In the Clouds
THE officer laid his hand on the jagged lower ledge of the niche. His hat and its shadow, like some double-headed monster, slowly appeared above the verge as he climbed the crag. The sheep shrank back precipitately into the cavernous place, their hoofs crowding over the young mountaineer. He lay at full length in motionless suspense.
There was a moment’s pause. A cloud crossed the moon. Its shadow fell in Hazel Valley. A gust of wind stole along the mountain slopes, sighing as it went, as if its errand were of sorrow. Then, silence. The brilliant lustre burst forth again, suffusing the heights above and the depths so far below. In the midst of the craggy steeps the huddled sheep looked mildly down, with bright, apprehensive eyes, at the officer.
“ Nuthin’ but sheep,” he said, scanning the interior of the niche.
It seemed to Mink, hidden by his fleecy comrades, that the stone walls of his refuge resounded with the loud throbbing of his heart, which must betray him.
“ D’ye reckon,” said the sheriff below, “ ez that woman could hev made a mistake ’bout hevin’ seen him on this road ? ”
“ Mrs. Beale knows Mink Lorey ez well ez I do,” declared the constable.
“ Mought hev been foolin’ us some,” suggested the sheriff, suspiciously.
“ She hain’t got no call,” the constable reasoned. As he partly stood on a sharp projection, and partly hung by one arm to the ledges of the niche, he took a plug of tobacco from his pocket and perilously gnawed at it.
“ Waal, I reckon he ain’t round hyarabouts,” said the sheriff, with an intonation of disappointment. “We hed better push on.”
The double-headed monster, chewing as he went, the action reproduced in frightful pantomime on the floor of the cavern, slowly withdrew. There was heavy breathing; the sound of falling clods and fragments of rock, and of straining bushes and roots as the descending officer clutched them. A sudden final thud announced that he had sprung upon his feet on level ground.
A momentary interval, a clatter of hoofs, and the double file of horsemen and their mounted shadows, erect upon the vertical cliffs of the rock-bound road, passed slowly along the wild, narrow way. Long after they had disappeared the sound of the hoof-beats intruded upon the stillness, and died away, and again smote the air with dull iteration, reverberating from distant crags of the winding road.
When all was still, Mink’s mind turned again to his perplexities with a sharpened sense of the necessity of decision. The project which Alethea had suggested began to shape itself in his mind in full detail, as he lay there and thought it over. The alternative of skulking about to avoid arrest was too doubtful and limited to be contemplated.
“ The sheriff air a-ridin’ now,” he said, “an’ the constable too—an’ what made ’em fetch along fower other men ez a posse ? ” he broke off suddenly, recognizing the incongruity.
His lip curled with satisfaction. “ They mus’ hev been powerful ’feard o’ me,” he said, his heart swelling with self-importance, “ ter think ’t would take six men ter arrest me fur a leetle job like that,”
He appreciated, however, that the midnight caper at the mill had shaken all the securities of the mountain community, and it was to the immediate personal interest of every man within twenty miles that he should be dealt with as harshly as the law would allow. But if, he argued, without waiting for arrest, he should go down to-morrow, — not to old Griff (bold as he was, he hardly dared encounter the miller’s rage), but to some man of influence, some mediator, old Squire White, perhaps, — and tell what he had done, and offer in reparation to give the miller all he possessed, his mare, his gun, his hogs, might he not thus avert the more serious phases of a prosecution, or perhaps escape altogether ?
Turn as he might, he could see only the sacrifice of his little all as the price of his orgy.
“ I ’d hev ter pay it ter the lawyer ter defend me ; or mebbe old Griff could git it out’n me ez damages ennyhow. I can’t holp losing it. I ’ll gin it up, an’ begin over, an’ make it up with Lethe, — I don’t keer a straw fur all the t’others, — an’ git married an’be stiddy. I never war so wild nohow when me an’ her war promised. Mebbe bein’ jawed at, an’ sech, air good fur folks, an’ holped ter keep me quiet in them days, — leastwise ez quiet ez I war able ter be,” he qualified, the recollection of sundry active vagaries constraining him.
Although doubts and fears still lurked in his mind, he found himself waiting for dawn, not with hope or impatience, but with the dull resolution of reluctant decision. He could hardly have said why, but he experienced a disappointment as he noted the weather signs. The mists thickened and pervaded the moonbeams in gigantic wavering spectral effects. Over toward the Great Smoky they slowly tended, those veiled mystic figures, with diaphanous trailing garments, and sometimes a lifted hand as if to swear by the heaven it almost touched. He watched the throngs grow denser, lose the similitude of individuality, take on the aspect of lowering clouds. The moonbeams glittered faintly and failed. When the day broke at last, the light expressed itself only in the dull visibility of the enveloping vapors. Not the depths of Hazel Valley, not the slopes of Big Injun Mounting, could be seen as he clambered out of the niche and down upon the road. Even the log at its verge serving as a curb seemed a sort of defense against the usurping immateriality which had engulfed the rest of the world. He heard the moisture dripping from the summit of the craggy heights; sometimes, too, the quick, tumultuous patter of a shower in Hazel Valley, as if a cloud had lost its balance on the brink of the mountain and had fallen into the depths beneath.
He trudged along, seeing nothing but the blank inexpressiveness of the encompassing clouds, with only the vaguest divination of the locality and the distance.
“I would n’t feel so weighted ef the weather would clear,” he said.
Once he paused, suddenly recollecting that to-day the county court was in session, and that Squire White was doubtless at Shaftesville. When he thought of the unaccustomed scenes of the town, the people, their questions and comments, he wavered again. Then he remembered Alethea. “ She ’lowed ’t would be jestice an’ the bes’ ez I could do ennyhows, an’ somehows the critter ’pears ter be right in her jedgmints. So I reckon I ’ll jes’ ’bide by Lethe’s word.”
Presently the mists began to lift. He could see along the green aisles of the forest how they wavered and shifted in the tops of the trees. Everywhere the flowers were blooming, — the trumpet blossom and the jewel-weed, the delicate lilac “ Christmas flower,” the " mountain snow.” the red cardinal blossoms, and, splendid illumination of the woods, the Chilhowee lily. All along the wayside, silvery cascades tumbled over the rocks and amongst fantasies of ferns, and the laurel and the ivy crowded the banks of the torrent. When he was fairly in the valley, fences bordered the road, with poke-berries darkly glittering in corners crowded with weeds. He was nearing Shaftesville now. A little house appeared here and there, a stretch of open land, stacks of fodder, an occasional passer.
High up in the air were suggestions of sunshine, yellow, diffusive, but not penetrating the vapors below. All at once the beams burst through. The mists dallied for a moment longer ; then with a suggestion of spreading wings they rose in slow, shining, ethereal fights. Among them, as he skirted the crest of a hill, appeared the roofs of the little town, the tower of the court-house, the church steeple, all dissolving into invisibility like some vain vagary of the mist, as he descended into the intervenient dale.
The grass-grown streets were astir with jeans-clad countrymen already in with wagons drawn by oxen, or with a drove of bleating sheep running helterskelter, and demonstrating their bucolic proclivities by a startling lack of adaptation to the thoroughfares of Shaftesville ; a few loungers were sitting on the barrels and boxes in front of the doors of the stores; Mink met no one he knew as he went. One man on the rickety steps of the old court-house knew him, perhaps, for he looked hard at him as he passed; then turned and stared after him with an expression which Mink could hardly analyze. He scowled fiercely in return, and took his way into the room in which several of the justices sat, amicably chatting together, for the day’s proceedings had not yet been inaugurated. With a sudden vague irritation and bewilderment Mink beheld upon each countenance, the moment they caught sight of him. the same amazed intentness which had characterized the look of the man on the steps. He felt a sort of dull ache in his heart, a turbulence in his blood pulsing fast, a heavy, dazed consciousness which gave the scene the dim unreality of a dream: the sunshine, pale and flickering, outlining the panes of the windows on the dirty floor; the stove, that stood in its place winter and summer ; the circle of bearded, jeans-clad justices, all their faces turned toward him, seeming not unlike, with the same expression upon each.
