In the Clouds
IN those long days while Mink languished in jail, he wondered how the world could wag on without him. He hungered with acute pangs for the mountains ; he pined for the sun and the wind. Sometimes he stood for hours at the window, straining for a breath of air. Then the barred aspect of the narrow scene outside of the grating maddened him, and he would fling himself upon his bed ; and it would seem to him that he could never rise again.
He speculated upon Alethea with a virulence of rage which almost frightened him, — whether she had heard of his arrest, how she had received the news.
“ Mighty pious, I reckon,” he sneered. “ I know ez well ez ef I hed seen her ez she be a-goin’ ’round the kentry a-tellin’ ’bout my wickedness, an’ how she worried an’ worked with me, an’ could n’t git me shet o’ my evil ways.”
He thought of Elvira, too, with a certain melancholy relish of her fancied grief. His heart had softened toward her as his grudge against Alethea waxed hot. “ She tuk it powerful hard, I know. I ’ll be bound it mighty nigh killed her, — she set so much store by me. But I reckon her folks air glad, bein ez they never favored me.”
It seemed to him, as he reflected upon the probable sentiment of his friends and neighbors, that he had lived in a wolfish community, ready with cowardly cruelty to attack and mangle him since fortune had brought him down.
“ I’m carrion now; I ‘ll hev ter expec’ the wolves an’ buzzards,” he said bitterly to his lawyer, as they canvassed together what witnesses they had best summon to prove his general good character, and whom they should challenge on the jury list. There was hardly a man of the number on whom Mink had not played some grievous prank calculated to produce a rankling grudge and foster prejudice. He recited these with a lugubrious gravity incongruous enough with the subject matter, that often elicited bursts of unwilling laughter from the perplexed counsel.
This was a bluff, florid man of forty, with a hearty, resonant voice, a light blue eye, a head of thick, yellow hair, which he wore cut straight across beneath his ears, showing its density, and thrown back without parting from his forehead. When the locks fell forward, as they often did, he tossed them back with an impatient gesture. He had a long mustache and beard. His lips were peculiarly red. His tongue also, which he had a fancy for thrusting out swiftly in ridicule or triumph, had the same deep tinge. Altogether he was a highcolored, noisy, confident, blustering fellow, and he inspired Mink with great faith.
“ I done a better thing ’n I knowed of whenst I voted an’ electioneered so brash fur you-uns ez floater in the legislatur’,”said Mink one day, in a burst of hopefulness. When he had sent for the lawyer to defend him, he had based his appeal for aid partly on his political services, and relied on them to atone for any deficiency of fees.
“ Do it again, Mink, early and often !” And the floater’s jolly laughter rang out, jarring against the walls of the bare room, which was, however, far more cheerful for the sound.
Mink had found a certain respite from his mental anguish in the requirements of the approaching trial, urged upon his attention by the lawyer. But in the midst of the night terrors would beset him. In his dreams the humble, foolish individuality of the idiot boy was invested with awe, with a deep pathos, with a terrible dignity. It seemed often that he was awakened by the clutch of a hand to an imperative consciousness of the crime of which he was accused, to a torturing uncertainty of his guilt or innocence. His conscience strove in vain to reckon with him.
“ Mebbe, though, the jury kin tell ?” he said one morning, piteously, to his counsel, who had come cheerily in, to find him wild eyed and haggard.
“ A jury,” said the lawyer sententiously, “ is the cussedness of one man multiplied by twelve.”
He had flung his somewhat portly bulk into a chair which creaked beneath his weight, and he was looking at his client with calculating keenness. He had supplemented a fair knowledge of the law with certain theories of human motives, deduced from his experience among men both as a politician and before the courts. In their less complex expressions he was quick to detect them. But he was devoid of intuition, of divination. His instincts were blunt. His moral perceptions were good, but elementary. His apprehension of crime was set forth in its entirety and in due detail by the code of Tennessee with the consequent penalty prescribed by the statute. He recognized no wrong unpunishable by law. The exquisite anguish of a moral doubt, the deep, helpless, hopeless affliction of remorse, the keen, unassuaged pangs of irreparability, — he had no spiritual sense to take cognizance of these immaterial issues. If Mink, escaping by his Counsel’s clever use of a technicality, should ever again think of the miller, dream of the boy weltering in the river, wake with the sound of that weird scream in his ears, Mr. Harshaw would wonder at him as a fool. As to the bar of conscience, how could that vague essence assume all the functions of a court under the constitution ?
And still conning his simple alphabet of the intricate language of emotions, he interpreted as the expression of fear the prisoner’s wan cheek and restless eyes. It induced a secret irritation and an anxiety as to how he had best conduct the case, in view of his professional reputation. He had besought Mink in his own interests to be frank, and now he was perplexed by doubts of his client’s candor.
It required only a few moments’ reflection to assure himself that he had best assume, for the purposes of defense, the guilt of the prisoner until proved innocent. As he placed both hands on his knees he pursed up his lips confidentially, and with a quick sidelong glance he said, —
“ We ’ve got some time, though, before we have to face ’em, Mink. We ’re entitled to one continuance, on account of the inflamed state of public sentiment,”
The brooding, abstracted look passed suddenly from Mink’s face, leaving it more recognizable with its wonted bright intentness.
“ Air ye ’lowin’ ye’d put off the trial furder ’n the day be set fur, Mr. Harshaw ? ” he asked, with the accents of dismay. “ Fur Gawd’s sake, don’t let ’em do that. I would n’t bide hyar, all shet up ” — his eyes turned from wall to wall with the baffled eagerness of a caged beast — “I would n’t bide hyar a day longer ’n I ’m ’bleeged ter, not ter git shet o’ damnation. Lord A’mighty, don’t go a-shovin’ the day off; hurry it up, ef ye kin. I want ter kem ter trial an’ git back ter the mountings. I feel ez ef I be bound ter go.”
The lawyer still looked at him with his keen sidelong glances.
“ The jury stands ’twixt you and the mountains, Mink. Might n’t get out, after all’s said and done.”
Mink looked at him with a sudden alarm in his dilated eyes, as if the contingency had been all undreamed of.
“ They ’ll be bound ter let me out,” he declared. “ I ain’t feared o’ the jury.”
“ If you don’t know what you did yourself, you can’t expect them to be much smarter in finding it out,” reasoned the lawyer.
“ I ain’t done nuthin’ ter keep me jailed this hyar way,” said Mink, hardily. “ I feel it in my bones I ’ll git out. I never try them bars,” nodding at the window, “ but what I looks ter see ’em break in my hand.”
“ See here,” said the lawyer, sternly, “ you let ‘ them bars ’ alone ; you ain’t going ter do yourself any good breaking jail.”
He looked down meditatively at his feet, and stamped one of them that his trousers might slip further down over his boot-leg, which deported itself assertively and obtrusively, as if it were in the habit of being worn on the outside.
“ I don’t know,” he said reflectively, “ if you want to be tried speedily, but what it’s best, anyhow. We won’t have Averill to preside ; he’s incompetent in a number of civil cases, and Jim Gwinnan will hold court. He’s a” — he pursed up his red lips again, and looked about with an air intimating a high degree of contempt; Mink hung upon his words with an oppressive sense of helplessness and eagerness, that now and then found vent in an unconscious long-drawn sigh — “ well, he’s a selfish, ambitious sort of fellow, and he’s found out it’s mighty popular to make a blow about cleaning up the docket, and avoiding the law’s delays, and trotting the lawyers right through. He ’ll hold court till twelve o’clock at night, and he just opposes, tooth and nail, every motion for delay. I reckon he’d make it look as if we were afraid to come to trial, if we wanted a continuance ; so it’s just as well, if you feel ready, for we might n’t get it, after all.”
Mink experienced a new fear. “Ain’t he a mighty bad kind of a jedge ter hev ? ” he faltered, quaking before the mental vision of the man who held his fate in the hollow of his hand.
“ No,” said Harshaw musingly, “ he ain’t a bad judge for us.” He suddenly flung his chair back on its hind legs, and crossed his own legs, which seemed hardly long enough for the feat and looked most uncommonly plump in that position. “ Gwinnan ain’t a bad judge for us, for this reason. He’s mighty apt to lean to public opinion, but he’s a sound lawyer, and he’s mighty careful about his rulings. He don’t get reversed by the S’preme Court. That’s what he sets on the bench for : not to administer justice, — he don’t think about justice once a week, — but to be affirmed by the S’preme Court. He’s more particular than Averill in little things, and he won’t let the attorney-general walk over him, like Averill does, — sorter spunky.”
