IT was late in August, and up in the mountains the evenings had already begun to grow cool. Helen Franklin stood on the stile, at the end of the long gravel walk, in front of the house, the slant rays of the setting sun falling directly on her, and bringing out more distinctly the bright expectation expressed in her attitude and countenance. She was a tall, vigorous girl, rather compactly than slightly made, with large gray eyes, curling light-brown hair, and a soft, smooth, sallow complexion. Her face in repose, with its irregular features and neutrality of tint, would not be called handsome ; but certainly she is very attractive to look upon as she stands waiting, her figure bathed in a flood of rosy light, her lips parted in a smile.
The approaching vehicle was an unpretentious looking affair enough, — a small covered wagon, drawn by one
horse; the driver a broad-shouldered, thick-set man, his fresh complexion a good deal tanned, his dark hair slightly mixed with gray where it was tufted at the temples, and pleasant blue eyes,— a physiognomy decidedly not remarkable ; his dress was that of a country laborer, his age forty or thereabouts.
He touched his straw hat respectfully, as he drew up in front of the stile. “Good evening,” she responded. “You see I expected you, Mr. Lafferty.”
“ Yes, and I’ve a lot of letters for you to-day, Miss Helen ; more than common, I think.”
She took the packet eagerly, saying, “ You are so kind that we have come to look for you every evening, just as if we had a right to your services. It is certainly very nice to get our mail so promptly, but I am afraid sometimes you inconvenience yourself about it.” “ Oh, no, miss,” earnestly, a little Hibernianism creeping into his speech as his manner became more interested; “it’s meself that’s glad to be of use to ye.”
“You are very kind,” she repeated, a little mechanically, as she looked over the addresses of her letters. Then she said, raising her head, “ I don’t think we shall be quite so troublesome in the future, Mr. Lafferty. Some of our friends are coming on soon to make us a long visit, so of course they won’t write us letters, and you won’t have to bring them.”
The man’s sunburnt face changed a little. “Ye’re to have company from the city then, Miss Helen,” he observed after a slight pause, during which Helen had selected two of the letters, holding them in her hand, while she placed the others on the tall fence-post beside her. “ Well,” he continued, “ I’ve often thought it must be lonesome for you off here in the country, up in th’ mount’ns.” Another pause; then hesitantly, as if conscious of taking a liberty, “ You say ye look for your friends soon, miss.”
“ Y-e-s, very soon,” she replied absently, the sense of the question finding its way slowly to her preoccupied attention. “ The 19th,” she said in a low tone, talking to herself. “ Why, that’s nearly three weeks off! Let’s see,” counting on her fingers, “ 27th, and seven — makes the 3d — 10th — 17th, a-n-d two — three weeks and two days.” Then she smiled, looking toward the mountains.
The man ventured no more remarks, nor did be offer to go. He sat perfectly still and patient, looking at her, as she stood before him.
Her sister’s voice, speaking from the house, roused her: “ Helen, Helen ! what are you thinking of? Do you know you are keeping Mr. Lafferty waiting ? Have you any business with him ? ”
The girl started, blushing slightly as she met his steady gaze.
“ You must excuse me, Mr. Lafferty,” she said, laughing a little. “I did not mean to detain you. It was very thoughtless in me, but I entirely forgot you were waiting. Why did n’t you remind me ? Would you like to see Mrs. Richardson about anything ? Shall I call her ? ”
“It didn’t make any difference at all, Miss Helen ; I did n’t mind waitin’. No, miss, I don’t want to see Mrs. Richardson this afternoon. I waited to ask if ye wanted me to take inything back to Woodberry for ye.”
“ Oh, you make me ashamed of myself for being so thoughtless. No, thank you. I’ve nothing to send to the office just now. How are your pretty calves ? ” she continued. “ Is my namesake as charming as ever ? I think Alderney calves are just the very prettiest creatures ! ”
“ They ’re well, miss, and the dun heifer’s handsomer than ever. She ’s obliged to flourish ; I take care of her meself. You must come to see her, the next time ye drive to Woodberry, Miss Helen.”
“ Yes, indeed I will.”
She began gathering some of the roses and honeysuckle which grew within her reach.
“ Do you care for flowers, Mr. Lafferty ? ” she said kindly, to make amends for her late inattention. “ Would you like to have these?” giving them. “I think these old-fashioned flowers are sweeter than most of the garden plants which we cultivate so carefully.”
He placed them beside him on the wagon-seat, lest they should wither in his hand, saying, “Thank ye kindly, miss ; ” then with the natural gallantry of his race he added, “I shall think more than common of these here flowers for the sake of the lady that give them to me. Good evenin’, Miss Helen,” gathering the reins and turning to go.
“ Good evening,” she replied, nodding pleasantly. “ You compel me to be obliged to you all the time, Mr. Lafferty.”
He seemed about to speak again, but Helen evidently thought the interview at an end. She had seated herself, and was smiling encouragingly to her twoyear-old nephew, who was toddling from the house toward her. So he merely made an inarticulate sound, ending in a quick catching of the breath, like the beginning of a sigh, and drove off down the road toward the farm-gate. Through this gate one passed immediately into the woods, the road winding through the forest in a circuitous course, the ground beginning at the woodland to rise steadily toward the Blue Ridge, some seven miles away.