Mink began abruptly, but with an effort, addressing the chairman. “ I kem over hyar, Squair,” he said, “ kase I wanter leave ter men what I done. I ain’t goin’ ter hide nuthin’ nor run away from nuthin’. I ain’t sayin’ what I done war right, but I’m willin’ ter abide by my deed ez fur ez leavin’ it ter men, an’ furder.”
He was fluent now. There was an exhilaration in this close attention from these men whom he esteemed mighty in the law, in this pose of importance before them, in the generosity of the offer he was about to make. He spoke responsive to the respectful surprise with which his fancy had endowed them.
“ I war drunk, Squair. I ain’t denyin’ it none. Naw, sir. I ain’t.”
He nodded his head, and pushed his broad hat further back on his long, auburn locks.
“ I ’ll jes’ tell ye how it war, Squair.” He shifted his weight upon one stalwart leg, and bent over a little, and looked down meditatively at his boots as he arranged his ideas in his mind. “ I war drunk, Squair,” he reiterated, as he came once more to the perpendicular. “ How I kem so, it don’t consarn me to say. But me an’ old man Griff, we hed hed words ’bout my teachin’ Tad ter play ‘ five corn ’ ; he ’lowed’t war a gamblin’ game, — mighty old-fashioned game, ye know yerself, Squair, — an’ ez I kem along back that night I ’lowed I’d start the mill an’ see him run out skeered. An’ I dunno what I done ter the wheel. but it jes’ seemed ter be plumb ’witched when I lifted the gate. It jes’ performed an’ cavorted round like it hed the jim-jams; — ye never seen nuthin’ act like it done sence ye war born, Squair. An’ I tried ter let the gate down, but war plumb shuck off’n the race. An’ the mill begun ter shake, Squair, an’ fust I knowed down it went inter the ruver. An’ ez I seen a light in the old man’s house I ’lowed he war a-comin’ fur me.” He laughed a little. “Old Griff be a powerful survigrous old man when his dander hev riz, so I jes’ rid off ez fas’ ez I could.”
There was no responsive smile upon the stony, staring faces turned toward him. But he was quite at ease now. He hardly cared to notice that a man went hurriedly out of the room and came back. “ I ’m mighty sorry fur the old man, Squair,” he resumed. “ Surely I am. An’ ter prove it, me an’ the gal I ‘m a-goin’ ter marry, we-uns ’greed tergether ez I’d gin him my mare, an’ my hogs, an’ a gun, an’ fower sheep, an’ ‘t would build him another mill better‘n the one he hed, ef he could git the millstones hefted. I’d go holp myself.”
Still not a word from the justices. Other men had begun to come in. They, too, stood silently listening. Mink was all debonair and cheery again, so fairly had he exploited his mission. As to the man who had gone out and returned, Mink stared hard at him, for he was not an acquaintance, yet he approached and held out his hand. Mink slowly extended his own. A sudden grip of iron encircled the unsuspecting member ; the other hand was caught in a rude grasp. A harsh, grating sound, the handcuffs were locked upon his wrists, and the deputy sheriff lifted a countenance scarlet with repressed excitement. He passed his hands quickly all along the prisoner’s side to make sure that he carried no concealed weapons, then ejaculated, “ Now ye ’re all right ! ”
The young mountaineer’s head was in a whirl. His heart beat tumultuously. His voice sounded to him far away. His volition seemed to rebel. Surely he did not utter the stammering, incoherent, foaming curses that he heard. They terrified him. He strove with futile strength to tear off these fetters, every muscle strained. For the first time in his life, he, the wild, free creature of the woods, felt the bonds of constraint, the irking touch of a man he could not strike. Old Squire White, who had moved out of the way with an agility wonderful in a man of his years, exhorted the deputy to his duty.
“ Ye mus’ gin him the reason fur his arrest, ez he hev axed fur it, Mr. Skeggs, sech bein’ the law o’ Tennessee. Ye ’d better tell him, sence the sher’ff hev carried off the warrant, that he air arrested fur the drownding o’ Tad Simpkins.”
Mink hardly heard. He did not heed. He only tore desperately at the handcuffs, every cord standing out, every vein swelled to bursting; stamping wlldly about while the scuttling, excited crowd nimbly kept out of his way. He turned the glare of reddened eyes upon the deputy, who mechanically repeated the justice’s words, still following the prisoner with soothing insistence. Suddenly Mink clasped his hands above his head and brought them down together, striking the man upon the back of the neck with the handcuffs and dangling chain. The deputy dropped to the ground as if he had been shot. Mink made a burst toward the door; he was seized by a dozen willing hands, thrown down, and pinioned. He fainted, perhaps, for it was only the free outer air that roused him to the knowledge that he was borne through the streets, followed by a gaping, hooting crowd, black and white. Then ensued another interval of unconsciousness. When he came to himself he stared blankly at his unfamiliar surroundings.
He was alone. He felt weak, sore. He turned his bewildered eyes toward the light. The window was barred. He sprang up from the bed on which he lay, stumbling, for his ankles were ironed as well as his wrists. He shuffled along and tried the door. He beat upon it and shouted in baffled rage. Stealthy footsteps sounded outside from time to time, excited whispers, and once a low titter.
Somehow, ridicule conquered him as force could not. He slunk back to the bed, and there he lay quiet, that no stir might come to the mocker without. Sometimes he would lift his head and listen with a sort of terror for the step, for the suppressed breathing, for the low laugh. Often his eyes would rest, dilated, fascinated, on the door. Then he would fall back, reviewing futilely the scenes through which he had passed. What was that strange thing they had said ? It was indistinct for a time ; he could not constrain his reluctant credulity. But those terrible words, the drowning of Tad Simpkins, beset his memory, and came back to him again and again. And then he recalled that weird cry from out the crash of the falling timbers of the mill. Could the ill-treated little drudge have slept there? He had a vague idea that he had once heard that when the old man was angry he would swear that he would not give Tad house-room, and would cast him out into the night, or shut him into the mill and lock the door upon him. And remembering that cry of despair, so anguished an echo rose to Mink’s lips that he turned and buried his head in the pillow because of the scoffer in the hall without.
The room darkened gradually ; all the shadows were glooming about him. The moon rose after a time. The beams in radiant guise came slanting in, and despite the bars stood upon the floor, a lustrous presence, and leaned against the wall. It reminded him of the angel of the Lord, — tall, ethereal, fair, and crowned with an amaranthine wreath, — who burst the bars and appeared to the disciple in prison. With that arrogation of all spiritual bounties, so pathetically human, he perceived no incongruity that such a similitude should appear to him. In some sort it comforted him. It moved from time to time, and slowly crossed, pace by pace, the floor of the cell.
That terrible isolation of identity, the burden of individuality which every man must bear alone, is never so poignantly appreciated as when some anguish falls on the solitary soul, while those who would wish to share it are unconscious and others uncaring.
