popolomus, and Miss Myrtle McGee, of Turkey Valley, were united in the holy bonds of matrimony on the sixth ultimo."
"Elmer," I said sharply, thumping the floor with a crutch.
Spiker turned slowly.
"Oh," he exclaimed, "is that you? Excuse me; I was reading the news. Everybody ought to keep up with what's happenin'. The higher up we gits on the ladder of human intelligence, the more news we have—we can see furder."
Having evolved this sage remark, Elmer twisted back to his old position and raised the paper.
"Now mind this," he said. "Jonas Parker and his wife and four of his children were——"
"See here," I cried, pounding the floor again. "I don't care for Jonas Parker and all of his children. Where is Mr. Weston?"
"Oh," said Elmer, "excuse me. I thought you had come to see me. It's Weston, eh? Well, his room's just there at the head of the stairs."
He pointed to the door which gave an entrance to the rear hall, but as I wished to be a bit formal in my call on the stranger, I suggested that Mr. Spiker might oblige me by seeing if the gentleman was at home. This seemed entirely unnecessary to mine host, and he wanted to argue the point. But I insisted, and he arose with a sigh, and taking the lamp in his hand, disappeared, leaving me in utter darkness. The door banged shut behind him and I heard him at the foot of the stairs roaring "Ho-ho-there-ho!"
No answer came from the floor above. Again sounded the stentorian tones.
"Mark says as if you are there, you're to come down; he wants to see you."
A last "Ho-there-ho"; a long silence; the door opened. There was light again and Elmer was before me.
"He ain't there, I guess," he said. "Still, if you want me to make sure, I'll go up."
Inasmuch as mine host's cries must still be echoing in the uttermost parts of the house, it seemed needless to compel him to take the climb. Spiker agreed with me. It was not surprising that Weston was out, for he was an odd one, always spooking around somewhere, investigating everything, and asking questions. His room was full of books in various languages, and when he wasn't wandering about the valley, he would be sitting reading far into the night—sometimes as late as half-past ten. There was a fellow named Goth, who seemed to be Weston's favorite writer. This Goth was a Pennsylvania Dutchman, and as Elmer's own ancestors were from Allentown, he thought he'd like to take up the language, so he'd borrowed from his guest a book called "The Sorrows of Werther." Of all the rubbish that was ever wrote, them "Sorrows" were the poorest. Elmer had only figured out a page and a half, but that gave him enough insight into their character to convince him that a man who could set reading them till half-past ten was—here mine host tapped his forehead and winked. Curious chap, Weston. Elmer had seen a heap of men in his time and never met the like. There's no way to get to see men and understand them like keeping a hotel. When you've "kept" for about forty years, there's hardly a man comes along that you can't set right down in his particular class before he's even registered. But Weston had blocked him at every turn. Elmer knew no more of the man now than on the day he came. In fact, he was getting more and more tangled up about him all the time. For instance, why should one who could read Goth and understand the "Sorrows," want to set around the store and argue with such-like ignoramuses as Ike Bolum and Hen Holmes? Spiker was willing to bet that right now Weston was over the way trying to prove to them that two and two was four.
The suggestion seemed a likely one, so I interrupted the flow of Elmer's troubled thoughts to say good-night, and went out. I paused a moment on the porch. A lamp was blazing in the store and I could plainly see everyone gathered along the counter. Henry Holmes was standing with his back to the stove, one hand wagging up and down at the solemn line of figures on the bench. But Weston was not there. And in our valley, when a man is not at home o'night he should be at the store, else there is a mystery to be solved. To solve this one I stopped on the tavern steps, leaned against a pillar, and gazed through the dozing village.
At the head of the street where our house stood a bright light burned. There Tim was and there I should be also. A hundred times down South on my post at night, with my back on the rows and rows of white tents, I had sought to pierce the black gloom before me as if there I could see that same light—the home light. Often I fancied I saw it, and in its bright circle Tim was bending over his book. Here it was in truth, calling me, but I turned from it and looked away over the flats, where another light was winking on the hillside.