The man drove on briskly until he entered the forest. He then halted, and, alighting, climbed a bowlder and looked back between the trees, toward the house. There was still light enough for him to see distinctly. Helen was sitting on the stile, her figure in its light summer dress and red shawl relieved against the dark brown house ; her head was bent over something in her hand ; she was reading. He stood watching her for some time, until she rose and walked into the house ; he then mounted his wagon, and drove off into the lonely, darkening wood.
Joseph Lafferty was an Irishman, who having served faithfully in one of the Louisiana regiments during the war had, after Lee’s surrender, settled in the Luray valley, where he resumed his occupation as a butcher.
By thrift he had come to be quite a successful operator in buying and selling cattle. Latterly he had made this his principal business, although he still supplied a few families in the neighborhood. He was a quiet, peaceable man, good-hearted, and well liked by his neighbors. His speech was an odd compromise between the West Virginia vernacular and the Irish brogue, — unless, indeed, when under the influence of strong feeling ; then he relapsed into his native dialect. But this occurred very seldom, because, as I said before, he was naturally a quiet fellow, possessing apparently an even, un-Hibernian temper. “ A good citizen ” (I quote the village politicians), “ not saying much, but always voting for the right man.” His religious opinions, moreover, held him aloof from the neighbors of his class. He was a strict Roman Catholic, perhaps the only one in the county. So the frequent “ all-day meetings,” revivals, etc., held in the neighborhood and esteemed the most approved form of dissipation in that locality, were of course tabooed him. He was not illiterate, although he had received little school education. A prominent lawyer, calling one day to see him on business, was surprised to find him reading Motley’s Dutch Republic. “ Why, Lafferty,” he said, “ I did not know that the study of history was exactly in your line.”
“ Well, sir,” replied the butcher, “ a man livin’ to himself has to read something for company, and I think he may as well learn a little from his readin’, while he’s about it.” He used to go to Mr. Richardson’s three times a week, to supply the family with meat. There, a few months before, he had seen Helen Franklin, who had come from her city home to spend the summer with her sister. She was a frank, unaffected woman, noble and true to her heart’s core, and moreover was so full of energy and vitality that it was not long before the whole neighborhood came to know and admire her. She was an almost indefatigable walker, and Lafferty was constantly encountering her, as he made his daily expeditions up and down the road. She would generally say a few pleasant words to him in passing, and once, happening to meet him near the house, she asked him to take a letter to the village post-office for her, remarking as she did so that “ Tom ” (the negro lad usually dispatched on such errands) “ was so slow he was often too late for the mail.” After that, Lafferty called every day to learn if he could be of service. He lived in the village, and his business, he said, brought him constantly in the vicinity of the Richardson place ; besides, the poor fellow would have walked four times the distance for the sale of Helen’s gracious thanks and smile. For she was engaged to be married, and, being very much in love, she was disposed to treat the bringer of her love-letters very kindly. Lafferty did not realize the nature or extent of his feeling for Helen. Men of his stamp, with healthy bodies, constant occupation, and sound, wellbalanced minds, even when they belong to a higher and more cultivated-class, are not much given to mental analysis where there is nothing to suggest it. And Helen Franklin had so little selfconsciousness in her composition that she never once suspected the fact of his devotion, — a fact which would have discovered itself to a vainer, more susceptibly organized woman, as she would have felt a change in the atmosphere.
Sometimes she experienced a little annoyance at the continued feeling of obligation to Lafferty, and one day after he had brought the mail she spoke to her sister about it.
“ He is so polite about my letters I begin to feel badly about letting him fetch them all the time ; I would like to make some return. What do you think about it ? I have hesitated about offering him money, because he seems such a well-informed man, with such delicate impulses, that somehow I did n’t like to. Why, do you know, Ada, the other day, when I was standing on the stile with a letter in my hand which he had just brought me, I dropped it, — the letter, I mean ; the seal was broken, and it tumbled out, and the wind blew it off into the road. There was a photograph of himself, which Philip had sent me. Of course that fell out too, face up. Well, Lafferty jumped from his wagon, gathered the sheets and the carte together, and handed them to me without once glancing at them; it was done like a gentleman.”
“Well, he is a gentleman, at heart,” remarked her brother-in-law, whom they had supposed absorbed in the newspaper. “ All his impulses are those of a gentleman. I tell you Joe Lafferty is a mighty good fellow ; a brave soldier he was too. He ’ll never flash in the pan. I wish there were more like him in the country. No, Nell, don’t offer him money ; it gives him pleasure to oblige you.”
“ But it is not pleasant to have to be always the obliged party,” she persisted.
“ Well, then, if you like, you can make him some little present; but don’t offer him money, it wouldn’t do at all.”