News, the worldling, was never a pioneer, and hangs aloof from the long stretches of the wildernesses of the Great Smoky Mountains. It seemed afterward to Alethea that she had lacked some normal faculty, to have been so tranquilly uncognizant, so heedlessly placid, in the days that ensued. The glimpse of the world vouchsafed to Wild-Cat Hollow was silent, peaceful, steeped in the full, languorous sheen of the midsummer sun, never a cloud in the sky, never a wind astir. To look down upon the cove, with its wooded levels, its verdure, its silver glint of waters, and its sheltering mountains, it might have seemed only the scene of some serenest eclogue, — especially one afternoon when the moon was in the amber sky before the sun was set. Contrasted with the full, rich earthly tints of the landscape, it had a spiritual, pearly luminosity of a transcendent effect, like the jewel of a biblical metaphor. The red unseen west flung roseate tints upon the strata clouds, with delicate intervenient spaces of the pale blue heavens, above the sombre, solemn mountains. The voices projected upon this mute placidity had a strident emphasis. There was the occasional clamor of guineafowls about the barn, and some turkeys were flying up to roost on the naked boughs of a dead tree, drawn in high relief and sharp detail against the sky ; they fluttered down often, with heavy wings, and ungainly flappings, and discordant cries, in their vain efforts to settle the question of precedence that harassed them. The lowing of the homeward-bound cows had fugue-like communings with their echoes. Alethea, going out to meet them, doubted within herself at times whether they had crossed the mountain stream that coursed through Wild-Cat Hollow. The blackberry brambles swayed full fruited above it; in the lucid, golden-brown, gravelly depths a swift shadow darted, turned, cleft the surface with a fin, and was gone. A great skeleton tree, broken half-way, hollow long ago, stood on the bank, rotted by the winter’s floods that ceaselessly washed it when the stream was high, and bleached by the summer’s suns to a bone-like whiteness. A great ball of foam, mysterious sport of the waters, caught in an eddy, was whirling giddily. One could fancy a figure of some fine ethereal essence might just have veiled itself within it. The woods, dense, tangled with vines, sombre with shadows, bore already the downcast look of night. Alethea eyed them languidly as she came down to the lower fence, her piggin on her head, one hand staying it, while the other gave surreptitious aid to the efforts of L’onidas and Lucindy to take down the bars, as they piqued themselves upon rendering her this stalwart service. Tige had come too, and now and then he pawed and pranced about the calves, that were also expectantly waiting at the opening of the inclosure. One of them who had known him of yore only lifted his ears and fixed a remonstrant stare upon him. But the other, young and of an infantile expression, ran nimbly from him, and bleated plaintively, and pressed in between Alethea and the children, in imminent danger of having his brains knocked out in the wild handling of the bars.
“ That’s enough,” she drawled presently, moderating their energies ; “ the calf ’ll git out ef ye take down enny mo’. The cow kin step over secli ez be left.”
The faint clanging of cow-bells stirred the air. The little house on the rise at one side was darkly brown against the irradiated mountains seen in the narrow vista of the gap. The martins fluttered from the pendulous gourds and circled about the chimneys, and were gone again. The sky cast its bright gold about the Hollow, on the tow heads of the barefoot children, and multiplied the shimmers in the swirls of the stream.
Alethea looked once more toward it, hearing again the far-off lowing. A sudden movement attracted her eye. Against the great hollow tree, its whitened roots all high in the air, —for the banks had washed down since the sap had risen from the prongs that clutched at the earth, — a man was leaning, whittling a stick with a clasp knife, and now and then furtively eying her.
For a moment she did not move a muscle. The color surged into her face, and receded, leaving it paler than before. A belated humming-bird, a glistening green, beat the air with its multiplied suggestions of gauzy wings close to her golden head, and was gone like a flash. The children babbled on. Tige was afraid of a stick which L’onidas had brought to keep off the calf while the cow was milked, and he yelped before be was struck, without prejudice to yelping afterward.
The man presently drew himself erect, closed his knife with a snap, and walked up slowly toward the fence.
“ Howdy,” he said, as he came.
She leaned one elbow on the rails, and with the other hand she held the empty piggin. She only nodded in return.
He had an embarrassed, deprecatory manner. He was tall and lank, and clumsy of gait. He had a bluff, goodnatured expression, incongruous with the gleam of anxiety in his eye. His face was almost covered by a long, straggling brown beard.
“ What made ye run off so t’other night, up yander ter Boke’s Spring ? I hed a word ter say ter ye.”
“ I war sorry I seen ye.”
He fixed a keen look upon her.
“ What fur ? ”
“ I did n’t want ter know who ’t war a-moonshinin’,” she said.
“Waal, ye air the only one,” he declared.
He looked about him dubiously.
“ I ain’t keerin’ none,” he added. “ Me an’ yer mother war kin somehow ; I disremember how, edzac’ly — through the Scruggses, I reckon. Ef she war alive she’d gin ye the word ez she air kin ter Sam Marvin, sure. Nobody ain’t ’spicioned nuthin’ ’bout moonshinin’ but you-uns, ’cept them ez be in it.”
He put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the fence. The clanking of the cow-bell was nearer. The little calf bleated, and thrust its soft head over the bars.
“ I wanted ter say a word ter ye,” he continued, still more ill at ease because of her silence. “ I seen ye comin’ along o’ all them chill’n,” nodding at Leonidas and Lucinda, who seemed to deserve being accounted more numerous than they were, having engaged in a wordy altercation over the bars; the little fellow dragging them off to some special spot which he had chosen, of occult advantage, while the girl, older and wiser, insisted that they should lie handy where they were. Only Tige listened to the conversation, slowly wagging his tail. “ I ’lowed I could n’t talk ter ye ’thout bein’ hendered, but I reckon I ’ll try. I’m kin ter ye, — that be a true word. An’ I’m moonshinin’. Ye ain’t tole nobody ’bout seein’ me an’ the jug thar in Boke’s barn?”
He fixed his eyes, eager with the query, upon her face.
She slowly shook her head in negation.
“ An’ ye won’t, eh ? ”
He smiled beguilingly, showing his long, tobacco-stained teeth.
“ Ef nobody axes me.”
His countenance fell suddenly.
“ Look-a-hyar, Lethe Sayles, don’t ye fool with me, a-doublin’ on yer words like a fox on his tracks,” he said roughly. Then, more temperately, “ I ’m afeard o’ that very thing, — ef somebody axes ye.”
“ ‘T ain’t likely,” said Alethea.
“ I duuno,” he insisted, wagging his big head in doubtful pantomime. " I want ye ter ’low ye won’t tell.”
“ I don’t b’lieve in sech ez moonshinin’ an’ drinkin’ liquor.”
“ What fur ? ” he demanded, with an air of being ready for argument.
“ ’T ain’t religion.”
“ Shucks ! ” exclaimed Sam Marvin contemptuously. “ D’ ye reckon ef ‘t war n’t religion I’d plant corn an’ raise my own damnation, an’ sit an’ bile wrath, an’ still fury, an’ yearn Torment, by sech ? Naw, sir ! Ye oughter go hear the rider read the Bible : every one o’ them disciples drunk low wines in them days, an’ hed it at weddin’s an’ sech ; the low wines is on every page.”
Alethea was for a moment overborne by this argument.
Then, “ ’T ain’t right.” persisted the zealot of Wild-Cat Hollow.
“ Will ye listen at the gal ! ” he exclaimed, in angry apostrophe. But controlling himself, he added quietly. ‘‘Ye let older heads ’n yourn jedge, Lethe. Yer brains ain’t ripened yit, an’ livin’ off in Wild-Cat Hollow ye ain’t had much chance ter see an’ I’arn. Yer elders knows bes’. That’s what the Bible says.”
Down the shadowy vista of the path on the opposite side of the stream the long horns and slowly nodding heads of the cows appeared. The little calf frisked with nimble joy on legs that seemed hardly bovine in their agility. Lucinda ran to bring the pail of bran, and Leonidas produced a handful of salt in a small gourd. The moonshiner saw that his time was short.
“ What ails ye, ter think ’t ain’t right, Lethe?” he asked.
“ Look how good-for-nuthin’ it makes Jacob Jessup, an’ — an’ Mink Lorey, an’ all them boys in Piomingo Cove.”
“ It’s thar own fault, not the good liquor’s. Look at me. I ain’t goodfur-nuthin’. Ever see me drunkHow be I a-goin’ ter keer fur sech a houseful ez we-uns hev got. ’thout stillin’ the corn ? Can’t sell the corn ’n the apples nuther, an’ can’t raise nuthin’ else on the side o’ the mounting, an’ I’m too pore ter own lan’ in the cove.”
The cows were fording the stream. The water foamed about their flanks. Their breath was sweet with the mountain grasses.
He looked at Alethea, suspiciously.