“ I hev seen the ’torney-gineral, — hearn him speak wunst. They ’lowed he war a fine speaker,” submitted Mink, anxious concerning the untried, unmeasured forces about to be arrayed against him.
“ Mighty fine,” said Harshaw, derisively. “ Got a beautiful voice — for calling hogs! ”
He laughed, thrust out his red tongue, and rose. “ Oh, bless my soul, I plumb forgot! ” he exclaimed. “ There’s a girl out here wanting to see you. Don’t know but what she may be your Dulcinea;” he winked jocosely. “ Perkins said she might come in if you want to see her. Looks like she’s walked about forty mile, — plumb beat out.”
Mink was flattered. Instantly he thought of Elvira, and he remembered the journey with his offering of the coon that fateful night.
“ She hev got dark hair an’ eyes, an’ air toler’ble leetle ter be growed up ? ” he asked. The remark was in the form of a question, but it was uttered with the conviction of certainty.
“ Lord, no ! Sandy hair, big brown eyes, and tall, and ” —
He paused, for Mink had risen suddenly.
“ Ye go tell her,” he said, passionately, pointing at the door, — “ go straight an’ tell her ter keep in mind what I said bout’n the harnt on Thunderhead, an’ how I ’lowed she favored him ; ef she can’t kill, she sp’iles yer chance.”
“ Why, look here, Mink,” remonstrated the lawyer.
“ Go ’long an’ tell her ! ” cried Mink, imperatively. “ Tell her I want her ter cl’ar out from hyar. Tell her I can’t breathe ef she ’s nigh.” He clutched at his throat, tearing open his collar with both hands. “ ’T war her ez brung me hyar, ’T war her ez got me locked an’ barred up. An’ now I don’t want ter see her no mo’ ez long ez I live. Gin her that word from me, — an’ the Herder on Thunderhead what she favors.”
The lawyer, with a gesture of expostulation, left the cell, appreciating that it was an unpleasant job to tell the travelstained apparition at the door that her journey was in vain.
She was sitting upon the doorstep, in the sunshine, her brown bonnet hanging half off her golden head ; her homespun dress seemed dark upon the rough gray stone. She watched absently, with her serious brown eyes, the gauzy wings of a blue-bottle that droned slumberously by. She held with idle hands the yellow blossoms of the golden-rod that she had plucked by the way. There was no passing in the street, hardly a sound ; so still she sat that a lizard, basking in the sun, did not scruple to run across her motionless feet. She had taken off her coarse shoes to ease them after her long walk, for they were swollen and bruised.
She looked up with a start when the lawyer stood in the door. “ No, sis,” he said in a debonair fashion, glancing about the street. “ Mink ain’t in a good humor to-day, and you can’t see him.”
She cast up to him her haggard eyes, so full of appeal, of fear, of woe. He had no intention of stabbing her with the cruel words of the message. “ You can’t see him to-day; some other day.” He waved his hand with a promissory gesture, and was turning away.
She sprang up with a cry. “ They hendered him ! They would n’t let him ! ” she said, with quivering lips.
“ Yes, yes. They hindered him,” he kindly prevaricated.
Her eyes were suddenly all on fire. As he caught their gleam he hesitated, looking at her. Her cheeks were flushed. Her teeth were set. She raised her clenched hand.
“ He lied ter me, that thar jailer. He ’lowed I mought see Reuben. He lied ! He lied ! I ’ll — I ’ll ” — She dropped her threatening hand. “ Lord! Lord ! what kin I do ! ”
“ Look here, girl,” said the lawyer, alarmed at the idea of an indignant demonstration on the part of any of his client’s friends. “ ’T ain’t the jailer’s fault. Mink said he would n’t see you.”
She stood as if stunned for a moment. Then, her confidence in Mink rebounding, “ I don’t b’lieve ye ! ” she said, bluntly.
“ Well, then, may be you will when I tell you that he told me to ask you to clear out, and to remind you of the ‘ harnt ’ on Thunderhead that he said you favored.”
She shrank back as if he had struck her. He eyed her indignantly. “ I reckon you ’ll believe me now. Well, begone. We’ve had enough of you.”
He turned and walked off briskly, He heard the court-house bell jangling out its summons, for the chancery court was in session, and he quickened his pace. He gave a start of irritation when ho became aware that she was following him. He turned and faced her.
“ What do you want ? ” he said, abruptly.
“ I want ter tell ye su’thin’,” she gasped. She leaned forward as if to touch his arm. He moved suddenly back, and she almost fell. She showed no anger, but came a faltering pace nearer, with the same imploring gesture. “ I mus’ tell ye suthin’ ’bout Reuben, soon ez I git my breath, — suthin’ ye ‘d never b’lieve.”
Perhaps it was an unreasoning anger which possessed him, but he was late, and she had cast the lie in his teeth, and somehow her presence irked him, and he vaguely sought to forecast what she had to say.
“ No, you won’t, for I ain’t going to listen. You just take yourself off, and stay at home if you know how, and satisfy yourself with the harm you have done already. You ‘d better put out, and so I tell you.”
He turned once more and strode away rapidly. He heard a faint cry behind him, and, for a time, pursuing steps. He quickened his own. In fact, he presently ran lightly, — marvelously lightly for a man of his bulk, — laughing within himself the while at the absurdity and incongruity of the episode, should it be noticed by any one in the sleepy streets. After a little he looked over his shoulder, half in relenting, half in curiosity.
She was not following him. She was limping back toward her shoes, that lay on the steps of the jail.
It was close upon nightfall when Alethea, on her homeward journey, reached the banks of the Scolacutta River. It still had a melancholy version of the sunset imprinted upon its surface. It was full of dreamy crimson tints, and olive-green shadows, and gentle pensive effects of un distinguish able lustres. Its ceaseless monotone was on the air ; its breath was of freshness and fragrance ; the bluffs that towered above it gave the austerity of rugged rocks and the dignity of great heights to the incidents of its margin. Stunted trees clung to the niches of these splintered cliffs ; everywhere along the banks the leaves of the sourwood were red and gav as a banner, the tassels all gleaming and white ; the dogwood showed a flaunting ochreous tint, but the sweetgum was as yet only a dull purple, and the sumach had merely hung out its garnet tufts. An amethystine haze rested on the nearest mountains, softening the polychromatic richness that glimmered all along the great slope ; further away they wore the softened blue of autumn. The scene was familiar to her, for she had already passed through the gap of the mountain down into Eskaqua Cove, and her aunt Dely’s house lay among the tawny cornfields on the other side. Very lonely this habitation was among the great company of the mountains ; beyond the breadths of the “ flat woods ” they rose about it on every side with a visible immensity of wilderness which belittled the slight hold of humanity expressed in the house, the fields, the vagrant road that seemed itself a wanderer, for there was no bourn in sight in all the wide landscape to which it might be supposed to tend.
The log cabin had heard the river sing for nearly a century. It had appeared for many years the ready prey of decay : the chimney leaned from the wall, the daubing was falling from the chinking, there were holes in the floor and the roof. Suddenly a great change came over it. The frivolity of glass enlivened the windows where batten shutters had formerly sufficed ; a rickety little porch was added ; a tiny room was partitioned off from this, and Mrs. Purvine rejoiced in the distinction of possessing a company bedroom, which was far from being a haven of comfort to the occasional occupant of those close quarters. She had always been known to harbor certain ambitions. Her husband’s death, some two or three years before, had given her liberty to express her tastes more fully than when hampered by his cautious conservatism. And now, although the fields might be overrun with weeds, and the sheep have the rot, and the poultry the cholera, and the cow go dry, and the “ gyarden truck ” defer to the crab-grass, and the bees, clever insects, prepare only sufficient honey for their own use, Mrs. Purvine preserved the appearance of having made a great rise in life, and was considered by the casual observer a “ mighty spry widder woman.” Such a one as Mrs. Sayles shook her head and spared not the vocabulary. “ Dely,” she would observe, " air my husband’s sister, an’ I ain’t goin’ ter make no words about her. Ef she war ennybody else’s sister, I ’d up an’ down declar’ ez she hev been snared in the devices o’ the devil, fur sech pride ez hern ain’t godly, — naw sir ! nur religion nuther. Glass in the winder! Shucks! she’d better be thinkin’ ’bout gittin’ light on salvation, — that she hed ! Folks ez knowed Dely whenst she war a gal knowed she war headin’ an’ sot agin her elders, an’ run away from home ter git married, an’ this is what kem of sech onregenerate ways. Glass in the winder! I ’ll be bound the devil looks through that winder every day at yer aunt Dely whenst she sets thar an’ spins. He gits a glimge o’ her when she ain’t a-lookin’. The pride o’ the yearth is mighty strong in her. Ye oughter sati’fy yerse’f with ’sociatin’ with her in this life, fur ye ain’t a-goin’ ter meet up with her in heaven. Naw, sir, yer aunt Dely ’ll remember that winder in the darkness o’ Torment, an’ ef she war ennybody else’s sister than my own husband’s I’d say so.”