In the mean time the first two weeks of September went by ; the morning of the 18th was an uncompromising rainy day. Indeed, it had been raining for thirty hours or more. The clouds drifted persistently one way; driven before a strong southeast wind, they all sailed one after another toward the west, their dark-gray fringed borders raveling off, as they passed, into long, slanting lines of rain. The tops of the mountains had been invisible for three days. Lower down, their great sides were encircled by pale, irregular belts of mist, which in effect divided them into two broad green strips, giving a curious appearance to the horizon. Mr. Richardson was out in the barn with the farm hands around him. They sat grouped for the most part near the open door, regarding in desultory fashion the aspect of that autumn morning. It presented nothing new : in the distance, drenched fields, the gray-brown wheat-stubble showing scantily above the abundant green growth, and all dimly seen through the driving mist; nearer, the storm-swayed trees in the orchard, stretching their branchy limbs westward; in the foreground, a flock of ducks, jubilant at the state of affairs, dipping their bills in the muddy pools with a rippling noise expressive of great contentment.
“Well,” said the master at length, his long-drawn breath and rising inflection plainly accepting the inevitable, “ we shan’t be able to go on with the plowing to-day, that’s certain. So you may as well get to the threshing, Henry,” turning to a raw-boned, wiry mountaineer.
The man addressed took a bite at a head of wheat which he held in his hand. “ Thet’s so, squawr,” ho affirmed in a hoarse falsetto, chewing the grain slowly. “ Don’t show much sign er clarin’ up, certin.” He rose deliberately, shook and brushed himself free from the straw, and walked to the door. “No, sir,” surveying the heavens, “no sign er clarin’ up ter-day. An’ t’ river soun’s l-i-i-ke sh’ is putty tollerbul high now. Thar’s one man don’t ’pear ter min’ rain, though, fur yere comes Joe Rafferty in hit all.” Wheels could be heard outside, crunching the wet, pebbly soil.
Mr. Richardson advanced to the door. Rafferty was seated under the doubtful shelter of a very dilapidated umbrella, his feet crowded into an uncomfortable position to avoid contact with the contents of the cart, which were carefully covered with some impervious cloth. “ I brought your beef, squire,” he said, after the usual greetings were exchanged, “ but indeed it was as much as I could do to get here. I thought at one time I should n’t be able to cross at all.”
“ What’s the matter ? river up ? ”
“ Indeed yes. Th’ ford was no ford at all. I tried it in th’ wagon, but found it would n’t do, so I ’d to go back for th’ cairt; then I’d haird work to cross in th’ ferry boat.”
Mr. Richardson looked uneasy. “ I’ve known that little Shenandoah to do ugly tricks in its day. Three times I’ve had a whole crop of corn destroyed by a freshet, and they say I’ve the finest to be seen for fifty miles around this fall. ’T would be right rough to have to lose it now. Jim, go down into the meadow, and see if there is any chance of a freshet.”
The dwelling-house and out-houses, dairy, meat-house, and barn, and the kitchen, which in the South is always apart from the dwelling, were built on a considerable eminence which in front sloped gently toward the mountains ; but in the rear, the ground fell away as abruptly as if it had been sliced off with a gigantic knife. The kitchen, directly back of the house, stood on the very verge of a rocky declivity which descended sharp and sheer to the meadow lands below. From the back window of the little building one looked beneath on fertile fields of arable land which bordered the Shenandoah for many a mile. The opposite shore was precipitous. Cross the river just back of the Richardson place, clamber up the steep bank, and you find yourself at the foot of a mountain, — the tall Massaruttin. The barn stood at some little distance to the right of the dwelling-house. Here the descent from the plateau was much more gradual; the winding path which conducted the pedestrian to the cornfields below was now being threaded by the hoy sent to reconnoitre. Rafferty had in the mean time entered the barn.
The squire resumed : “ The river must have risen very suddenly. We have a visitor at the house, a gentleman who arrived last evening from the West. lie forded in my carriage ; said the river was somewhat swollen, but nothing like a freshet.”
“ Well, Shanadó, she do rise quick w’en sh’ gits started,” observed an old man in a high, husky quaver. “ But we don’t hev no river risin’s nowadays ter what we us’ter, — not nigh so. W’y, I kin ’member w’en I wuz’ er boy, t’ whole medder thar wuz kivered. Thet wuz ’fore you wuz born, squawr, an’ your father owned more ’u two thousan’ acres er lan’ in this yere county, an’ we los’ a mons’ous big crap er corn by hit. I ’member us chillun wuz all fas’ sleep, an’ mammy come an’ wuk us up ter come see. We run out on t’ hill whar t’ kitchen his now, an’ by t’ time we got thar, yere come ole Jim Bloss’s house a-floatin’ down t’ river; we could yere t’ folks a-hollerin’ inside, ’fore it jam up agin er rock an’ bust ter pieces. Thet wuz er river risin’ wuth talkin’ ’bout. I ’member hit well.”
“What become of th’people?” asked Lafferty.
“ Drownded, all but one. T’ ole man fell hup ’gin a tree an’ he hung thar fur two days tell t’ river come outen t’ kinks an’ t’ fotched ’im down. Them what seed him sed he wuz t’ hongriest man they ever see; ’peared like he could n’t never git ’nuff t’ eat.”
“ I heered tell on thet time,” put in one of the men. “ My daddy seen hit all.”
“ ’T wuz er big river risin’, shore,” repeated the other.