“Ye ain’t goin’ ter promise me ye won’t tell ef ye be axed?” he said, with an air of finality.
In her heart the compact of secrecy was already secure. Somehow she withheld the assurance. It was all wrong, she felt. And if in fear he should desist, so much the safer for him, so much the better would the community fare.
“ I ain’t a-goin’ ter promise nuthin’,” she said, slowly, her lustrous eyes full upon his face. “ I ain’t goin’ ter do nuthin’ ter holp along what ain’t right.”
“ Waal, then, Lethe Sayles, ye jes’ ’member cz ye war warned,” he said, in a low, vehement voice, between his set teeth, and coming up close to her. “ An’ ef ever we-uns air fund out an’ raided, we-uns will keep in mind ez nobody knowed but you-uns ; an’ whether we be dragged off ter jail an’ our still cut up an’ sech or no, ye won’t git off scot free. Ye mark my words. Ye air warned.”
She had shrunk from his glittering eyes and angry gestures. Nevertheless, she struck back with ready sarcasm.
“ Then, mebbe I won’t tell,” she said, in her soft drawl, “ fur I be toler’ble easy skeered.”
He stared at her in the gathering dusk; then turned, and took his way across the mossy log that bridged the stream and down the path through the woods.
For a moment she had an overwhelming impulse to call him back. Long afterward she had cause to remember its urgency. Now she only leaned upon the rail fence, even her golden hair dim in the closing shadows, and gazed with uncomprehended wistfulness after him as he disappeared down the path, and reappeared in a rift of the foliage, and once more disappeared finally.
And here the cow’s great head was thrust over the bars, and L’onidas was on hand in full force to engage in combat with the little calf, and Lucindy was alert with the bucket of bran. All through the milking Alethea was sensible of a yearning regret in her heart. And although she had the testimony of good conscience and good sense, and could say in full faith, “ ’T ain’t right,” she was not consoled.
She lifted the pail of milk to her head, and as they went back to the log cabin the moon projected their grotesque shadows as a vanguard, and for all Leonidas ran he could not overtake the quaint little man that led the way.
Stars were in the sky, aloof from the moon. A mocking-bird sang on an elderbush among the blossoms, fragrant and white; and from time to time, as he joyously lifted his scintillating wings, the boughs seemed enriched with some more radiant bloom. The rails of the fence had a subdued glimmer, — the moonlight on the dew.
Her heart, with its regretful disquiet, was out of harmony with the nocturnal peace of the scene; she had somehow an intimation of an impending sorrow before she heard the sound of sobbing from the porch.
The vines that clambered about it were drawn upon the floor with every leaf and tendril distinct. The log cabin was idealized in some sort with the silver lustre of the moon, the glister of the dew, the song of the bird, and the splendid suggestions of the benighted landscape ; yet there was the homely loom, the spinning-wheel and its shadow, the cat in the doorway, with the dull illumination of the smouldering fire behind her, eying a swift, volant shadow that slipped in and out noiselessly, and perhaps was a bat. A group of figures stood in the tense attitudes of listening surprise. But a girl had flung herself upon the bench of the loom, now leaning against the frame and weeping aloud, and now sitting erect and talking with broken volubility.
“ Hyar be Lethe now,” Mrs. Sayles said, as Alethea stepped upon the porch and set the piggin on the shelf.
The visitor looked up, with her dark eyes glistening with tears. Her face was pale in the moonbeams. She had short dark hair, thin and fine, showing the shape of her delicate head, and lying in great soft rings about her brow and neck. As she spoke, her quivering red lips exhibited the small, regular white teeth. She was slight and about the medium height, and habited in a yellowish dress, from which the moonlight did not annul the idea of color.
“ I ain’t, got no gredge agin Lethe,” she said, gazing at her with a certain intentness, “ but I hev got my feelin’s, an’ I hev got my pride, an’ I ain’t goin’ ter hev no jail-bird a-settin’ up ter me! I’m sorry I ever seen him!” she declared, with a fresh burst of tears, throwing herself back against the loom. “ But ez Lethe never hed nobody else, she mought put up with the raccoon ez he fetched me, — fur I won’t gin the critter house-room, now.”
As Alethea gazed at her, amazed and uncomprehending, a sudden movement on the loom caught her attention. About the clumsy beams a raccoon was climbing nimbly, turning his eyes upon her, full of the peculiar brightness of the nightroaming beast. She noted his grin as he hung above the group, as if he perceived in the situation humor of special zest.
“ I ain’t a-goin’ ter keep it! ” cried Elvira. “ All the kentry will be tellin’, ennyhow, ez I hev kep company with a murderer.” A low, muffled cry escaped from Alethea’s lips. “ He kem a-makin’ up ter me till I went an’ turned off Pete Rood, ez war mad ez hops. I can’t header ’em from knowin’ it. But I ain’t a-goin’ ter hev that thar spiteful leetle beastis a-grinnin’ at me ’bout’n it, like he war makin’ game o’ me fur bein’ sech a fool. I ’d hev killed it, ’ceptin’ I ‘lowed thar hed been enough onnecessary killin’ along o’ Mink Lorey.”
“ Elviry ! ” exclaimed Alethea, her voice so tense, so vibrant, so charged with anguish, that, low as it was, it thrilled the stillness as a shriek might hardly do, “ what hev Reuben done ? ”
“ Oh, ‘ Reuben,’ ez ye calls him,” cried the other, sitting upright on the bench of the loom, her dark eyes flashing and dry, — “ yer fine Reuben tore down old Griff’s mill, an’ drownded his nevy, Tad, an’ war put in jail, an’ air goin’ ter be tried, an’ hung, I reckon. That’s what ‘ Reuben ’ done ! He’s Mink by name, an’ Mink by natur’ — an’ oh ! I wish I hed never seen him.”
She once more leaned on the loom behind her, and bowed her head on her hands.
“No!—no!” cried Alethea. She caught her breath in quick gasps ; for one moment she seemed losing consciousness. The mountains in the background, the faint stars in the sky, the shadowy roof, the swaying vines, the raccoon in their midst with his grotesque grin, were before her suddenly as if she had just wakened. She had sunk into a chair.
“ Ye kin call me a liar ! So do ! ” cried Elvira, lifting her head defiantly. “ But he went hisself down ter the court-house an’ told it hisself, an’ wanted ter gin his gun an’ mare ef they ‘d let him off.” She laughed a dainty little laugh of scorn. “ That’s what he ’lowed the idjit war wuth. But my dad ’lows ez the law sets store on the idjit’s life same ez folks ginerally.”
Alethea felt as if she were turning to stone. Was it her advice that had led him into danger? Was it her fatal insistence that he should see the right as it was revealed to her ? But he had said naught of the idiot boy. He had only bewailed the loss of the mill.
She sprang to her feet, the eager questions crowding to her lips.
“Ye shet up, Lethe ! ” said her stepmother, entertained by the unwonted spectacle of Elvira’s dramatic grief, and not caring to hear again the news of the tragedy already recited. As to Mink, he had only been overtaken by the disasters which must have fallen upon him sooner or later, and he was in many ways a good riddance. This phase was uppermost in her mind when she said, “ Ye see now what gals git fur goin’ agin thar elders’ word. I ’ll be bound, Elviry, ’t war n’t yer mother’s ch’ice fur ye ter take Mink an’ gin Pete Rood the go-by.”
“That it war n’t!” cried the repentant Elvira, with a gush of tears. “I wish I hed bided by her word! I reckon I war born lackin’! I hev been sech a fool! ”
Mrs. Sayles turned to look at Alethea and nod her head in triumphant confirmation. Then she remarked consolingly, “ Waal, waal, I reckon ye kin toll Pete Rood back.”
“ I dunno,” sobbed Elvira. “ I met him yestiddy at the cross-roads in Piomingo Cove, an’ he jes’ turned his head aside an’ walked by ’thout nare word. I wish — oh, I wish I hed never seen that thar minkish Mink.”