Mrs. Purvine was standing on the porch, so fine a manifestation of her pride, and gazing with unrecognizing curiosity at Alethea as the girl came up the stony hillside.
Aunt Dely hardly looked the woman of a vaulting worldly ambition. She had a broad, moon-like face and blue eyes with much of the whites showing, the more as she had a trick of looking over her spectacles. She had no teeth; despite her social culture she had never heard of a false set, or her mouth would have been a glittering illustration of the dentist’s art. She held in her hand a short clay pipe, from which the smoke slowly curled. She wore a blue-checked homespun apron, but a calico gown, being, according to report, “ too triflin’ ” to do very much weaving at home, and the cross-roads store was only ten miles from her house, on the road to Shaftesville. She had journeyed even to the town, twice or thrice in her life, mounted on a gray mare with a colt at her heels, and looked from beneath her sunbonnet at the metropolitan splendors and habits with a starveling’s delight in such of the meagre conventional graces of life as the little village possessed, and as were vouchsafed to her comprehension. Nobody knew whence she derived her “ vagrantin’ ways ; ” for these excursions earned for her the reputation of an insatiate traveler, and her frivolous disposition and pride were the occasion of much reprehension and comment. They could hardly take the form of remonstrance, however, without open rupture ; for Mrs. Purvine, right well aware of them, with an acumen and diplomacy grafted like some strange exotic upon her simple character, was always bewailing the frivolous tendency of the times, the pride of “ some folks,” the worthless nature of women nowadays, and foisting herself upon her interlocutor as an example of all homely and primitive tastes and virtues.
Her moon face suddenly assumed an expression of recognition and of stern reprobation as she came solemnly down from the door, a feat which it was difficult to perform with stateliness or even safety ; for the two or three plank steps were only set against the wall, and although far more imposing than the hewn logs or rough stones customary elsewhere, they were extremely insecure. Often when a foot was placed upon the lowest of the number they careened forward with the weight.
Mrs. Purvine accomplished the descent with dignity, and as she held the gate open she addressed her niece, looking full in her tear-stained face : —
“ I knowed it would kem ter this, — I knowed it, sooner or later. What’s that thar step-mother o’ yourn been doin’ ter ye ? ”
Albeit Mrs. Sayles had few equals as a censor, aunt Dely, with a secret intuition of her animadversions, returned them as best she might, and Mrs. Sayles’s difficult position as a step-mother rendered her as a shorn lamb to the blast.
“ Nuthin’,” sobbed Alethea, — “ nuthin’ ez I knows on.” She started up the steps, which bounded forward with a precipitancy which had a startling effect as if the house had jumped at her. Alethea stumbled, and Mrs. Purvine commented upon her awkwardness : —
“ Look at the gal, — usin’ her feet with no mo’ nimbleness ‘n a cow. Lawsa-massy, young folks ain’t what they war in my day. Whenst I war a gal, ’fore I jined the church an’ tuk ter consortin’ with the saints, ye oughter hev seen me dance ! Could shake my foot along with the nimblest! But I ain’t crackin’ up bran dances, nuther. I ’m a perfessin’ member, — bless the Lord ! Satan hides in a fiddle. Ye always remember yer aunt Dely tole ye that word. An’ ef ever ye air condemned ter Torment, don’t ye up an’ ’low ez ye hed no teachin’; don’t ye do it.” Then looking over her spectacles, “ What ails ye, ef ’t ain’t that step-mother? ”
“ I hev been ter Shaftesville. I bided all night at Cousin Jane Scruggs’s in Piomingo Cove, an’ next day I footed it ter town.”
This announcement would have surprised any one more than the roving Mrs. Purvine. Even she demanded, as in duty bound, with every intimation of deep contempt, “ Laws - a - massy, what ye wanter go ter Shaftesville fur?”
“ I went ter see Reuben Lorey in jail,” replied Alethea.
Mrs. Purvine looked at her with an expression of deep exasperation. “ Waal,” she observed sarcastically, “ I’d hev liked ter seen him thar, too. I ain’t seen ez good a fit ez Mink Lorey an’ the county jail fur this many a day. Kent hyar one night, an’ tuk them bran’ new front steps o’ mine, an’ hung ’em up on the martin-house. An’ thar war a powerful deep snow that night, an’ it kivered the consarn so ez nex’ mornin’ we could n’t find out what unyearthly thing hed fell on the martin-house, an’ we war fairly feared ’t war a warnin’ or a jedgmint till we missed them front steps. They ain’t never been so stiddy sence.”
Alethea had laid aside her bonnet and bathed her face. She was going about the house in a way which was a tribute to Mrs. Purvine’s hospitality, for she felt much at home there. She had glanced toward the great fireplace, where the ashes piled on the top of the oven and the coffee-pot perched on the trivet over the coals told that the work of preparing supper was already done. She suddenly took down the quilting frame, suspended to the beams above by long bands of cloth, produced thread and thimble from her pocket, and, seating herself before it as before a table, began to quilt dexterously and neatly where Mrs. Purvine’s somewhat erratic performance had left off long before. The smouldering firelight touched her fine, glistening hair, her pensive, downcast face; there was still light enough in the room through the pernicious glass window to reveal the grace of her postures and her slender figure. Aunt Dely, with some instinct for beauty native in her blood along with her “ vagrantin’ ways ” and her original opinions, Contemplated her for a time, and presently commented upon her.
“ I’m yer father’s own sister,” she averred. “ I ain’t denyin’ it none, though he did go an’ marry that thar Jessup woman, ez nobody could abide; an’ I hate ter see a peart gal like youuns, ez air kin ter me, a-sp’ilin’ her eyes an’ a-cryin’ over a feller ez her folks don’t favor noways. Yer elders knows bes’, Lethe.”
“ Why, aunt Dely, you-uns married a man ez yer elders never favored; they war powerful sot agin him.”
Aunt Dely was clad in logic as in armor.
“ An’ look how it turned out, — him dead an’ me a widder woman! ”
Alethea stitched on silently for a moment. Then she observed with unusual softness, for she feared being accounted “ sassy,” “ I ’lowed I hed hearn ye say he war fifty-five year old, when he died.”
“ What’s fifty-five ? ” demanded aunt Dely aggressively. “ I knowed a man ez war a hunderd an’ ten.”
And so Alethea was forced to acquiesce in the proposition that aunt Dely’s consort had been cut off in the flower of his youth as a judgment for having some thirty years previous eloped with the girl of his heart.
Both women looked conscious when a sudden step sounded in cautious ascent of the flight before the door, which illustrated so pointedly the truism that pride goes before a fall, and a tall, lank, stoop-shouldered, red - headed fellow strode in at the door.
“ Air yer eyesight failin’ ye, Jerry Price ?” Mrs. Purvine admonished him. He was her husband’s nephew. “ Thar ’s Lethe Sayles.”
Being called to order in this manner might well embarrass the young man, who had not expected to see Alethea, and who was rebuked for the dereliction before he was well in the room.
He shambled up to shake hands with her with a somewhat elaborate show of cordiality.
“ Waal, Lethe,” he exclaimed, “ ye air a sight fur sore eyes! Ain’t seen ye fur a month o’ Sundays.”
“ Looks like she hed sore eyes herself, bound with red ferretin’,” commented Mrs. Purvine gruffly. She often had a disposition, as she averred, to knock these young people’s heads together, — a sufficiently dangerous ballistic rite, for according to her account there were not two such hard heads in all Eskaqua Cove and Piomingo to boot. She had cherished an earnest desire to make a match between them, frustrated only by their failure to second the motion. They were well aware of this, and it impaired the ease of their relations, hampering even the exchange of the compliments of the season.
“ Young folks take the lead ! " Mrs. Purvine often exclaimed, oblivious of her own sentimental history. “ Ef nobody war wantin’ ’em ter marry they’d be runnin’ off with one another.”