The hush which fell on the party was presently broken by a burst of gay feminine laughter, light and sweet. In the doorway from whence it proceeded were seen the head and shoulders of a man, standing with his back to the spectators and apparently assisting some one to climb the ladder. A moment more and the bright face of Helen Franklin appeared. She alighted on the floor with a spring, anticipating her companion’s outstretched hand. Then she laughed afresh at something which she saw in his face, as he turned, and they came forward together.
“ Where did you come from, Nell ? ” asked her brother-in-law.
“ From the house, to be sure,” she replied, throwing off her water-proof. “ We got tired indoors. So I proposed we should pay you a visit. Are n’t you glad to see me ? ”
“ Very glad, mademoiselle; but did n’t you get your feet soaking? ”
“ A little, but I don’t mind. It’s not the first time, and it was n’t your fault either,” turning to her companion. “ So you need n’t look so mournful.”
She glanced around, and spied Lafferty, who had shrunk back intuitively at her approach.
“ How do you do, Mr. Lafferty ?” said she, advancing toward him, and extending her hand. In her happiness she felt like being very friendly with everybody. “ This is Mr. Lafferty, who has been so kind to me. You know I told you about him to-day.”
The stranger came forward.
“ My cousin, Mr. Spalding, from Cincinnati,” explained Helen.
“Miss Franklin tells me she is under a good deal of obligation to you,” said the other, courteously acknowledging the introduction. He was a tall, personable man, well dressed and unaffected. Lafferty acknowledged these qualities to himself as he tried to reply. His answer was short and confused. He began to feel the sharp nascent pang of miserable self-consciousness as he stood twisting his hat in his hand, while Helen talked on, trying to broach subjects which would interest him and draw him out. At last she said, “ You remember, Mr. Lafferty, I told you some time ago I expected friends about this time. Or perhaps you’ve forgotten it. This gentleman is one of them.”
“ No, miss. I mane I did n’t forget. I remimber very well.”
Mr. Richardson here relieved this embarrassed interview. The messenger had arrived from the river-bank, reporting favorably on the condition of affairs there, and in the conference held between him, his master, and Mr. Spalding, Lafferty moved quietly to the door. Mr. Richardson, while talking over the crops, had occasion to refer to him, and glancing around in search of him discovered his absence. When he walked to the door he found the man seated in his cart, about to start.
“ I must get to me work,” he said in explanation, “ I’ve some orders to fill up th’ road a piece, and it’s past ten now.”
“ Well, you must come back here and spend the night. You ’ll never be able to cross the river this evening. Henry’s wife can give you a room in their cabin. And oh, Lafferty, now while I think of it, can you furnish me with some firstclass beef and mutton in about six weeks’ time ? Something very fine ? We are to have a good deal of company then, and” — he hesitated ; then he said, smiling, “ I may as well tell you that Miss Helen is to be married to the gentleman you saw just now, and I want to give her an old-fashioned Virginia wedding. Mr. Spalding’s friends are coming from the West, to stay three or four days before the ceremony, and I ’d like to show them how we get up such things in this part of the world. Why, man,” laughing, “ you look as astonished as if it were not a thing to be expected. However, I suppose it is news to you, although they’ve been engaged for a year or more. He has been away in England on business, this summer, or he would have been here before. But about those supplies. Can you furnish me ? I ’d rather get them here than have to send all the way to Baltimore for them.”
“Yes,'Sir, I think I can. What time will you need them ? ”
“Let’s see; this is the 18th. They will be married about the last of October. So you will have plenty of time to look about you. You ’ll not fail me, then ? ”
“ No, sir, I ’ll not fail.”
Lafferty felt sick and faint as he resolutely faced the storm. He was glad to he alone. His first sensation was of bewilderment, — he had received a hard blow, a shock; he was stunned and confused. Something had happened. What ? All the dimly-defined impressions which had been troubling him for two weeks past seemed to gather into an aggregation which still took no distinct shape, nor could he find a name in all his consciousness for this revelation of a feeling which was yet somehow strangely familiar, — as if all the years he had lived had tended to this, and to nothing else.
The years he had lived ! They passed before him in quick review. He was only forty. He might live to be twice as old. . . . How long had it been since he parted from Richardson ? An hour ? No longer ? How many hours in forty years ? He began mechanically to calculate, then stopped, confused. How could he ever wear out all that time!
This flood of fancies surged through his mind all day, as he distributed the contents of his cart from place to place. Now, the occupation held a suggestion that was loathsome. He wondered what was his occupation—the man he had seen with her. As he thought bitterly of the other’s white hands and well tailored person, his Celtic blood at last asserted itself, flushing his cheeks purple and tightening his fingers upon what they grasped, while he despised himself at the same time for his miserable jealousy! These latter thoughts predominated toward evening, when the storm redoubled in violence. The clouds no longer took visible shape, — they settled into leaden uniformity, and the rain descended from the misty blank like a cataract. Pie noted this in a dull sort of fashion, as lie plodded on in the twilight, drenched to the skin, taking a sort of savage delight in his physical discomfort, while at the same time the sense of it entered largely into the protest against everything which possessed him.