Behind that hill, on the eastward ridge, a great ball is glowing, fiery red. Higher and higher it rises, into the tree-tops, then over them; higher and higher, bathing the valley in soft, white light, uncovering the gray road that climbs the ridge-side; higher and higher, until the pines on the ridge-top stand out boldly, fringing into the sky; higher and higher, casting mysterious shadows over the meadows, touching with light the hillside, new-ploughed and naked; clear and white lies the road over the flats to the hill there—clear and white and smooth. On the hillside the light is burning. It is only a short half mile, and the way is easy. In the old house at the end of the street another light is blinking solemnly. Beneath it Tim is waiting. He misses me. He wonders why I am so long. Soon he will be coming. Base deserter, truly! But for once—this once—for the white road over the flat and up the hillside leads to the light!
"Why, Mark, but you did give me a start!" cried Luther Warden, laying down his book and hurrying forward to greet me.
It was not surprising that the good man should be taken back, for in all the years we had lived together in the valley this was my first evening visit. So unusual an occurrence required an explanation, so I said that I just happened to be taking a stroll and dropped in for a minute. I glanced at Mary to see if she understood my feeble subterfuge, but I met only a frank smile, as though, like her uncle, she believed that I was likely to go hobbling about on moonlight nights this way. Luther never doubted me.
"It's good of you to drop in," he said, after he had fixed me in his own comfortable chair and drawn up the settee for himself. "When I was livin' alone up here I often used to wish some of you young folks would come in of an evenin' and keep me company and join me in readin' the Good Book. It used to be lonely sometimes, but since I've got Mary it ain't so bad. But I hope her bein' here won't make no difference, and now as you've started you'll come just the same as if I was alone."
I assured him that I would come just the same. That made Mary laugh. She had been sitting in the lamp-lit circle, and now she rocked back into the shade, so, craning my neck, I could just see the dark outline of her face. She made some commonplace but kindly speech of welcome, and I was about to engage her, seeking to draw her from the shadow, when her uncle suddenly interposed himself between us and took a book from the table. Drawing the settee closer to the light, he opened the great volume across his knees and adjusted his spectacles. Throwing back his head and looking at me benignly from under his glasses, he said: "It's peculiarly fortunate you come to-night, Mark. When you knocked I was readin' aloud to Mary. We read together every night now, her and me, and most instructin' we find it."
I told Luther that it was too much for me to allow him to wear out his eyes reading to me; much as I should enjoy it, I could not hear of it, but I would ask him to let me have the volume when he had finished with it. It did seem that this should bring Mary into the light again, and that she would support my protests; but calmly and quietly she spoke from the darkness, like a voice from another world, "Go on, Uncle Luther; I want Mr. Hope to hear this."
Now had Mary Warden called me by my Christian name she would have followed the custom of our valley and it would have passed unnoticed; but when she used that uncalled-for "Mister" her uncle looked around sharply. First he tried to pierce the shadows and see her, but she drew farther and farther into the darkness. So he gazed at me. He was beginning to suspect that after all I had not come to see him. Had Mark Hope become proud? Was Mary falling again into the ways of the wicked world from which he was striving so hard to wean her, that she should thus address one of the humblest of God's creatures, a mere man? Old Luther rubbed his spectacles very carefully and slowly; blowing on them and rubbing them again; finally adjusting them, he leaned forward and tried to study the girl's face, to find there some solution of the puzzle.
"Read to Mr. Hope," she said clearly, and with just a touch of defiance.
Had she used some endearing term the old man could not have frowned harder than when he turned on me then, and eyed me through his great spectacles.
"Yes, read to us, Luther," said I calmly; "Miss Warden and I will listen."
"God has been very good to me," said the old man solemnly, "and I've not yet heard Him call me Mister Luther Warden. I s'pose with you and your kind, when He comes to you, He calls you Mister Mark Hope."
This rather took me back, and I stammered a feeble protest, but he did not heed me. Turning to Mary, he went on: "And you, Mary Warden, I s'pose at such times you are 'Miss.' What wanity! What wanity! Politeness, they calls it. Politeness? Well, in the great eternity, up above, where they speaks from the heart, you'll be just Mark and just Mary. But down yander—yander, mind ye—the folks will probably set more store by titles." The old preacher was pointing solemnly in the direction of the cellar.