“ Waal,” said Mrs. Sayles, who was very human, and who, despite her sympathy for Elvira, had a rankling recollection of her taunt for Alethea’s paucity of the material for “ keeping company,” “ I hopes Lethe ’ll take warnin’, an’ not fling away her good chance, fur the sake o’ the wuthless, like Mink an’ sech.”
“Who be her good chance?” exclaimed Elvira, the jealousy nourished on general principles checking her grief.
“ Shucks, child ! ye purtendin’ not ter know ez Ben Doaks hev mighty nigh wore out his knee-pans a-beggin’ an’ a-prayin’ Lethe ter listen ter him ! ”
Elvira was meeker after this, and presently rose to go.
“ I hed ter kem arter dark, else I could n’t hev hed Sam an’ the mare, bein’ ez she hev been workin’ in the field ter-day,” she remarked.
There was the mare dozing at the gate, and Sam, a boy with singularly long legs and arms, looking something like an insect of the genus Tipula, was waiting too. She mounted behind him, and together they rode off in the moonlight, taking their way over the nearest ridge, and so out of sight.
“ Waal, waal, sir ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Sayles, as she reseated herself on the porch, with her knitting in her hand, " that thar Mink Lorey never hed no jedgmint noways. He could n’t hev tuk ch’ice o’ a wuss time ter git fetched up afore a court ’n jes’ now. Squair White tole me ez our Jedge Averill hev agreed ter exchange with Jedge Gwinnan from over yander in Kildeer County nex’ term, ez he can’t try his cases, bein’ kin ter them ez air lawing. So Gwinnan will hold court in Shaftesville nex’ term. I’d hate mightily fur sech a onsartin, onexpected critter ez him ter hev enny say-so ’bout me or mine. But shucks ! Men folks ennyhow,” she continued, discursively, her needles swiftly moving, as if they were endowed with independent volition, and needed no supervision, “ air freakish, an’ fractious, an’ sot in thar way, an’ gin ter cur’ous cavortin’. It never s’prised me none ez arter the Lord made man he turned in an’ made woman, the fust job bein’ sech a failure.”
There was a pause. The regular metre of the katydid’s song pulsed in the interval. The dewdrops glimmered on the chickweed by the porch. The fragrance of mint and ferns was on the air, and the smell of the dark orchard. Now and then an abrupt thud told that a great Indian peach had reached the measure of ripeness and had fallen. Through the open window and door the moonlight lay in glittering rhomboids on the puncheon floor. All the interior was illuminated, and the grotesque figure of the pet cub was distinctly visible to Jacob Jessup, who was lounging on the porch without, as the creature stole across the floor, and rose upon his hind legs to reach the pine table. As he thrust his scooping claw into the bread trough,— the long, shallow, wooden bowl in which batter for corn-dodgers was mixed, — he turned his cautious head to make sure he was unobserved, and his cunning, twinkling eyes met Jessup’s. Somehow the sudden consciousness of the creature, his nervous haste to be off, appealed to Jessup’s lenient mood. He listened to the scuttling claws on the puncheon floor as the beast hurried out of the back door, and while he debated whether or not he should play informer his wife, sitting on the doorstep with the baby in her arms, asked suddenly, —
“ Pears like ye air sorter sot agin this Jedge Gwinnan, mother. I never beam afore ez ye knowed him whenst ye lived in Kildeer County. What sorter man be he ? ”
Mrs. Sayles wagged her head inside her sun-bonnet to intimate contempt.
A young rooster, ’bout fryin’ size,” she said, laughing sneeringly, the scorn accented by her depopulated gums. It seemed very forlorn to be laughed at like that.
“ Waal, a man can’t be ’lected jedge till he’s thirty,” said Jessup, consciously imparting information. “ He’s been on the bench right smart time, too.”
Mrs. Sayles looked at him over her spectacles, still knitting, as if her industry were a disconnected function. “ What air thirty ? ”
“ Waal ” — began Jessup, argumentatively, puffing at his cob pipe. Thirty seemed to him a mature age. And the constitution of the State evidently presumes folly to be permanent if it is not in some sort exorcised before reaching that stage of manhood. He did not continue, however, seeing that thirty was held to be very young by Mrs. Sayles, who, to judge from her wrinkles, might be some four or five hundred.
“ I ain’t ’quainted with the man myself,” she went on presently, “ an’ what’s more I ain’t wantin’ ter be. Put,” impressively, “ I know a woman ez knowed that man’s mother whenst he war a baby. She ’lowed he war a powerful cantankerous infant, ailin’ an’ hollerin’ all night an’ mighty nigh all day; could n’t make up his mind ter die, an’ yit war n’t willin’ ter take the trouble ter live.”
Jessup felt it a certain injustice that the nocturnal rampages of infancy should be as rancorously animadverted upon as the late hours of a larger growth.
“ Waal, Jedge Gwinnan is powerful pop’lar now’days,” he urged. " He made a mighty fine race when he war ’lected.”
“ Shucks ! ye can’t tell me nuthin’! ” said his mother, self-sufficiently. “ I know all ’bout him, an’ Jedge Burns too, ez war on the bench afore Jeemes Gwinnan. Whenst I war a widder-woman an’ lived in Kildeer County we-uns useter hev Jedge Burns on the circuit. He war a settled, middle-aged man ’bout fifty, an’ the law war upheld, an’ things went easy, an’ he war ’lected time arter time, till one year they all turned crazy ’bout this hyar feller, ez war run by his party through fools bein’ sca’ce, I s’pose. Jeemes war ‘lected. I tell ye I know all ’bout him. He war born right yander nigh Colbury, an’ I know a woman ez useter be mighty friendly with his mother.”
“ What fam’ly in Colbury did he marry inter ? ” asked the young woman, more interested in items of personal history than in his judicial record.
“ Bless your soul, he air a single man. His heart air set on hisself. He would n’t marry no gal ’thout she hed some sorter office she could ’lect him ter, ez be higher’n jedge. He be plumb eat up with scufflin’ an’ tryin’ ter git up in the world higher ’n the Lord hev set him, an’ ’t ain’t religion ; that’t ain’t. He minds me o’ Lucifer. He ’ll fall some day. Not out o’ heaven, mebbe, kase he ain’t never goin’ ter git thar, but leastwise out’n his circuit. Somebody ’ll top him off, an’ mebbe I ’ll live ter see the day. I dunno, though, I — Laws-a-massy ! ” she exclaimed, so suddenly that both her listeners started, “ look-a-yander at that thar perverted tur-r-key hen an’ her delikit deedies, ez air too leetle ter roost ! She’s a-hoverin’ of ’em in that thar tall grass, wet with the dew, an’ it ’ll be the death o’ ’em ! Why n’t Lethe tend ter ’em when she kem up from milkin’ ? Lethe ! Lethe ! Whar’s that gal disappeared ter ? ”
With the vagrant instinct of the wild fowl still strong in the domesticated turkey, she had distrusted the hen-house, and because of her brood she was prevented from roosting high up in the old dead tree.
There was no answer to Mrs. Sayles’s call. The daughter-in-law made a feint of busily rocking the baby, and after a doubtful glance at her Mrs. Sayles got up briskly, putting her knitting-needles into her ball of yarn, and thrusting them both into her deep pocket. She clutched her bonnet further forward on her head, took up a splint basket, and presently there arose a piping sound among the weeds, as she darted this way and that in the moonlight with uncanny agility, catching the deedies one by one and transferring them to her basket. The turkey hen, her long neck stretched, her wings outspread, ran wildly about, now and then turning and showing an irresolute, futile fight for a moment, and again striving to elude the whole misfortune with her long, ungainly strides. When Mrs. Sayles in triumph unbent her back for the last time and started toward the house, the fluttered mother following, clamoring in an hysterical fashion, she exclaimed, “ Whar be that thar triflin’ Lethe?”
“ ’Pears like ter me ez I hearn Lethe go up the ladder ter the roof-room a consider’ble while ago,” said the old man slowly, speaking for the first time during the evening.