As he neared the house, a vision of mockery rose before him, — the tasteful interior, Helen’s graceful dress, the warmth and comfort and happiness there. What had he done that his lot should differ so from that of the man in there! He was driving past the stile when a sound from within arrested his attention ; he drew up to listen. Above the roar of the elements swelled the clear vibrant tones of a fresh soprano voice, thrilling through the air in well-defined melody. He waited until the song ceased. The form of the singer which his fancy conjured up accentuated the immeasurable distance between them.
“ Holy Mother ! ” he muttered, half aloud, as he passed his hand over his forehead. What’s come over me, th’ loikes uv me to be thinkin’ uv her at all, and her the swatest craychure God ever made ! I ’ve been ready to kill ’um tonight, and her singin’ loike an angel. Th’ saints pairdin me.” He listened for her voice again, but all was still. “ God bless her ! ” and he passed on.
An hour afterward Mrs. Richardson entered the parlor. “ What a singular noise the rain makes,” she exclaimed. “ Don’t you hear it ? I’ve been trying to read, but the continued sound made me so nervous I thought I’d come in here.”
“ Where is James ? ”
“ Fast asleep ; he rises so early, you know. But just listen.”
There was a subtle change in the atmosphere ; the air had grown cooler. Philip Spalding raised the window facing the west. A strong gust poured in. “ The wind has shifted,” he said, “ and,” looking upward, “ it is clear; see, the stars are out.”
It was true ; half heaven was studded with stars ; the fugitive clouds skurried panic-stricken eastward before the west wind. Above its shrill whistle could be heard a hoarse continuous roar. They looked in each other’s faces, the same thought occurring to all. Just then the door burst open ; it was the German gardener; he made a significant backward gesture : “ Der wasser eet iss almost to de house ; coom, madame, loo-ok, oh, coom right avay.”
“ I ’ll call James; go and see, you two,” to the young people.
They hurried out the back door toward the kitchen, outside of which they found assembled a motley crowd, blacks and whites, most of them farm laborers and their wives.
All eyes were directed below, toward what had been the meadow, now an angry torrent. By the starlight they could discern dark floating objects, hurrying down the waters in quick succession. The only response to their eager questions was tearful ejaculations, gaping stupidity, or utter bewilderment. Agitated whispers of dire import, began to be circulated, and to these they listened. “ Hit may git hup yere.” “ Hit could n’t git hup t’ hill.” “ Danno ’bout thet; whar’s t’ trees on t’ river sho’ ? Look thar, putty nigh kivered.” They pushed their way to the front. “ Where are the trees ? ” asked Helen.
“ Thar’s what’s left on ’em,” replied a man pointing across the flood to a dark rippling fringe, beyond which raved a madder stream.
“ Gregg’s mill’s bound ter go.” This sentence drifted back through the crowd like a receding wave, and then with gathered force swept forward again. “ Gregg’s mill ? Some ’un seen hit go by ! ” “ Hit’s a lie ; ’t ain’t light ’nuff fur ter see.”
Helen broke from her lover and caught the arm of the last speaker; he carried a lantern.
“ Tell me ! ” she cried ; then as he turned, and she recognized him, “ Henry, did any of you see anything like a house go by ? ”
“ Some on um says so,” began he,— “ but I cain’t ” —
“ Henry Cubbidge,” interposed an angry voice from the darkness, “ ye’d better kape yer mouth shut, uv yer can’t spake the thruth. Miss Helen, ye’d best come into the kitchen, miss, from the crowd ; ye ’ll find the squire there, and your sister too.”
Standing around the kitchen fire, they received a coherent account of the flood from the Irishman. After he put his horse away he had not felt like eating supper. “ I’d a bit of a headache, an’ I thought a little fresh air might do me good,” he said. The rain was over; the wind had already shifted. He walked along by the barn. He could see the corn in the meadow waving in the wind, and the swollen river beyond. The inundation had been very sudden. As he stood looking below, all at once there was a mighty rushing sound. The water rose like a wall against the opposite cliff, then fell in the recoil with a noise like thunder, and the fields were covered in a moment. “ I know,” said Mr. Richardson, “ the narrow gorge just above is at right angles with the opposite shore. Of course the water could make no headway rising against a mountain. So it spread over my meadow.”
“ Yes, sir, that ’s it. I knew when I saw it Gregg’s mill was bound to go, but though I watched for it, nothin’ like it went by that I could make out.”
“ It may have been dashed to pieces.”
“ Yes, ma’am, it may be so, but it’s hairdly loikely such a big thing should be broken to pieces in such a short time.”
“No,” said the squire. “It’s not likely, and until we hear it’s gone we must hope for the best.”
This hope was speedily dashed to the ground, as a wild-eyed mountaineer entered, gasping, —
“ Hit’s gone! both on ’em’s gone ! ”
“ How do you know ? ”
“ I jist come from thar ; hed ter run fur hit. Jim Gregg’s house is bust ter pieces, clean gone; thar’s nuthin but water thar now. You can yere hit rippin’ an’ tarin’ fur half a mile. O Lord ! ” shivering, “ I might er gone too. Yer see,” he said, more composedly, “ I wuz stoppin’ ter Jim Gregg’s all night. I jist stepped out fur a minnit t’ see arter my horse, an’ w’en I come from t’ stable t’ house wuz goue.”