She had considered this breach of obedience on the part of her husband’s nephew a special instance of filial ingratitude, and had begun to remind him, and in fact to remember, all that she had done for him.
“ Folkses ’lowed ter me, whenst Jerry Price’s mammy died, ez I hed better leave him be, an’ his aunt Melindy Jane would keer fur him. An’ I hed n’t been merried but a few years, an’ bein’ ez I runned away my folks would n’t give me nuthin’, an’ me an’ my old man war most o’ the furniture we hed in the house. But law ! we hed plenty arter a while, an’ ter spare ! ” cried the rich aunt Dely. “ An’ they all ’lowed I hed better not lumber myse’f up with other folkses chil’n. Waal, I never expected ter, when I went ter the fun’el. But thar on the floor sot the hardest-featured infant I ever seen, red-headed, blinkin’ eye, lean, an’ sucked his thumb ! An’ all them folks war stand in’ ’round him, lookin’ down at him with thar eyes all perverted an’ stretched, like a gobbler looks at a deedie ’fore he pecks him on the noodle. An’ they were all pityin’ Melindy Jane fur hevin’ ter keer fur him. Thar she war settin’ wropped in a shawl, an’ ’pearin’ ez ef she could bite a ten-penny nail in two, sayin’ she mus submit ter the Lord ! Waal, ’peared ter me ez I jes’ could view the futur’, an’ the sorter time Red-head would hev along o’ a woman ez war submittin’ on account o’ him ter the Lord ! An’ I jes’ ups an’ lied afore ’em all. I sez, ‘ That’s the parties’ child I ever see. Surely he is! ’ An’ I sez right hearty ter the b’reaved husband, ‘ Ephr’im, ef ye ‘ll gin him ter me, I ’ll keer fur him till he’s able ter keer fur me.’ An’ Eph looked up ez s’prised an’ pleased, an’ says, ‘ Will ye, Dely ? ’ An’ ef ye ’ll b’lieve me, arter I hed called him ‘ purty ’ Melindy June ’lowed she wanted him, an’ hed nuthin’ ter say ’bout the Lord. But I jes’ stepped inter the floor an’ snatched him up under my arm, an’ set out an’ toted him five mile home. An’ lean ez he ’peared, he war middlin’ heavy. I rubbed some pepper on his thumb that night. He ain t sucked it sence.”
Jerry Price used to listen, calmly smoking, hardly identifying himself — as what man would ! — with the homely subject of the sketch ; and yet with a certain sense of obligation to Mrs. Purvine, returning thanks in some sort in behalf of the unprepossessing infant.
“ Ye an’ me made a right good trade out’n it, ain’t we, aunt Dely ? ” he would say.
She formerly accorded jocund acquiescence to this blithe proposition. But now she would exclaim, “ Did ennybody think ye ’d grow up ter set yerse’f ter spite me, an’ won’t do nuthin’ I ax ye ? Kase I hev sot my heart on hevin’ Lethe Sayles ter live along o’ me, ye won’t go courtin’ her.”
The specious Price would demand, “ How d’ ye know ez I won’t ? ”
And hope would once more gleam from the ashes of Mrs. Purvine’s disappointments.
“ Lethe’s been ter Shaftesville,” she said, nodding triumphantly, sure to impress Jerry with this statement, for he was as worldly as she. Then, with sudden animation, she turned to her niece: “ Lethe, did ye see enny lookin’-glasses thar like mine ?” She pointed to a cherry-framed mirror, some ten or twelve inches square, hung upon the wall at a height that could reflect naught but the opposite wall. It was as well, perhaps, for glass of that quality could only return a corrugated image that might have induced depression of spirit in one gazing on the perversions of its surface. The walls were pasted over with pictures from almanacs and bright-tinted railway advertisements ; for her husband had once been postmaster of the invisible neighborhood, and these were the most important trophies and emoluments of the office. They quite covered the mellow brown logs and the daubing between, and were as crude and gairish a substitute as well might be. They were the joy of aunt Dely’s heart, however, and as she dwelt upon them and committed them to memory they assumed all the functions of a literature. She valued hardly less a cheap clock that sat upon a shelf, and gave no more intimation of the passage of time than a polite hostess. Whether it had no works, whether it had sustained some internal injury, whether the worldly nephew and aunt had not sufficient knowledge of the springs of its being to wind it up, Alethea never speculated and Mrs. Purvine did not care. It was more than was owned by any one else in her acquaintance, and she rejoiced without stint in its possession.
“ An’ I ’ll be bound ye never seen no clock like mine ! ” she said.
“ Naw ’m,” said Alethea, “ but I jes’ went ter the jail.”
“ What fur ? demanded Jerry. He was leaning a few of the knobs and angles of his long, lank anatomy against the door. He did not notice that he kept the light from Alethea’s work, but she was unwilling to remonstrate, and sewed on in the shadow.
“ She went ter see Mink Lorey,” said his aunt. “ I hope he ’lowed he war sorry fur his sins, — though ’twon’tdohim no good now; oughter hev been sorry fust.”
“ I never seen him,” said Alethea.
Aunt Dely had knelt before the fire for the purpose of investigating the baking of the egg-bread ; she held the lid of the oven up with a bit of kindling, while she turned half around to fix an astonished gaze on the girl.
“ In the name o’ — Moses!” — she produced the adjuration as if she thought it equal to the occasion, — “ what did ye kem hyar lyin’ ’bout’n it, Lethe, an’ sayin ye hed been ter see him ? Ye’ll git yer nose burnt, an’ I ’ll be glad of it,” she broke off suddenly, addressing a hound that, lured by the appetizing odor gushing out from under the lid of the oven, had approached with a sinuous, beguiling motion, and was extending his long neck. " Ye’d look mighty desirable with a blister on it.”
“ I never said I seen Reuben,” returned Alethea, regardless of this interlude. “ He would n’t see me.”
“ What fur ? " asked Jerry excitedly.
The lid fell upon the oven with a crash from Mrs. Purvine’s hand. She was speechless with amazement.
Alethea sat, her hands clasped on the quilting frame, the glow of the firelight full on her glistening hair; her beauty seemed heightened by the refined pathos which weeping often leaves upon the face when it is once more calm. It was hard to say the cruel words, but her voice was steady.
“ He ’lowed I favored the burnt on Thunderhead what sp’iles folkses prospects. I hed ’lowed ter him, when I las’ seen him, ez he oughter gin what he hed ter old man Griff. An’ he went ter Shaftesville. An’ they jailed him.”
Aunt Dely’s moon face turned scarlet. “ Now, ain’t ye up an’ down ’shamed o’ yerse’f, Lethe Ann Styles? Ter set store by a man ez talks ter youuns like that! ” She rose, with a toss of her head. “ The kentry hev got my cornsent ter hang him ! ”
She began to move about more briskly us she placed the plates on the table. The fact of this breach between Alethea and Mink was auspicious to her darling scheme. “ Naw, child,” she said as the girl offered to assist, “ ye set an’ talk ter Jerry ’bout Mink; he wants ter hear ’bout Mink.”
“ I wisht I could be witness fur Reuben,” said Alethea, feeling an intense relief to be able to mention it without revealing her secret. " I believe I could holp Reuben some.”
“ Why n’t ye go ter his lawyer ?” asked Jerry. “ Harshaw, they say, he hev got ter defend him.”
“ He would n’t listen ; he fairly run from me.”
“ In Moses’s name ! ” cried Mrs. Purvine, with sibilant inversion of her favorite exclamation, “ what ails them crazy bucks in Shaftesville ? All of ’em got the jim-jams, in jail an’ out ?”
“ Waal,” said Jerry coolly, “ ef ye want ter tell him sech ez ye know, I ’ll make him listen ter ye. I hev been summonsed on the jury fur the nex’ term, an’ I ‘ll hev ter go ter Shaftesville or be fined. An’ ef ye air thar I "11 see Harshaw don’t run from ye, — else he won’t run fur, no mo’. He ’ll lack his motions arter that.”
“ Ai-yi ! When Jerry talks he ain’t minchin’ his words ! ” cried aunt Dely admiringly.