Once more Mrs. Sayles paused irresolute.
“ Laws-a-massy, then, ef the gal ’s asleep I reckon I mought ez well put the tur-r-key an’ deedies inter the henhouse myse’f; but ’pears ter me the young folks does nuthin’ nowadays but doze.”
She took a step further, then suddenly bethought herself. “ Hyar, Jacob,” she said to her son, handing him the basket, “ make yerse’f nimble. I reckon ye hev got sense enough ter shet that thar tur-r-key an’ deedies up in the henhouse. Leastwise I ’ll resk it.”
Sleep was far from Alethea that night. For hours she sat at the roofroom window, looking out with wide, unseeing eyes at the splendid night. And so she had given her counsel freely in the full consciousness of right, and the man she loved had done her bidding. What misery she had wrought! She winced to know how his thoughts must upbraid her. She remembered his petulant taunts, his likening her to the Herder on Thunderhead, whose glance blights those on whom he looks ; and she wondered vaguely if the harnt knew the woe it was his fate to wreak, and if it were grief to him as he rode in the clouds on the great cloud-mountain.
“ I reckon I know how he feels,” she said.
An isolated star blazing in the vast solitudes of the sky above the peak of Thunderhead burst suddenly into a dazzling constellation before her eyes, for she felt the hot tears dropping down one by one on her hand.
Alas, Alethea ! one needs to be strong to attain martyrdom for the sacred sake of the right.
Her tears wore out the night, but when the sun rose she was fain to dry them.
The site of the old mill continued the scene of many curious groups long after all efforts for the recovery of the body had ceased. The river was dragged no more, and hope was relinquished. There had never been any strong expectation of success. The stream was abnormally high considering the season of the year, and running with great impetuosity. Though with the aggregations of its tributaries swollen by the late rains it had the volume of a river, it retained all the capricious traits of the mountain torrent which it had been. It was full of swirling rapids, of whirlpools, of sudden cataracts. Its bed was treacherous with quicksands and rugged with bowlders. Hitched to the miller’s orchard fence were rows of horses, dozing under their old Mexican saddles or the lighter weight of a ragged blanket or a folded quilt; teams of oxen stood yoked under the trees of the open space beyond; children and dogs sat on the roots or lay in the grass, while the heavy, jeans-clad figures of the mountaineers explored the banks, as they chewed their quids with renewed vigor, and droned the gossip in drawling voices.
The same faces were seen day after day, — often enough to excite no particular remark that, whoever came or was absent, Peter Rood was here with the dawn, and night found him still strolling along the banks, looking upon the swollen floods with gloomy, insistent dark eyes, as if he were seeking to read in the writhing lines of the current the inscrutable secret of the Scolacutta River. Sometimes, with his hands in his pockets, his lowering face shadowed by his broad hat, he would silently listen to the speculations of those who found solace for the futility of the undertaking in the enlarged conjectural field which failure afforded, discussing the relative probabilities whether the body had floated down to the Tennessee River, or whether it had been engulfed by the quicksands and buried forever, or caught among the rocks of the jagged bank and wedged in, to be found some day—a ghastly skeleton — by a terrified boy, fishing or wading at low water.
It was only when these bootless surmises had palled at last, through many repetitions and lack of further developments, that the ruins of the old mill asserted an interest. There seemed a strange hush on the landscape, here where the wheel would whir no more. A few timbers scattered about, a rotten old stump that had served as part of the foundation, the hopper washed up by the waters, several of the posts which had upheld the race, were all that was left of the old mill, so long the salient feature of the place that more than one mountaineer was beset with bewilderment at the sight, — the recollection of the oblique line of the roof against the mountain, the open door, the reflections in the water, having more reality than the bereft bank of the river.
And now the old miller—seeming older than before—was wont to come tottering out with his stick, the gay sunshine on his long, white hair, and sit on the broken timbers, forlorn amidst the ruins of his poverty. At first his appearance created renewed excitement, and his old customers and friends pressed up to speak to him and hear what he would say, feeling a certain desire to mark the moral phenomena of loss and the fine processes of grief. But he held his clasped hands upon the stick, and silently shook his bowed gray head in his ragged old hat.
“ I reckon ye’d better leave him alone,” his pretty granddaughter said; for she always accompanied him, and stood, as radiant as youth may ever be, twirling the end of her tattered apron between her fingers, her tangled yellow hair, like skeins of sunshine, hanging down on her shoulders, and her blue, undismayed eyes looking with a shallow indifference upon the scene. It was replete with interest and curiosity, not to say awe, to the little three-year-old sister who hung upon her skirts, or thrust a tow head from behind her grandfather. Sometimes her lips were wreathed with a smile as she saw some child in the crowd, but if the demonstration were returned she straightway hid her head in the old man’s sleeve and for a while looked out. no more.
Once old Griff spoke suddenly. “ ’Gustus Tom,” for his favorite kept beside him, “ ye would n’t treat nobody mean, would ye ? ”
“ Would ef they treated me mean,” said ’Gustus Tom, with an unequivocal nod, which intimated that his code of ethics recognized retribution. “ ’Thout,” he qualified, “’t war sister Eudory thar,” — he glanced at the little girl, — " I ’d gin ’em ez good ez they sent.”
“ ’T ain’t religion, ’Gustus Tom, — ’t ain’t religion,” said the old man brokenly. ’Gustus Tom, with his fragment of hat on the side of his tow head, hardly looked as if he cared.
A grizzled old mountaineer in jeans, with a stern, square face and a deep-set eye, that was lighted suddenly, spoke abruptly in a sepulchral voice.
“ Ye oughter go ter camp, Brother Griff,” he said in a religious twang, — “ ye oughter go ter camp, an’ tell yer ’speriunce ! Ye hev lived long. Ye hev wrastled with the devil. Ye hev seed joy, ye hev knowed sorrow, ye hev fund grace. Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Ye air full o’ ’speriunce, brother, an’ ve oughter go ter camp an’ comfort yerse’f, an’ sing, an’ pray.”
“ I pray no mo’,” said the old man, lifting his aged, piteous face. “ I’m ’feard the Lord mought hear me an’ answer my prayer.” He smote his breast. “ I ain’t keerin’ fur the mill. I ain’t keerin’ for the chil’n, — they ’ll make out somehows. But ef my prayers could take back every word o’ wrath I ever spoke ter the idjit, every lick I struck him. I’d weary the very throne o’ grace. Ef I could git him back an’ begin over — but I can’t! An’ I won’t pray fur myself, fur the Lord mought hear me. An’ I want ter remember every one o’ them words an’ every lick, an’ pay back fur ’em, wropped in the flames o’ Torment.”
He got up and tottered away toward the house, followed by his grandchildren, leaving the bystanders staring after him, strangely thrilled.
“ Waal, I hopes they won’t hear at the camp-meetin’ o’ his talkin’ sech ez that,” remarked the elderly adviser in dismay. “They hev been a-sermonizin a good deal ’bout Tad’s early death an’ Mink Lorey’s awful crime, an’ sech. ter them young sinners over yander ter camp, an’ it ‘peared ter be a-sorter skeerin’ of ’em, a-sorter a-shooin of ‘em inter the arms o’ grace. An’ I hopes none o’ ’em will hear ’bout the old man a-repentin’ an’ wantin’ ter burn, an sech, fur the boy’s hevin’ been c’rected by his elders; they air perverted enough now agin them ez hev authority over ’em.”
“ Old Griff would change his mind ’bout burnin’ ef he seen the fire one time,” said another, winking seriously, as if he spoke from pyrotechnic experience. Then with a sudden change of tone, “ What ails Pete Rood ? ”
For Rood was leaning against a tree, his swarthy face overspread with a sallow paleness, his lips blue, his eyes half closed, his hand clutching at his heart. How little they imagined what racked it!