“ Mrs. Gregg, and the little baby ? ” asked Helen.
“ Gone down, all on ’em.”
She stared at him in horror, then burst into tears.
“ Come, Nellie, don’t give way,” said her brother. “ We want all our courage now. You go into the house with your sister ; there’s no use in your sitting up all night. We may find those poor souls in the morning, and we will need your help then. We will let you know if anything happens. Take them in, Spalding.” And so by dint of alternate coaxing and exercise of authority he managed to induce them to return to the house, and the night wore away somehow. Fires were built on the hill; but nothing human had been discerned among the floating masses in the meadow.
With the day came later tidings. A lot of plank, uprooted trees, and other débris had accumulated in the tree-tops which skirted the original river-bank. Lodged on this drift were three or four people. Through the field-glass their faces could be plainly distinguished. Gregg, the mill-owner, his brother, and an old man with a white beard,—his father. There was besides a still, prostrate form, evidently a woman. Was she alive ? As a glittering segment of the sun appeared above the hills, the woman moved, and then rose. She held something in her arms, something which she presently extended far forward. At that instant a child’s shrill scream came cutting through the morning air.
“ My God ! ” said James Richardson, looking through the glass again. “ It’s Mrs. Gregg aud the child ! ” A pause, and then he turned abruptly. “ Is there a boat on the place ? ”
After a moment’s silence, Henry Cubbidge said deprecatingly, “ Thar’s t’ ole boat in t’ loft; but she’s got ’er big hole in t’ bottom.”
“ Get her down right away, and let me see what can be done with her. All hands to work. I am going out to those people by noon.”
“ Let me go, Richardson,” said Spalding. “ I ’m — I ’m not married. I ’ve no family.”
“ No ; I understand the river better. There ’s less danger for me. If I tire after a trip or two, you can take my place. Come, men, I’m in earnest; don’t stand gaping, like a lot of fools. To the barn with you, — every last man of you.”
The sound of hammering was soon heard from the barn, the ladies busying themselves with provisions for the comfort of the workers. James Richardson and Philip Spalding alone rested. They were reserving their strength, each mentally resolving that he was the better man for the hazardous undertaking. Joe Lafferty stood apart near the house, looking out toward the drift, a short, halffilled pipe between his teeth; in his hand a piece of twine, which he twisted into knots, tying and untying them. If any one had taken the trouble to observe, he would have seen that the pipe had gone out. long ago. What was he thinking of ? In the bustle of preparation every one was too busy to notice his preoccupation. None could guess what a battle of emotions was being fought in his mind, the evil warring with the good. Tempting suggestions, mocking possibilities, they assaulted his better nature again and yet again. Spalding knew very little about managing a boat; he had said as much ; if he was to make the attempt and go down, what then ? What then ? The bitter thoughts of yesterday, which last night had “ gone out ” of him, now returned in seven-fold strength.
By twelve o’clock the boat was ready and borne to the water’s edge. An altercation then ensued between Richardson and Spalding, each asserting that he intended to go. In the midst of the discussion Lafferty, came forward; he had thrown aside his coat, and wore now a knitted cardigan jacket. “ Gintlemen,” he said quietly, “ I’m th’ mon to take this trip, an’ it’s takin’ it I’m goin’ to do. I was brought up on th’ water, and I know as much about a boat as iny one. I reckon I can make ut safe an’ sound, — and if I should n’t — well, I ’m a lone mon — th’ ould people are gone long ago — and I’ve none depindin’ on me.”
The others began to protest.
“No. I’m goin’,” he replied resolutely. “ I’ve made up me moind, and it’s no use tryin’ to kape me.”
“ It’s a dangerous business, Lafferty.”
“ Yes, squire, I know ut very well, but it must be clear to you, sir, that if there’s danger I ’m th’ best mon to go, and it ’s goin’ I am.” lie spoke with a decision which overbore remonstrance. “ There’s no time to lose ; I’d best be stairtin’,”
“ Are you ready ? ”
“ Yes, sir, all ready.”
He stepped into the boat, which half a dozen men were steadying.
“Do you want anything more?” asked Richardson.
“No, sir, there’s food, brandy, and blankets.”
“All right, then. Good-by, good luck to you. Give her a good shove out, boys.”
He began his work slowly and carefully. The current was so rapid that the boat constantly drifted downward. This he had to tight against all the time, as well as to avoid collision with the floating masses of timber, constantly impelled down the stream. It was awful to think how much depended on that little rocking skiff ! The poor creatures on the drift, the crowd on the shore, how they watched it as it crept on in its errand of mercy ! Sometimes the current sweeps it downward for ten yards or more. Slowly it nears the drift; it touches some distance below, then begins a vigorous propelling up stream until it reaches the waiting group. Lafferty throws the rope fastened to the chain, the men seize it, and make fast the boat; he then disembarks and waits for half an hour, “ to rest,” explains Mr. Richardson, looking through the glass. After a while there is a stir on the drift; the men between them place the woman and child on board. Lafferty follows, and the homeward journey begins. Long before they can hope to reach the shore, an eager crowd is assembled at the landing-place to welcome and assist them. Even more slowly than before, for it carries double weight, the boat gradually approaches the shore, and the poor half-sodden woman and her little one are brought safe to land.