Alethea was very grateful for this stalwart championship. She said nothing, however, for she had no cultured phrases of acknowledgment. Her spirits rose; her flagging brain was once more alert; she was eager to be alone, — to think what she would say to the lawyer, to Mink, on the witness-stand. She hardly noticed Mrs. Purvine’s manner of self-gratulation, or her frequent glances toward her young people as they sat together before the dull fire. Alethea was very beautiful, and Jerry — Mrs. Purvine never deluded herself with denials of her adopted son’s ugliness — was good and manly, and as sharp as a brier. Any man might be esteemed a poor match for looks, unless it were the worthless Mink, so safe in jail.
The feat a woman’s imagination can accomplish in a given time is the most triumphant illustration of the agility of the human mind. Before either spoke again Mrs. Purvine had elaborated every detail of the courtship and engagement, pausing from time to time, as she placed the dishes on the table, and looking about the room in complete abstraction, planning how to arrange the furniture to give space for the dancing at the infair.
“ Set out the supper in the shed-room, an’ take these hyar two beds an’ thar steads up-steers inter the roof-room,” she muttered, measuring with her eye. “ The loom kin jes’ be h’isted inter the yard — an’ I don’t keer ef I never see it agin — and the spinning-wheels set in the bedroom.’’ As to Satan, she had forgotten that he was quite capable of making himself small enough to hide in the fiddle.
The light was growing dull out of doors; the stridulous voices of the September insects sounded ceaselessly, scarcely impinging upon the sense of quiet, so monotonous was the iteration of their song. The strokes of Isham’s axe, betokening activity at the wood-pile, seemed to cleave the silence, and reverberated from the mountains, as if the echoes were keeping a tally. Alethea had rolled up the quilting frame, and it swung from the beams. The children were trooping in, three great awkward boys, who evidently formed themselves upon Jerry Price’s manner, except the youngest, a lad of fourteen, whose face had a certain infantile lower, saved over from his juvenile days, and concentrating readily into a pout. Even his mother admitted that he was “ sp’iled some.” Together they made short work of the egg-bread and “ br’iled bacon.”
They tarried not long afterward, but trooped noisily up the ladder to the roofroom ; and as they strode about on the floor, which was also the ceiling of the room below, it seemed momently that they would certainly come through.
Jerry lighted his pipe and sat on the doorstep ; the fashionable aunt Duly lighted hers and took a chair near. All the doors stood open, for the night was sultry. The stars were very bright in the moonless sky. The dogs sat, lolling their tongues, on the porch, or lay in the dewy grass; making incursions now and then into the room, climbing cavalierly over Jerry’s superfluity of long legs, and nosing about among the ashes to make sure that none of the scraps had escaped.
“ Don’t ye know I never waste nuthin’, ye grisly gluttons ? ” demanded aunt Duly, the model housekeeper. But their fat sides did not confirm this statement, and, bating a wag of homage in the extreme tip of their tails, they paid no attention to her.
“ What I’m a-honin’ ter know,” said Jerry Price presently, “ air how them boys ez war along o’ Mink an’ war summonsed ez witnesses air goin’ ter prove he war drunk. Ef they ’low Mink war drunk the ’torney-gin’al ’ll try ter make out he war sober. He’s a-goin’ ter ax, ‘ Whar’d he git the whiskey, bein ’s all the still thar is air a bonded still, an’ by law can’t sell less ’n five gallons. Then them boys ’ll be afeard ter tell whar they got the whiskey, kase folks mought think they knowed who war makin’ it. An’ ef the moonshiners war raided, they mought declar’ ez some o’ them boys war aidin’ an’ abettin’ ’em, an’ the revenuers would arrest them too.”
“ Don’t, ye know who air makin’ it ?” Alethea asked, a vivid picture in her mind of Poke’s barn, and Jerry Price and his cronies stalking their fantastic rounds about it.
“ Naw, sir! an’ don’t wanter, nuther. I war along o’ ’em in the woods that night. I holped tote the jug. We lef’ it empty in Boke’s barn an’ fund it filled, but I dunno nuthin’ mo’.”
“ Lethe,” said aunt Dely, handing her a ball of gray yarn, the knitting-needles thrust through an ill-knit beginning of a sock, “ I wish ye’d try ter find out whar I drapped them stitches, an’ ravel it out an’ knit it up agin. I hate ter do my work over, an’ I hev ter he powerful partic’lar with Jerry’s socks, — he wears ’em out so fas’. Ye ’d low he war a thousand-legs, ef ye could see the stacks of ’em I hev ter darn.”
Alethea drew up a great rocking-chair, and now and then leaned over its arms toward the fire to catch the red glow of the embers upon her work, as her deft hands repaired the damages of Mrs. Purvinc’s inattention. Suddenly she said in a pondering tone, “ Why would the ’torney-gineral ruther prove Mink war sober ? ”
“ Kase ef he war proved drunk the jury would lean ter him,” said Jerry.
She laid her work down in her lap, and gazed intently at him. His face had the transient glow of his pipe upon it, and then, as he took it from his lips, was as indistinct as his long, lank figure disposed in the doorway.
“ They ought n’t ter do it, — but they do. I ain’t never seen nare jury hold a drunk man ez up an’ down ’sponsible ez ef he war sober. They ’ll lean ter him ef he could be proved drunk.”
Alethea said nothing. Her mental attitude was one of intense receptivity. Her keen appreciation of how much depended on her comprehension, her desire that no point should escape her attention, were positive pain in their acute consciousness.
The discerning Jerry went on with that acumen and cogency which were such odd concomitants of his ignorance and uncouthness : —
“ It makes me laff every time I see a witness swore ter tell ‘ the truth, the whole truth, an’ nuthin’ but the truth.’ Folks is so apt ter believe the truth air jes’ what they wanter b’lieve. Git them boys skeered up right smart ’bout the revenuers on one side an’ the moonshiners on t’ other, an’ they ’ll feel the truth war ez none o’ we-uns bed ennythin’ ter drink that night; mought hev lied a dram o’ cider, or mebbe nuther stronger ’n yerb tea, but nobody war bodaciously boozy. Then they don’t know sure enough whar the liquor kem from; mos’ folks don t b’lieve thar’s no still round ’bout the mountings now.”
Alethea leaned back in the rockingchair, her nerveless hands falling idly upon the work in her lap. The crude mosaic of advertisements on the walls started out with abnormal distinctness, as a tiny flame rose from the embers and fell into sudden extinction among the ashes, leaving the only picture in the room the dusky night-scene dimly painted in purple and dove color upon the panes of the window.
It was only she who could remedy the deficiency in this valuable testimonyShe knew full well the source of their secret supply. She it was who had seen the jug left in the barn by the roistering blades, and the moonshiner swing down from the loft to seize upon it. She had his full confession from his own lips. She appreciated the distinctions the jury would make between hilarious drunken sport and coolly intentional malice in the prisoner, and that it was in her hands to sacrifice one of these men to the other.
For the first time she was quick to distrust her own intuitions. Her tyrant conscience, always hitherto inexorably immolating every human wish upon the altars of the right, seemed now the suavest mentor, urging that her lover’s liberty, his life for aught she knew, should not be jeopardized to protect a man whose vocation she accounted a curse to the community. She felt a secret amaze that her first vague project should expand into a fully equipped plan, with hardly a conscious process of thought to give it shape and detail. Her natural doubts, her efforts at alternatives, were flouted by some inner imperious determination. It was in the nature of a concession from this suddenly elate and willful power that she obtained her own consent, as she would have phrased it, to warn Sam Marvin, for the sake of his “ houseful,” that he might elude capture, and perchance save his still and appliances from destruction. And she would warn Jerry, too, despite that triumphant, tumultuous consciousness which held all else so slight since she had knowledge that could aid in proving Mink’s irresponsibility for what he had really done, and his innocence of the graver crime of which he was accused.
“ Jerry,” she said, observing that Mrs. Purvine had fallen asleep in her chair, her moon face all askew, her idle hands neatly rolled up in her apron, — “ Jerry, I reckon ye would n’t want me a-goin’ testifyin’ ter Shaftesville ef ye knowed I seen you-uns leave the jug that evenin’ in Poke’s barn. I sca’cely b’lieved ’t war ye, at fust, all of ye acted so cur’ous ; I ’lowed ‘t war sperits in yer likeness. An’ I seen the distiller kem an’ git the jug. An’ he seen me.”
“ Look-a-hyar, Lethe !” exclaimed Jerry, seriously. “ Don’t joke ’bout sech ez that. Ye know the moonshiners mought fairly kill ye, ef they fund out ye knowed an’ tole on ’em. They hev done sech afore now. Ye keep yer mouth shet and yer tongue ’twixt yer teeth, ef ye knows what’s healthy fur ye.”