There was a long pause, an interval of heavy silence. Then from Mary in the darkness came, "Well, Uncle, let us hope that when we reach that great eternity, Mark and I will be good enough friends to lay aside such vanities."
"Right!" cried Luther, smiling again, and speaking real heartily.
"Right," said I; "and we'll begin eternity to-day, won't we, Mary?"
"We will," said she.
And in my heart I blessed Luther Warden. Guilelessly, the old man, in a few words, had swept away the barrier Mary and I had raised between us. He had added years to our friendship. So had he stopped there it would have been wonderfully well; but he had to go floundering innocently on. He was laughing softly.
"Do you know, Mark," he said, rubbing his spectacles nervously, "she made me jealous of you when she talked that way. I thought she'd set her cap for you, I did. Whenever a man and woman gits polite, whenever they has to bow and scrape that way, a-misterin' and a-missin' one another, they're hiding somethin'; they ain't actin' open. So I was beginnin' to think mebbe she wanted to marry you and——"
"Go on reading—please read to us," pleaded Mary.
"Yes, do read to us," I echoed, for the position was a new one to me, and at best I am awkward and slow-witted where women are concerned. I could not adroitly turn the old man's wandering speculation into a general laugh as Weston would have done. My best was to break in rudely.
"Well—if I must," Luther said, opening the great book across his knees.
A long silence followed. I heard the solemn ticking of the clock on the mantel behind me; I heard Mary laughing softly in her retreat beyond the table; I heard Luther, now bending over his book, mumbling to himself a few words of the text.
"It is about the faymine in Injy," he said at last, holding his place on the page with a long, thin forefinger, and looking up at me. "There are three volumes, and this is the second. The third is yit to come. I pay a dollar a year and every year I gits a new volume. It's a grand book, too, Mark. It was wrote by one of our brethren, Brother Matthias Pennel, who went to Injy in charge of a shipload of grain gathered by our people for the sufferin' heathen. The first volume tells all about the gittin' up of the subscription and the sailin' of the wessel. Brother Matthias is a grand writer, and he tells all about Injy and the heathen, and how the wessel reached the main place there—what's the place, Mary?—you're allus good on geography!"
"Calcutta," prompted Mary.
"Yes, I mind now—Calcutty. Well, from there Brother Matthias went up into the country called—I can't just mind the exact name—oh, here it is—B-a-l-l-e-r-r-a-d Ballerrad—e-r-a-d—Ballerraderad."
Luther paused and sighed. "Them names—them names!" he exclaimed. "If there is one thing that convinces me that the story of the Tower of Babel is true, it is the names of the towns in Injy."
It seemed to me that perhaps from the viewpoint of the East Indian, the same thing might be said of our "villes" and "burgs," and I was about to raise my voice in behalf of the maligned heathen, when my host resumed his discourse.
"When you come in, I was readin' about a poor missionary woman in Baller—Baller—Ballerraderad—whose Sunday-school had been largely eat up by taggers. Her name was Flora Martin, Brother Matthias says, and she was one of the saintliest women he ever seen. He tells how the month before he come to Baller—Baller—Baller-daddad—an extry large tagger had been sneakin' around the mission-house, a-watchin' for scholars, and how one day, when, according to Brother Matthias, this here Flora Martin, armed only with a rifle and girded about with the heavenly sperrit—how this here Flora——"
There was a ponderous knock on the door, and then the knob began to rattle violently. The bolt had been shot, so Luther had to rise in haste to admit the new-comer, leaving Flora Martin with nothing but the rifle and the heavenly spirit.
Perry Thomas stepped in.
"I just happened to be passin' and thought I'd drop in for a spell," he said, with a profound bow to Mary, who arose to greet him.
This apology of Perry's was as absurd as mine had been, for he lived a mile on the other side of the village; and as the next house was over the ridge, a good three miles away, it was odd that he should be wandering aimlessly about thus. Besides, he had on his new Prince Albert, and there was a suspicion of a formal call in the smoothly oiled hair and tallowed boots. He carried his fiddle, too. There was to my mind every evidence that the visit had been preconceived, and to this point had been carried out with an eye on every detail. Had the contrary been true, there would have been no cause for Perry to glare at me as he did. The he-ro in blue was anything but welcome now. Indeed, it seemed that could Perry's wish have been complied with, I should be back on the "lead-strewn fields of Cuby."