She, poor soul, is concerned for her husband. “ He don’t git on tell t’ las’,” she explains, as they bear her into the house. “ Bob is so delikit, Jim is ’fraid fur him ter stay out thar long, an’ daddy ’s ole an’ weak ; they ’ll leave Jim tell t’ las’.”
The men carried Lafferty on their shoulders to the barn, where he waited awhile. It took nearly two hours to make the trip, short as was the distance. It is just two o’clock when he embarks again. This time he understands his peculiar difficulties better, and the younger Gregg is landed at a little after three.
Another and a longer rest; nor does Lafferty disdain to take a good pull at the brandy bottle, for the strain is beginning to tell on him. Another successful battle with the waters, and at six there remains but one man to be rescued ; but the sun is just dipping behind the mountains.
“ Don’t try it again to-night, Lafferty,” urged the squire. “ Jim Gregg is a strong, healthy fellow ; he can manage to stay there until to-morrow; by that time the river ’ll begin to fall some and there ’ll be less danger.”
“ No, sir, there ’ll be more; when the river starts to fall, I take it, she ’ll come down pretty quick. The only chance is from a boat, an’ by this toime to-morrer there may n’t be water enough to float one; he won’t be able to cross th’ meader through th’ mud and water for a week, and by that toime he ’d stairve. I ’ll go out to ’um with food and blankets,—he’s got brandy a plenty, — and we ’ll pass th’ night on th’ drift, and cross fust thing in th’ mornin’.”
There was the usual amount of objection and deliberation. Philip Spalding again offered, and insisted on taking Lafferty’s place ; but the latter adhered doggedly to his resolution, and the time was too valuable to be spent in argument.
There was a great deal of peril involved. The rough, jagged edges of the drift, with the rapidity of the current, made a dangerous combination in broad daylight. Twilight was closing in. If in the darkness the boat should strike against a protruding object, she would almost inevitably capsize and be swept down. Every one felt that a man was about to take his life in his own hands, although very few words were spoken. Some of the farm hands, indeed, talked apart, in whispers. Richardson and Spalding busied themselves about the boat while Lafferty sat in the kitchen, writing with a pencil in a small memorandum book. Presently everything was ready and he was summoned; he came at once. They all gathered together to see him start.
“ You will have just about time to get there before dark,” said the squire. “ Try and make yourself comfortable ; and, Lafferty, I’ve put some matches and light-wood in this box. As soon as you get there, strike a light to let us know you ’re all right. You ’d better make a little blaze every now and then through the night; some of us will sit up, and it will make all hands feel better.”
“ All right, sir, I ’ll do ut. In that box, you say. Good-by, squire. Goodby, sir,” to Spalding.
The two men grasped his hands in turn, and wrung them hard.
He then looked toward Helen, who stood a little apart with her sister and Gregg’s wife.
“ Would you like to speak to me, Mr. Lafferty ? ” said she, coming forward.
“ Yes, miss, ef ye plaze.” He withdrew from the others, who fell back, leaving them together. He began at once. “ It was only about some things that I ’ve got in the wnrrld belongin’ to me. ’T is n’t so much I ’ve got to lave, to be sure ; but ivery mon likes to lave his own to plaze himself. If inything should happin to me, miss, if you’d be so koind to look in this book, I ’ve left wurrd how th’ things is to go. Me relachuns in th’ ould country are well-todo people; 't is n’t much use they’d be to thim; but I ’ve a cousin in Louisiana, a poor widow woman, as maybe they’d be a help to. If—if inything should happin to me, miss, ye ’ll plaze sind for th’ praste from Jackson. I’ve money a plenty at home fur th’ funeral an’ th’ mass, — Father Kelly in Wheeling will see to th’ mass. And ye ’ll plaze tell th’ praste from Jackson, Father Murphy, that I went to confession last week in Wheeling, and Father Kelly gave me absolution.”
He spoke composedly enough so far ; his next sentences were more broken. He twisted his hat in his hand, hesitated, and finally pulled out his large silver watch, attached to a handsome gold chain. “ I know this will same a poor thing to th’ lolkes uv ye, miss,” speaking in broad brogue, “ but uv ye would n’t be displaced wid me ... I should be proud. Of course,” deprecatingly, “ I know it’s not a suitable thing fur a lady to wear. I on’y thought uv I should go down, and uv ye’d be so koind to kape ut by ye, to put ye in moind uv Joe Lafferty, now and thin, it’s a proud mon ye’d make me fur th’ rest of me life.”
Helen was inexpressibly touched ; she could not speak at once. Lafferty, misunderstanding her silence, grew more confused. “ Ye ’ll pairdin me uv I ’ve been too hold, miss,” he said constrainedly ; “ I meant no offense.”
“ Oh, no, no, no,” she cried, “ it was n’t that! Give it to me ; I shall be proud to have it, and if you should — if anything should happen, I will do my best to carry out your wishes; but you must n’t talk so. You’ll come back. I hope so. I pray God you may. We can’t spare you.”