“ I ain’t jokin’,” said Alethea.
“ Ye mind what I say,” declared Jerry. “ I ain’t afeard myself o’ the moonshiners nor the revenuers, nare one, — ain’t got no call ter be, — but words sech ez ye air speakin’ air powerful ticklish an’ techy kind o’ talk. Ye better tend ter the cows an’ sheep an’ weavin’, an’ sech, an’ leave the men’s business alone. I hev never knowed,” said Jerry, a trifle acrimoniously, “ a woman git ten steps away from home but what she acts ez ef she had tuk off her brains an’ let’ ’em thar along of her every-day clothes.”
“I jes’ went ter git the lam’ out’n a hole,” said Alethea, in no wise daunted, and ready with her retort. " His leg’s mendin’, though he hops some yit. An’ I war in the cow-pen when the moonshiner kem an’ talked ter me.”
“ Listen at ye, a-settin’ talkin’ ’bout law-breakers,” said the fastidious Mrs. Purvine, who had abruptly waked up. “ I ain’t kin ter none o’ ’em. Naw, sir, an’ I would n’t own it ef I war. Mind me o’ yer uncle Pettin Guyther, ez war always talkin’ ’bout murder an’ robbery: every tale he told they killed the folks a diff’ent way, — spilled thar blood somehows, an’ cracked thar skulls bodaciously ; an’ whenever he ’d git hisself gone from hyar I useter be ’feared lawless ones would kem hyar of a night ter thieve an’ kill, knowin’ ez I hed consider’ble worldly goods. The Bible say riches ain’t no ’count. Mebbe so, but I ain’t so sure ’bout that.”
Perhaps it was her clock which she had in mind, for — without any monition from it, however — she added, “ Time ter go ter bed, chil’n, — time ter go ter bed.”
She did not rise from her chair at once. She admonished Jerry to “ kiver ” the lire with ashes, and watched him as he did it. Then he tramped up the ladder to tlie roof-room, noisily enough to wake the dead, perhaps, hut not aunt Dely’s boys.
She gave a long, mournful yawn of sleepiness and fatigue, and stretched her arms wearily above her head. Then with sudden cheerfulness she exclaimed, “ Lethe, ye hain’t never hed a chance ter sleep in the bedroom ! ”
She spoke as if there were but one on the face of the earth.
“ Ye hev never been down hyar ’thout yer elders an’ sech, ez ye hev hed ter show respec’ ter, an’ stan’ back fur, — yer step-mam, an’ Jacob Jessup’s wife, an’ sech; but ye shell sleep in the bedroom one time, sure, instead o’ in this room, ez be het up so hot with cookin’ supper in it.”
She rose bustlingly to stir up the fire, that there might be light enough to make the requisite preparations. Alethea’s heart failed her when she thought of the tiny apartment partitioned off at the end of the porch, and beheld her aunt lighting a little tin lamp without a chimney at the fire. The mountain girl, with all the conservatism of her class, possessed the strength of prejudice against innovation which usually appertains to age. The characteristic of years seemed reversed as she looked on with reluctance, and the old woman flustered about, full of her experimental glories and her eager relish of a new fashion. “ Ye kem along, child ! ” she exclaimed, her moon face wreathed with a toothless smile and the redolent emanations of the smoking and sputtering lamp. It was placed on a shelf in the little room, and as Alethea buttoned the door it gave out less light than a suffocating odor. It served, however, to reveal the timbers that formed the sides of the room, for it was built after the treasures of the post-office had been exhausted in the decoration of the main house. Upon them hung an array of Mrs. Purvine’s dresses, suspended by the neck, and suggesting the uncheerful idea of a row of executed women. The bed was high, huge with feathers and heaped with quilts. There were no means of ventilation, unless sundry cracks incident to mountain architecture might be relied upon. Alethea made haste to extinguish the lamp. When she had climbed the altitudes of the feather bed she could not sleep. The roof-room at home, with its windows and its sweeps of high air, was not so fine, it might be, but as she smothered by slow degrees she thought poorly of fashion. Her brain was hot with the anxious, strenuous thoughts that seethed through it. She was much less cheerful as the hours wore on. The recollections of the sad day bore heavily upon her spirit. Over and again Mink’s cruel words, the ridicule to which the lawyer had subjected her, in her own estimation, the affront to her dignity,— she had no such fine name for it, she could only feel, — came back to her, and she could but marvel that the evening had passed so placidly ; she wondered that she even lived, so acute were the pangs of her wounded pride. She had an ineffable repugnance to the idea of ever seeing Harshaw again ; for herself alone, tor her life, she felt, she would have made no further effort. “ I ’ll do it fur Reuben, though,” she said. The thought of him, too, was very bitter. Her wakeful eyes were hot, but they harbored no tears. Once she slipped down from the bed and unbuttoned the door, hoping to sleep with the influx of air. It came in fresh, sweet, full of the sense of dew. The night was not black ; only a subdued gray shadow lay over all the land : how its passive, neutral aspect expressed the idea of rest! Looking out from the cavernous overhanging portal of the little porch, she could see the Great Smoky, darkly rising above the cove. She heard the stir of a bird roosting in an althea bush by the gate, and then a scuttling sound under the house. She had moved very softly, but the vigilant Bose bounded upon the porch. He knew her — for she spoke to him instantly— as well as he knew his name, but for some unexplained affectation of his nature he would not recognize her, but sat before her door and barked at her with a vehemence that made the roof ring, and reverberated from the mountains as if a troop of wolves were howling in the melancholy woods. Twice he tired of this pastime, and withdrew under the house, coming out again to renew it. She shut the door, finally, and again and again he threw himself against it, at last lying down before it and growling at intervals. She fell asleep after a time, through sheer fatigue, regardless of the lack of air in the little dungeon , waking heavy-eyed and fagged in the morning, able to acquiesce only faint-heartedly when aunt Dely triumphantly saluted her: “ Waal, Lethe, now nobody kin never say ez ye ain’t slep’ in the bedroom.”
All day she felt the effects of her vigil. She thought it was this which had touched her courage. She stood still with a quaking at her heart, when, climbing the Great Smoky, she reached the forks in the road where she should turn off to go to Sam Marvin’s house. Jerry Price had driven her in the oxwagon as far as the foot of the mountain, but slow as the team was it had long ago dwindled in the distance to a mere speck, finally becoming invisible. There was no view of the valley from the forks of the road. The woods were immeasurable about her, all splendid with the pomp and state of autumn. Those great trees, ablaze with color, — the flaming yellow of the hickory, the rich, dull purple of the sweet-gum, the crimson of the oaks, — reached up in endless arches above her head, all boldly painted against the blue sky. An incredible brilliancy of effect was afforded by the long vistas, free of undergrowth, and carpeted with the poly-tinted leaves. Among them often the full purple clusters of the muscadines hung, the vines climbing to the tops of the trees, and then trailing over to the ground. As she stood she heard a creaking and straining of the strong cables, — a fox in their midst as they lay tangled upon the earth. She noted, too, the translucent globes of the persimmon hanging upon trees denuded of all but a few yellow leaves.
She sat down on a log at the forks of the road, feeling greatly perturbed and anxious. To do what she proposed to do was to take her life in her hands. Not her step-mother alone, but Jacob Jessup, had warned her, and Jerry Price had repeated what they had said almost in their very words. But they had only sought to curb her foolish tongue. They had never dreamed of the reckless temerity of going into the moonshiner’s den to defy him, proclaim herself the informer, and warn him to save himself. He had already threatened her ; she remembered his stern, vehement face in the closing dusk. She wondered that her mind should balk from the decision so imperatively urged upon it. She seemed, as it were, to catch herself in lapses of attention. Often she looked, first at one, then at the other, of the roads, — neither visible in the midst of the foliage for more than a few yards up the steep ascent, — as if she expected some diversion, some extraneous aid, in her dilemma, something to happen to decide it for her.
What, she said to herself, if never again she should behold this place ? What if, in taking choice of the forks of the road, she should take a path she might never tread again ?
And then she wondered that she should notice that the log on which she sat was a “ lick log,” should speculate whether the cattle often came here for salt, should look idly into the cleft within it to see if perchance there were still salt there.