He said it was nothing much; he had been “ tuk ” this way often before ; he would be better presently. Indeed, he was shortly able to walk down to the bank of the river, and sit and listen to the surmises of a half dozen idle fellows lying in the grass as to the drowning of Tad and the fate of Mink, and the terrible illustrations that both had furnished in the sermons at the campmeeting in Eskaqua Cove.
And when he left them at last it was to the camp-meeting he went.
The afternoon brought a change in the weather. Rood noted it as he rode his raw-boned horse over the ranges and down the red clay roads into Eskaqua Cove. Clouds had gathered, obscuring the sun. There were no shadows, no graduated light, no point of brilliant climax. The foliage was heavy masses of solid color. Only in certain plumy silver-green boughs lurked a subdued glister, some luculent enchantment; for if ever the moonlight were enmeshed by a tree it is in the branches of the white pine.
Silence had fallen, as if the source of light were also source of sound. There was wind in the upper atmosphere, but no breath stirred the leaves. Twilight had sunk upon the cove before he turned off into a road leading up a wooded hill. In the dusk, sundry equine figures loomed up. The head of a horse was clearly defined against a patch of the pale sky, and a shrill neigh jarred the quiet. There were wagons, too, under the trees, empty, the teams unharnessed, and the poles lying on the ground. A dim light, deeply yellow, shone among the boles of the trees further on, a little misty, because already large drops were falling. All unmindful of the rain, a row of young men and half-grown boys perched on a rail fence in crouching attitudes, not unlike gigantic roosting fowls. Now and then a subdued, drawling voice sounded from among them, and a smothered laugh was attestation of callow humanity. They were not devoid of interest in the proceedings of the camp-meeting, but it was in the impersonal quality of spectator, and they held aloof from the tabernacle as if they had no souls to be saved. They turned to look down at Rood as he dismounted and hitched his horse, and he heard his own name passed along the row, it being a self-constituted register of all who came and went. The little gate dragged and creaked on its hinges, and resisted as if it grudged the spiritual opportunities to which it gave access, and desired to point the fact that salvation was not easy to come by. As it yielded and Rood entered the inclosure there were more yellow lights showing with misty halos in the olive-green dusk. They came from the doors of a row of shanties, floorless and windowless, which served as quarters for the crowd at night; and with the intervals between, they looked like a string of glittering beads, a rosary of gold. There was a great flaring flame in the rear of each cabin, with leaping red tongues, surrounded by busy, hovering figures that cast huge distorted shadows against the encompassing foliage, as if some uncanny phenomenal beings were stalking a solemn round among the trees. These fires had less comfortable spiritual suggestions. But they issued merely from the kitchens, the most cheerful things at camp, and here saint and sinner were equally heartily represented. Supper was over, however. The hymn rising even now from the tabernacle was far from cheerful: one of the long-drawn, melancholy songs, with wild, thrilling swells and sudden falls and monotonous recitative passages, sometimes breaking into a strange, ecstatic chant. The serried vertical lines of rain seemed to vibrate with it like the strings of a harp. Far away the thunder rolled in its pauses. More than once the sudden lightning illumined the grounds with a ghastly gleam, and the rhythmic solemn song went on like a part of the storm. It was a grave assemblage under the great roof of the rude structure, shown in the dim light of six or eight kerosene lamps fixed against the posts. At one end was a platform with a bench, on which sat some five or six of the preachers participating in the exercises. Brother Jethro Sims, a hoary-headed patriarch was walking slowly up and down the main aisles, clapping his hands and singing with a look of ecstasy in his upturned eyes which a sophisticated religionist might vainly wonder at, finding that his superior attainments and advanced theories had bereft him of the power to even comprehend such faith, such piously prescient joys. The ground was covered with a deep layer of straw, deadening the stir among the rows of benches. Many of these, having no backs, served to acquaint their occupants with martyrdom and to offer a premium to the naturally upright. There were numbers of little children present, for as yet the lenient rule of the mountain churches tolerates their babble and even their crying in reason. Here and there one of the humbly clad young women, with her sleeping infant in her arms, the yellow light falling upon its head and on her solemn, listening, almost holy face, might remind one of another peasant mother whose Child is the hope of the world. The extreme seriousness, the devout aspiration, the sublimity of the unquestioning faith, that animated the meeting could annul ignorance, poverty, uncouthness.
There were many canine figures on the outskirts of the crowd, now and then peering from the darkness without with wolfish green eyes and weird effect among the laurel, which was beginning to sway and sound with the wind. Those in the full light, standing even beneath the roof and looking, with lolling tongue and wagging tail, upon the proceedings, seemed peculiarly idle here and to incur the imputation of loafers, despite that they are never very busy elsewhere. Others were more selfishly employed, creeping about under the benches and among the feet of the congregation, searching in the straw for the bits of bread and meat thrown aside by the frequenters of the meeting who did not camp on the grounds, but brought their lunch for the midday, and went home at night. One small and dapper yellow dog had bounded on the end of the mourners’ bench, and sat there, gravely gazing about him with small, affable eyes, all unnoticed by the elders, but threatening the gravity of an urchin, who grinned and coughed to hide the grin, breaking out with a wild, uncontrollable vocalization, relic of the whooping-cough, not long over-past. He was finally motioned out of the tabernacle, and scudded across in the rain to the shanty, while the little dog sat demure and unmolested on the mourners’ bench.
Larger sinners were gathering there presently, albeit slowly.
“ Come ! Come ! ” cried the old man sonorously over the singing. “ Delay not! My brethren, I hev never seen a meetin’ whar the devil held sech a strong hold! Come! Hell yawns fur ye! Come ! Yer time is short! Grace beckons ! Come ! The fires o’ perdition air kindled ! The flames air red! ”
And as his voice broke forth once more in the chanting, the thunder rolled as an echo to his summons, the lightning glared, all the mountains became visible over the woods of the abrupt declivity toward the east; and higher still above the heights was revealed a vast cloudvista in the midst of the black night, vividly white, full of silent surging motion, with strange suggestions of bending forms, of an awful glister at the vanishing point, — darkness enveloped it, and once more the thunder pealed.
As the gathering storm burst, the monotonously chanting voices seemed keyed to an awed undertone, lisping with this mighty psalm of nature, — the thunder and its echo in the mountains, the wild voices of the wind, and the persistent beat of the rain. In the intervals of its splendid periods, one might feel it a relief to hear the water timidly splashing in the little ditches that served to drain the ground on either side of the tabernacle, and the continual whisper in the pines above the primitive structure. Here and there two or three boughs hung down further than the rest, fringing the eaves, Ben Doaks noted, when the lightning flared again, that just between them the distant peak of Thunderhead loomed dimly visible, — or was it a cloud ? Strain his eyes as he might, he could hardly say.
For Ben Doaks was there, the first to respond to the earnest exhortations to the sinners to come forward. He had a shamefaced look as he shambled up and took his seat on the mourners’ bench, while the little dog sat unnoticed at the other end. Doaks was quick, however, to observe that one of the preachers eyed him sharply, and spoke to another, who shook his head with a gesture indeed of negation, but an expression of reluctant affirmation, and he felt sure that they recognized how often he had sat there, and that they were saying to each other that it was of no use, — he was evidently rejected by grace.
Now and then low voices sounded in the midst of the singing, — the Christians urging those convicted of sin to go up and be prayed for. Others came forward. There was more stir than before ; a vivid curiosity was on many faces turning about to see who was going up, who was resisting entreaty, who ought to be convicted of sin, being admirably supplied with obliquity of which to repent.