Mary was most cordial. She seized his fiddle and his hat and stowed them carefully away together, while Luther, pushing the latest visitor to a place at his side on the settee, told him how fortunate he was to drop in just at that time, as he would hear a few interesting things about the famine in India.
Perry was positively ungrateful. He declared that he could only stay a minute at the most, and that it was really not worth Luther's while to begin reading. Mary said that she would not hear of him leaving. She had hidden his hat and would insist on his playing; that was, if I did not mind and her uncle gave his permission. Perry smiled. There was less fire in his eyes when I vowed that not till I had listened again to the song of his beloved violin would I stir from my chair. So he settled back to pay the price and hear the story of Flora Martin and the tiger.
Luther repeated his account of the book and the story of Brother Matthias Pennel. He told Perry of Sister Flora and her saintly character, and of the devastation by the fierce king of the Bengal jungle. He brought us again to where the frail little woman determined to fight death with death. And here, in low, rumbling tones, letter by letter, word by word, we took up the narrative of the adventurous Dunker brother.
"Thus armed with only a heavy elephant rifle, the property of the foreign missionary society, and clad only in grace, Flora Martin began her lonely vigil on the roof of the mission-house, which is used both as a dwelling and Sunday-school by those who are carrying light to the heathen in Ballerraderad, which, we must remember, is one of the most populous provinces in all Injy. This combined dwelling and church edifice stands at the far end of the little village, and as the lonely Indian moon was just rising above the horizon, Sister Flora heard a series of catlike footsteps along the veranda beneath her—for we must remember that in this part of our globe the nights are strangely still and the sounds therefore carry for a great distance. Breathlessly Flora Martin, mindful of the slumbering innocent charges sleeping below her, and over whom she was watching, leaned out over the roof, rifle in hand. The footsteps came nearer and nearer and——"
There was a gentle rat-tat-tat on the door. It was so gentle that Luther thought his ears were deceiving him, for while he stopped reading, he made no motion to rise, but sat listening. Again they came, three polite taps, seeming to say, "I should like to get in, but pray don't disturb yourself."
"Come in," shouted the old preacher, not even looking around, for he still seemed to doubt his sense of hearing.
The door opened quietly and Mr. Robert Weston appeared before us. Mary had slipped from her place to meet him, and in Weston's greeting to her I had my first lesson in what the world calls manner. How clumsy seemed my own excuses for coming at all, compared to his pleasure at finding her at home! He had been looking forward all afternoon to seeing her again. As he shook hands with Luther, he was so hearty that the old man took his guest by the shoulders and declared fervidly that he was rejoiced that he had come. Weston did not glare at Perry Thomas, nor at me either. We but added to his pleasure. Truly his cup of joy was overflowing! And the famine in India—indeed—indeed! The subject was one which interested him deeply, and if Mr. Warden cared for it, he would send him several books on the far East which he had in his library at home. He hoped that in return he might some time have the pleasure of reading carefully, cover to cover, the fat volume that Luther had spread across his knees. Meantime, he would insist on not interrupting. But Mary must be comfortably seated before he could take the place on the settee that Luther had arranged for him, and he must hear all over again the story of the book, of Brother Matthias Pennel and Sister Flora Martin. How I envied him! What must Perry and I seem beside this lanky man with his kindly, easy ways! Perry, of course, did not see it. He was smiling, for Weston was telling him that he had stood at the Thomas gate for a half hour the very evening before, listening to the strains of a violin. He hoped to hear that melody again, when Mr. Warden had finished the story of the brave missionary of Ballerraderad.
The Dunker preacher was beaming. He forgot the great doctrine of humility, and declared that "Mister" Weston should have the volume that very night. There was nothing better to give a clear view of the character of the work than Brother Matthias Pennel's account of the heroism of Sister Flora. So we composed ourselves again to hear of the battle to the death between the noble missionary woman and the mighty Bengal.