It would be safer, it might be better for all, to give her testimony if it should be called for, and leave Sam Marvin to the law. “ I’m fairly feared o’ him, ennyways. I’m feared ter go thar an’ let him know that he ’ll git fund out, mebbe, fur I ’ll tell on him ef I ’m summonsed ez a witness. My step-mother’s always sayin’ I ’m a meddler, an mebbe I be.”
She listened to the sound of an outgushing roadside spring. She looked up at the new moon, which seemed to follow the lure of the wind beckoning in the trees. They shook their splendid plumes together like an assemblage of bowing courtiers, gayly bedight.
She remembered the “ houseful,” the pinching poverty, the prison, the destruction of the still. She rose reluctantly and turned to the left. Her eyes were bright and distended ; her cheeks were flushed ; her red lips parted. She listened intently from time to time : not a sound but her own slow, light footfall. She had thought to hear the dogs barking, for the place was now near at hand. When she saw a rail fence terminating the vista her heart gave a great bound; she paused, looking at it with dilated eyes. Then she went on, up and up, till the house came in view, — a forlorn little cabin of one room, with a clay and stick chimney, smokeless! She stared at it, amazed. There was no creature in the hog-pen, which was large for the pretensions of the place,—the distillery refuse explained its phenomenal size, perhaps ; the door of the house swung loose in the wind. There were several slats nailed across the entrance low down, evidently intended to keep certain vagrant juveniles from falling out of the door. No need for this now. The place was deserted. Alethea walked up to the fence, — the bars lay upon the ground, — and stepped over the slats into the empty room. The ashes had been dead for days in the deep chimneyplace ; a few rags in a corner fluttered in the drafts from crannies ; the whole place had that indescribable mournfulness of a deserted human habitation that had so pathetically appealed to her in the little house at Boke’s Spring. Here, it pierced her heart. It was from fear of her that they had fled, — and whither? A poor home at best, where could they find another? She need not have quaked, she said to herself ; they had not sought to still her tongue, lest it should wag against them. They had uprooted their home, and had withdrawn themselves alike from the informer and the harsh law that oppressed them. The tears sprang into her eyes. She deprecated their bitter feeling, their saddened lives, their despoiled hearthstone. And yet it was all wrong that they should distill the brush whiskey, and could she say she was to blame ?
A faint scratching sound struck her attention. It came from behind the closed door of the shed-room. She stood listening for a moment, unable to account for it. Then she went forward and unlatched the door.
A starved cat, emaciated and forlorn to the last degree, forgotten in the removal, shut by some accident into the room, crept quivering out. It went through the dumb show of mewing; it could not walk ; its bones almost pierced its skin. Its plight served to approximate the date of the flitting. It had been there for days, weeks perhaps.
She picked up the creature, and carried it home in her arms.
The little brick court-house in Shaftesville had stood for half a century in the centre of the village square, as impassive as an oracle to the decrees which issued from it. Even time seemed able to make but scant impression on it. True, the changes of the day might register on its windows, flaring with fictitious fires when the sun was in the west, or reflecting the moonlight with pallid glimmers, as if some white-faced spectre had peered out into the midnight through the dusty pane. Mosses clung to its walls; generations of swallows had nested in its chimneys, soaring up from them now and then, and filling the air with bevies of black dots, as if the records below had spewed out a surplusage of punctuation marks and blots : decay had touched a windowsill here and there. But it was still called the “ new court-house,” in contradistinction to the primitive log building that it had replaced ; and if it had some inward monitions of its age once in a while, its long experience of various phases of life, its knowledge of the coming and going of many men who would come and go no more, it was enabled to maintain an air of jaunty unconsciousness, as it was still the handsomest edifice in Shaftesville and of a somewhat imposing architectural pretension. It had beheld many a “ State’s day ” dawn like this, with fitful gusts of wind and rain, with a frenzied surging of the boughs of the hickory-trees about it as if some sylvan grief beset them, with a continual shifting of the mists that veiled the mountains and hung above the roofs of the straggling little town.
The few stores, all of which faced the square, were early full of customers clad in jeans, with heavy cowhide boots deeply bemired by the red clay mud of the streets, and with gruff faces that expressed surly disapproval of the frills and frippery of civilization as exhibited in Shaftesville. Canvas-covered wagons, laden with produce and drawn by oxen, stood before the doors, and among the piles of corn and bags of apples and chestnuts children’s wide-eyed, grave faces looked out cautiously from behind the flaps at the inexplicable “ town ways.” In the intervals of the downpour there was much stir in the streets. Men with long-skirted coats and broad hats and stern, grizzled faces rode about on gaunt mountain horses. Now and then one would be accompanied by an elderly woman in homespun dress, a shawl and sun-bonnet, wearing a settled look of sour disaffection, and chirruping a sharp warning rather than encouragement to her stumbling, antiquated gray mare. There were many horses hitched to the palings of the court-house fence, and numbers of men lounged about the yard, all crowding up the steps as the tuneless clangor of the bell smote the air. Around the door of the jail boys and rowdyish young men assembled, waiting with an indomitable patience, despite the quick, sharp showers, to see the prisoner led out.
The people of Shaftesville regarded the swarm of visitors as somewhat an encroachment upon their vested rights. “ Leave anybody in the mountains ? ” was a frequent raillery.
“ Ye town folks jes’ ’lowed ye ’d hev all the fun o’ seem’ Mink Lorey tried ter yerselves, ye grudgin’ half-livers,” the mountaineers would retort; “ but from what I kin see, I reckon ye air sorter mistook this time, sure.”
And indeed the court-room was crowded as it had seldom been in the fifty years that justice had been meted out here. In the space without the bar the benches groaned and creaked beneath the weight of those who had taken the precaution to secure seats in advance, and to this end had occupied them in dreary waiting since early in the morning. The forethought of one coterie had come to naught, for the bench had succumbed to the weight of the twenty stalwart mountaineers ; its feeble supports bent beneath it, and as the party collapsed in a wild mingling of legs and arms, waving in frantic efforts to recover equilibrium, Shaftesville was “ mighty nigh tickled ter death,” for the first time that day. A burst of jeering laughter filled the room, as the sprawling young fellows sheepishly gathered themselves together, only gradually subdued by the sheriff’s “ Silence in court! ”
The attorney-general was already piling his books and papers on the table, consulting his notes and absorbed in his preparations. He was a man of fifty, perhaps, with a polished bald head that might have been of interest to a phrenologist (for it had sundry marked protuberances), blunt, strong features, a heavy lower jaw, an expression of insistent common sense, and a deep bass voice. He was sonorously clearing his throat just now, and was wiping from his thick, short, grizzled mustache drops of some fluid that gave a pervasive unequivocal odor to his breath. It had only rejoiced his stomach, however, and did not affect the keen acumen for which he was famous, and he was settling to his work with an evident intention of giving the defense all they would be able to wrestle with. The old miller, in his rags and patches, sat beside him as prosecutor. His face wore a strange meekness. Now and then he lifted his bleared eyes with an intent look, as if hearing some unworded counsels; then shook his head and bowed it, with its long white locks, upon his hands clasped on his stick. There were many glances directed toward him, half in commiseration. half in curiosity ; but these sentiments were bated somewhat by familiarity, for there was hardly a man in Cherokee County who had not visited the ruins of the mill and heard much gossip about the old man’s uncharacteristic humility and submissive grief.
A stronger element of interest was added to the impending trial by the circumstance that it was a stranger on the bench. Comparatively few of the assemblage had been in attendance the preceding days, during the trial of the civil cases, and in the preliminary moments, throughout the opening of the court, the reading of the minutes, the calling of the roll, the miscellaneous motions, until the criminal docket was taken up and the case called, the judge sustained the fixed gaze of one half the county.
He did not embody the sleek, successful promise of his reputation. He had the look of a man who has fought hard for all that he has won, and, unsatisfied, is ready to tight again. It was a most unappeased, belligerent spirit expressed in his eyes. They were of a dark gray, and deeply set. He had straight black hair, cut short about his head. His face wore a repressed impatience. It was keen, rather than his eyes : sharp lines were drawn about it, making him seem somewhat older than his age, which was thirty five or six : his nose had a fine, thin nostril; his chin was round and heavy. He wore a long, thin mustache ; now and then he gnawed at the end of it. He sat stiffly erect before the desk, his elbow upon it, his chin resting in his hand. His blue flannel suit hung negligently on his tall, slender figure, and they were lean, long lingers that held his chin.
He was looking about with a restless eye. The great round stove in the room was red hot. Snow had been seen on the summits of the distant Smoky, and was not this sure indication that winter was at hand ? The sheriff was a man of rigid rule and precedent, and the fire had been built accordingly.