He gave a slight, mournful smile. “ It’s few that ’ll miss me, I’m thinkin’,” he said, simply, “ but I shan’t lose my life uv I can help ut. Good-by, Miss Helen.”
“ Good-by,” she said ; “ you ’re a noble man, God bless and protect you.”
He bowed his head humbly. “ Thank ye for that wurrd, Miss Nellie ; I shall remember it, miss ; but th’ Lord above knows I ’m not th’ good mon ye think me, may th’ Holy Mother forgive me ! ” He turned to go, but came back and said with marked hesitation, “ Ev inything else should he found about me, plaze let it be put away wid me.”
“ Yes,” she replied, not quite understanding, and offering him her hand.
He took it, glancing at her betrothal ring as he did so, but he merely shook her hand, saying, “ Good-by miss,” and walked away.
As he seated himself in the boat and took the paddle, Gregg’s wife called to him from above, “ Joe, bring Jim back to-morrer.”
“I’ll thry, — I’ll do my best,” he replied, and the little boat launched once more into the stream. They saw the gray speck travel slowly over the angry flood ; by straining them eyes they could make out the silhouette of a man on the drift; they saw the moving speck approach him ; then darkness shrouded them in gloom and there was nothing to be done except to wait for the signallight.
That signal never came. All through the tardy hours of the night they waited, and hoped until at midnight hope left them, and pale patience kept her long vigil alone.
The poor wife sat by the fire in an upper room of the house, her child in her arms, her eyes looking vacantly forward into the blaze, listening mechanically to the words of cheer which Helen tried to whisper, herself cheerless. In the small hours she prevailed on Mrs. Gregg to lie down, placing the sleeping child beside her. After a while she sank into a heavy, exhausted slumber. Helen threw a coverlet over her, as the air was getting very chill, extinguished the lamp, and drew aside the curtain to admit the first faint gray glimmer. What news would the coming day have for them?
She was unable to sit still and think. Pacing noiselessly up and down, her lips framing inaudible prayers, in this way she passed nearly an hour. Then as the east began to glow, she dropped the curtain, that the sleeper might not be awakened, and descended the stairs.
The house below was deserted, except by the sleeping children. As she ran out a wild, ringing shout hastened her steps toward the edge of the plateau. The crowd was gathered there, her sister among them. As Helen touched her shoulder, Mrs. Richardson pointed across the water. The two figures were just stepping into the boat. Again and yet again the shout peals forth, the hills sending back the reverberation. On they come ; the drift is left to itself ; the little craft bears the last soul to safety. As she approaches they perceive that Lafferty is sitting in the head of the boat, which he propels stern foremost with a plank. As they learned afterward, he had lost his paddle, together with the materials for the signal agreed upon, by a collision with the drift. Suddenly there is a movement in the crowd. They give place to some one. It is Gregg’s wife, who has been awakened by the noise. Pale and eager, her hair disordered, her eyes wild with excitement, she breaks from the hands that would restrain her, and rushes down the slope to the very water’s edge. She stands there in breathless expectation, her feet almost in the water, her arms extended forward, as if to shorten the distance between her husband and her.
The shouts cease, as Gregg rises and stands erect upon the stern-seat. When within a few feet of the shore he makes a sudden spring, and lands in his wife’s arms. At the same time there is a cry of horror from the crowd.
The tiny boat, unable to resist the impetus, is thrust back into the stream, just in the track of a huge tree which the waters are trundling down, its jagged limbs alternately appearing and disappearing as it comes. One of these giant arms is just descending, and before Lafferty can avoid it, be is caught in its deadly grasp, and borne under, and man and boat go down together.
It was late in the afternoon before they found him. The body had lodged among some driftwood on the neighboring place. He had been struck as the boat overturned, and was probably killed instantly. Slowly and reverently they bore him to the house, — the man who had died doing “ his best.”
That evening, as Helen sat with her lover beside her, Mr. Richardson entered.
“ Nellie,” he said, in a subdued voice, “ I believe that splendid fellow gave you charge of his effects. We found this around his neck just now ; it is nothing but a sealed envelope containing something which looks like withered flowers. Did he say anything to you about it ? I thought may be, as he was a Catholic, it was a relic of some kind. Did he tell you ? ”
She took it, her tears dropping fast on the already soaked paper. They were the flowers she had given him, although she did not recognize them. “ Perhaps it is a relic,” she said, in a low, broken tone; “he seems to have treasured it. Or he may have loved some one, — somehow I think he did, he was so grave sometimes.”
Then she remembered his words, half understood the evening before. “ Where is he ? ” she said, rising abruptly.
Richardson took her hand, without speaking, and led her into an adjoining room. Philip Spalding followed. They would have remained, but, obeying an undefinable impulse, she made a gesture of withdrawal and they left her alone with the dead.
She raised the face covering and stood still. He was unchanged, excep.t for the deep black bruise on the left temple, and the awful dignity of death. The countenance was perfectly calm and peaceful, the month wearing a look of still, sweet gravity. He rested like one who had already heard the “ Well done ” of the Master.
She gazed with bated breath, her agitated features gathering calm as she looked at the quiet sleeper. Then, as footsteps approached and some one would have entered, she placed the withered flowers gently on his breast.