"Nearer and nearer came the footsteps," read Luther, pausing at each word to make sure of it. "Furder and furder out over the top of the mission-house leaned Sister Flora, and as she leaned she thought how much depended on her that night; for she must remember that there were sleeping within the walls of the mission-house forty-seven children, thirty of which were females under the age of eleven years, and seventeen males, of whom not one-half had reached the age of nine years. Next she saw a dark object crouching below her. She saw two fiery eyes; she saw the tiger gather himself preparatory to springing. She——"
Perry Thomas's knock had been ponderous, thunderous, and clumsy. Weston's had been self-assured, but polite. Now came a series of raps, now loud, now low, now quick, now slow, keeping time to a martial air. Evidently there was a rollicking fellow outside. No one moved. We sat there, all five of us, eyes wide open in surprise, trying to guess, who this could be playing tunes on the door, and never seeking to solve the simple problem by turning the knob.
It was Tim. There was a sudden oppressive silence. Then he entered, gravely bowing.
"Good evening, Mr. Warden," he said mockingly. "You have a delightful way here of greeting the stranger at your gate, closing your ears to his appeals and letting him break in. And Miss Warden too—why, this is a surprise. I had supposed you'd be at a ball. And Mr. Weston—delighted—I'm sure——"
"What, Mark?" There was genuine surprise in Tim's voice as he saw me sitting quietly in the shadow. His mock elegance disappeared, and he stood gaping at me. "I thought you'd gone to see Mr. Weston," he blurted out.
"He came to see me instead," said Mary laughing. "And so did Mr. Weston and Mr. Thomas, and so I hope you did. And if you sit down there by Uncle Luther and be quiet, you shall hear about the famine in India."
Tim just filled the settee. In my dark corner, in my comfortable chair, I could smile to myself as I watched his plight and that of his companions. I could not see Mary well, for the lamp and the long table separated us, but I fancied that in her retreat she, too, was laughing. Poor Tim had the end of the bench. He sat very erect, with his head up, his eyes on the wall before him, his folded hands resting on his knees, after the company manner of Black Log. Mr. Perry Thomas, at the other end, was his counterpart, only the orator drew his chin into his collar, furrowed his brow, and gazed wisely at the floor. He was where Mary could see him!
Weston had none of our stiff, formal ways, but was making himself as much at home as possible in such trying circumstances. He spread out all over the narrow space allotted him between Luther and my brother. But curiously enough, he really seemed interested. It was he who told, in greatest detail, to Tim the story of Brother Matthias Pennel and of the trials of the saintly Flora Martin. When he had recounted her adventures to the very instant she caught the gleam of the tiger's eyes, he calmly swung one lank leg over the knee of the other, slid down in his seat so he could hook his head on the hard back, and said, cheerily, "Now, Mr. Warden, go on reading and let no one interrupt."
Perry was coughing feebly, as he always does when he is plotting to speak.
"No, no," cried Weston in protest; "I insist, Mr. Thomas, that you stay and play the violin to us when we have heard the end of this interesting story."
It was with mingled feelings that I regarded Brother Matthias Pennel. As I had stood on the tavern porch that night, looking up the white road that led to Mary's home, I had dared to picture to myself a different scene from the one before me. From that scene Luther Warden had been removed entirely. Of Robert Weston, of Perry Thomas, of Tim, I had taken no account. They had not even been dreamed of, for Mary and I were to sit alone in the quiet of the evening. The flash of her eyes was to be for me—for me their softer glowing. At my calling the rich flames would blaze on her cheeks. I was to light those flames. I was to fan them this way and that way. I was to smother them, kindle them, quench them. Playing with the fire of a woman's face! Dangerous work, that! And up the white road I had hobbled to the fire, as a simple child crawls to it. But Luther Warden was there to guard me with Brother Matthias Pennel, and in my inmost heart I hated them both for it. Then Perry Thomas blundered in, and compared to him, old Luther and his learned brother were endurable. As to Robert Weston, I knew that beside him Matthias Pennel was my dearest friend. Then Tim came! and as I looked at the long settee where Luther was droning on and on through the story of Sister Flora, where Perry Thomas seemed to sit beneath the judgment seat, where Weston shifted wearily to and fro, where Tim was suffering the tortures of the thumb-screw, I cried to my inmost self, "Verily, Brother Matthias, thou art a mighty joker!"