Pete Rood saw no one. He sat, his black eyes on the ground, intent, brooding, deeply grave. Elvira Crosby thought at first that he affected to overlook her. Then, with a sinking of the heart, she realized that indeed he did not see her. The tears welled up to her eyes. The past was not to be recalled. When was he ever before unaware of her presence ? He had been so eager, so devoted, so unlike the capricious lover for whom she had lightly flung him away. It was all over, though. She looked about her to divert her mind, to preserve her composure. She noted Mrs. Sayles in the congregation, identifying her by her limp sun-bonnet. Mrs. Sayles had long been saying that she intended to put splints in it some day when time favored her : but it still hung over her eyes, obscuring her visage, except her mouth, as she sang, and she was an edifying spectacle of a lack of care for earthly pomps and of vain interest in baubles and bonnets. Alethea’s face, like some fair flower half enfolded in its sheath, was visible in the funnel-shaped depths of her own brown bonnet, with a glistening suggestion of her gold hair on her forehead, and one escaped tress hanging down beneath the curtain on her dark brown homespun dress. She did not sing, and she looked downcast.
In the aisle between the two benches reserved for the mourners the brethren were crowding, talking individually to the contrite sinners, sometimes with such effect that sobs and tears broke forth ; and then the hymn was renewed, with the rhythmic sound of the clapping of hands, while the thunder crashed and the forked lightnings darted through the sky. The lurid scenic effects added their impressiveness to the terrible wordpainting of another preacher, who was less interesting though not less effective than that gentle old man, Brother Jethro Sims. He described hell with an accurate knowledge of its topography, its personnel, and its customs which was a triumph of imagination, and made one feel that he had surely been there. A young woman suddenly broke into wild screams, shouting that she had found her salvation, and clapping her hands, and crying, “ Glory ! ” finally fainting, and being borne out into the rain.
In the aisles they all often knelt, praying aloud in turns: sometimes, the voice of one failing in a whispered Amen ! another would cry out insistently, “ Let us continue the supplication ! ” And once more the prayer would go up.
There were no more conversions. Over and again the brethren announced in pious dudgeon that it was a stubborn meeting, and hell gaped for the sinner. It was evidence of the sincerity of the mourners, and their anxiety not to deceive themselves and others, that they could thus resist the urgency of the impassioned appeals, that with quivering nerves they could still withhold all demonstrations of yielding until the spirit should descend upon them.
Presently persons who desired the prayers of the congregation were requested to rise and make known their wish. It might be feared that some of the compliances did not tend to preserve domestic harmony. One woman asked prayers for her husband, whose heart, she stated, was not in his religion, and the defiant contradiction expressed in the face of a man seated beside her suggested that she had thus publicly made reprisal for sundry conjugal differences. Nevertheless, old Brother Sims said, “ Amen ! ” Mrs. Sayles rose and begged prayers for the “ headin’ young folks o’ the kentry, that they’d be guided by thar elders, an’ not trest thar own green jedgmints, an’ finally be led ter grace.” And all the old people said, heartily, “ Amen ! ” Many turned to look at Alethea, whose face had become a delicate pink.
And suddenly Peter Rood rose. “ I want the prayers o’ the godly,” he said, now and then casting a hasty glance at Brother Sims, who stood with his chin in the air, his hands arrested in the gesture of clapping, and listening intently, “ fur light ter my steps. I reckon I’m a backslider, fur I git no light when I pray. It’s all dark, — mighty dark ! ” His voice trembled. He was beginning to lose his self-control. “ My actions tarrify me! I ’lowed wunst I hed fund grace, but in trouble I hev no helper.”
The lightnings flashed once more. The swift illumination seemed to blanch his swarthy face, and lighted his uplifted black eyes with a transient gleam. “ I’m in sin an’ great mis’ry. I hev done wrong.” He was about to sit down.
“ Make reparation, brother, an’ free yer soul in prayer,” said the old man.
“ I can’t! ” he cried, shrilly. “ I ’m ’feard! I’m ’feard o’ my life. I would n’t hev done sech ’ceptin’ I war drunk, — drunk with liquor an’ drunk with spite.”
He felt that he was saying too much. He sat down, biting his lip till the blood started. Then he rose and faltered, “ I want yer prayers fur light.”
“ Amen ! ” said Brother Sims.
Rood had recovered himself abruptly. He was looking about with furtive sharpness through the congregation, seeking to gauge the effect of what he had said when under the strong spell of religious excitement that had swayed the crowd. Fearful as he was, he detected only curiosity, interest, nothing more marked; for in the rhetoric of frenzied repentance these good men often apply to themselves language that seriously entertained could only grace an indictment.
The rain had ceased ; the quiet without seemed to conduce to a calmer spirit within. The fervor of the meeting had spent itself. Only a few of the brethren were “ workin’” with Ben Doaks, his face troubled and perplexed, his anxious eyes turning from one to another.
“ Can’t ye feel ye air jes’ a wuthless worm a-crawlin’ round the throne o’ grace ? Can’t ye feel that only mercy kin save ye ? — fur ye richly desarve damnation.”
“ Laws-a-massy, naw,” said poor, candid Ben, greatly harried. “ I think mighty well o’ myself ! ”
And so they left him in his sins. The crowd was breaking up, chiefly seeking their several camps, as the shanties were called. But a few had come merely to participate in the exercises of the evening, and these were busy in harnessing their horses or yoking their oxen into their wagons on the hillside without the inclosure. The declivity was veined with rivulets, into which the heavy feet of the men and beasts splashed; the leaves continuously dripped ; frogs were croaking near at hand in the sombre woods, — not so dark now, for the melancholy waning moon shone among the breaking clouds. The rumble of wagons presently intruded upon the lowtoned conversation, the burden of which was the meeting and reminiscent comparison with other meetings. Several of the boys, not burdened with immortality, took leave less decorously, whooping loudly at each other as they galloped past the vehicles, and were soon out of sight and hearing.
The red clay road was presently lonely enough as Alethea trudged along it. There was no room for her in the little wagon which Buck drew in single harness, as might be called the ropes by which the ox, fastened between the shafts, was made to dispense with a yoke-fellow. A rope tied to his horn was intended to guide him along any intricacies of the road with which he might not be acquainted. Mrs. Sayles, her daughter-in-law, and several of the children were seated, tailor-fashion, on the floor of the wagon, and sometimes Alethea walked in advance, and sometimes fell into the rear. It was no great distance that they were to travel, — their destination being aunt Dely’s house in Eskaqua Cove, where they were to spend the night before wagoning up the Great Smoky.
Alethea was beset with her own unquiet thoughts ; the remorse that would not loose its hold ; the strange wrong which the right had wrought. Her conscience, forever on the alert — serving, if need were, as proxy — could find no flaw in what she had counseled ; and thus perverse fate, in the radiant guise of rectitude, had led Lorey to despair, and delivered her to grief.
She hardly noted the incidents of the wayside, — the foot-bridge over the creek; the stars amongst the ripples ; the sound of the insects; the zigzag fences on either hand; the mists that lurked among the trees, that paced the turn-rows of the corn-fields, that stood in the corners of the fences, that caught the moonbeams, and glittered against the dark mountain side. It was another gleam that struck her attention ; she looked again, — the slant of the rays against the windows of a little schoolhouse. There was a deep impression of silence upon it, vacant in the night, dark but for the moonbeams. The pines that overhung it were sombre and still. The vapors shifted about it, fringing even the rotting palings that inclosed it. Her feet had followed her gaze. She was near the edge of the narrow road, as she paused to wait for Buck and the wagon to come up. She heard nothing as she listened. She said to herself that she must be a long way ahead. She was sensible of fatigue presently ; the excitements of the evening were superimposed on the work of the day. She leaned against the tottering fence. Her bonnet had fallen back on her shoulders ; she rested her head on her hand, her elbows on the low palings. She might have dreamed for a moment. Suddenly something touched her. She turned her head quickly; her shriek seemed to pierce the sky, for there in the inclosure, — did she see aright ? — the idiot’s face ! white with a responsive terror upon it, vanishing in the mist. Or was it the mist ? Did she hear the quick thud of retreating footsteps, or was it the throbs of her own plunging heart? As she turned, wildly throwing up both arms, she beheld Buck and the wagon on the crest of the hill, with the worshipers from the camp-meeting, and the sight restored to her more mundane considerations.
Charles Egbert Craddock.