The judge spoke suddenly. He had a singularly low, inexpressive voice, a falling inflection, and a deliberate, measured manner. “ Mr. Sheriff,” he said, “ hoist that window, will you ? ”
All the windows were occupied by men and boys, some of them standing that they might obtain a better view of the prisoner when he should be led in. From the coigne of vantage of the window indicated they descended with clumsy hops and thumps upon the floor, as they made way for the sheriff to admit the air. There was a half-suppressed titter from those more fortunately placed, as the dispossessed and discomfited spectators crowded together against the wall. The judge glanced about with displeasure in his eyes.
“ I ‘ll have you to understand,” he said in his unimpassioned drawl, “ that a trial before a court of justice is not a circus or a show. And if there’s not more quiet in this court-room I ’ll send one half of this crowd to jail.”
There was quiet at once. The gaze fixed upon him was suddenly an unfriendly look. To be sure, he was not a visiting clergyman, but one expects a certain degree of urbanity from the stranger within one’s gates, however lofty his mission and imperious his authority. Their own judicial magnate, Judge Averill, was a very lenient man, fat, and bald, and jolly. The frequenters of the place could but be impressed with the contrast. If Judge Averill found the room or the weather too warm, he took off his coat, and tried his cases clothed in his right mind, and in little else. Everybody in the county was familiar with the back of his vest, which had a triangular wedge of cloth let into it, for the judge had become more expansive than when the vest was a fit. He was a sound lawyer and an excellent man, and his decisions suffered no disparagement from his shirt sleeves.
The pause of expectation was prolonged. The stove was cracking, as it abruptly cooled, as if with inarticulate protest against these summary proceedings. The autumnal breeze came in dank and chill at the window. The spectators moved restlessly in their places. There was a sharp contrast between the towns-people — especially the lawyers within the bar, in their dapper store clothes, and with that alert expression habitual with men who think for a living — and the stolid, ruminative mountain folks, with unshorn beards and unkempt heads, habited in jeans, and lounging about in slouching postures.
There was a sudden approach of feet in the hall, — the feet, to judge by their nimble irresponsibility, of scuttling small boys. A thrill of excitement ran through the crowd as a heavier tramp resounded. The sheriff in charge of the prisoner, who was accompanied by his counsel, came into the room so swiftly as almost to impair the effect of the entry, and Mink and his lawyer sat down within the bar.
Oddly enough, Mink’s keen, bright eyes were elate as he glanced about. He looked so light, so alert, so elastically ready to bound away, that he gave those cautious souls who like to be on the safe side a sentiment that it would conduce to the public weal if he were still ironed. He was visibly excited, too; his expression failed to convey the idea of adequate recognition of anything that he saw, but he stood up and pleaded “ Not guilty ” in a steady, strong voice, and with his old offhand, debonair, manly manner. He held his hat in his hand, — a long time, poor fellow, since he had had need of it ; his clothes still bore the rents of the struggle when he was captured ; his line hair curled down upon his brown jeans coat collar ; and his face had an unwonted delicacy of effect, the refined result of the prosaic " jail-bleach.” He seemed most thoroughly alive. In contrast any other personality suggested torpor. His strong peculiarities had a certain obliterative effect upon others ; he was the climaxing point of interest in the room. The judge looked at him with marked attention. Harshaw had flung himself back in his chair, that quaked in every fibre beneath him. He mopped his flushed face with his handkerchief, sighed with fatness and anxiety, and pulled down his vest and the stubs of his shirt sleeves about his thick wrists, for he wore no cuffs. He leaned forward from time to time, and whispered with eager perturbation to the prisoner, who seemed to listen with a sort of flout of indifference and confident protest. Mink’s conduct was so unexpected, so remarkable, that it attracted general attention. The members of the bar had taken note of it, and presently two or three commented in whispers on Harshaw’s preoccupation. For he, a stickler at trifles, a man that fought on principle every point of his case, had allowed something to slip his notice. The names of the jury were about to be drawn. The sheriff, seeking, according to the law, that exponent of guilelessness, “ a child under ten years of age,” had encountered one in the hall, and came back into the room, beckoning with many an alluring demonstration some small person, invisible because of the density of the crowd. It once more showed a disposition to titter, for the sheriff, a bulky, ungainly man, was wreathing his hard features into sweetly insistent smiles, when there appeared, in the open space near the judge’s desk, a little maiden, following him, beginning to smile, too, under so many soft attentions. Her blowzy, uncovered hair was of a sunny hue; her red lips parted to show her snuggled little teeth ; her eyes, so fresh, so blue, were fastened upon him with an expression of blandest favor; her plump little body was arrayed in a blue-checked cotton frock ; and despite the season her feet were bare. It was perhaps this special mark of poverty that attracted the attention of one of the lawyers. He was a man of extraordinary memory, a politician, and well acquainted in the coves, He looked hard at the little girl. Then he whispered to a crony that she was the miller’s granddaughter. For it was “ Sister Eudory.” They watched Harshaw with idle interest, expecting him to identify the small kinswoman of the drowned boy, and to derive from the fact some fine-spun theory of incompetency. He did not recognize her, however, — perhaps he had never before seen her ; he only gave her a casual glance, and then turned his eyes upon the jury list in his hands.
The scrolls bearing the names of the proposed jurors were placed in a hat, and the sheriff, bowing his long back, extended it to “ Sister Eudory.”
She held her pretty head askew, looked up, smiling with childish coquetry at the judge, put in her dimpled hand with a delicate tentative gesture, took out a scroll, and handed it to the clerk with an elaborate air of bestowal. He looked at it, and read the name aloud.
Her charming infantile presence, as she stood by the judge’s desk among the grave, bearded men, her dimpled hands drawing the jury, won upon the crowd. There were laughing glances interchanged, and no dissenting opinion as to the prettiness and " peartness of “ Sister Eudory.” She was evidently under the impression that she was performing some great public feat, as she again thrust in her hand, caught up another scroll, and smiled radiantly into the face of the judge, who was visibly embarrassed by the blandishments of the small coquette. He hardly knew how to return her gaze, and instead he glanced casually out of the window close by.
The defense frequently availed themselves of their right of peremptory challenge. This was a matter of preconcerted detail with a jury list before them. Whenever it was possible they challenged “ for cause ” and “ to the favor,” until the venire was exhausted. Then jurors were summoned from the by-standers. It was not exactly the entertainment for which the crowd had been waiting, but they found a certain interest in seeing Mink, no longer indifferent, lean forward, and with acrimonious eagerness whisper into the counsel’s ear presumable defamations of the juror, who looked on helplessly and with an avidity of curiosity as to what was about to be publicly urged against him. Over and again the sheriff made incursions into the streets, summoning talesmen wherever he could lay his hands on suitable persons. Men of undoubted integrity and sobriety were scarce at the moment, for the good citizens of Shaftesville, averse to the duty, and hearing that he was abroad on this mission, seemed to disappear as if the earth had swallowed them. Plunging into the stores, the baffled official would encounter only the grins of the few customers, — proprietor and clerks having alike fled. Once he pursued the flying coat-tails and the soles of a pair of nimble feet of one of the solid men of the town around a corner, never coming nearer. It was a time-honored custom to respond thus to one’s country’s call, and engendered no bitterness in the sheriff’s breast. Perhaps he considered these exercises one of the official duties to which he had been dedicated.
The difficulty of securing a jury was unexampled in the annals of Shaftesville. Many, otherwise eligible, confessed to a prejudice against Mink, and had formed and freely expressed an opinion as to his guilt. One old codger from some sequestered cove of the mountains, never before having visited Shaftesville, and desirous of adding to the strange tales of his travels the unique experience of serving on the jury, dashed his own hopes by seizing the opportunity, when questioned as usual, by replying glibly in the affirmative, He said, too, that the “ outdacious rascality of the prisoner showed in his face, an’ ef they locked him up for life he ‘d be a warnin’ ter the other mischievious young minks, fur the kentry war a-roamin’ with ’em.” His look of blank amazement and discomfiture when told to “ stand aside ” elicited once more the ready titter of the crowd and the sheriff’s formula, “ Silence in court ! ”
As such admissions were made, Mink sat, his head thrust forward, his bright, intent eyes flashing indignantly, a fluctuating flush on his pallid cheek, his whole lithe, motionless figure seeming so alert that it would scarcely have astonished the community if he had sprung upon the holder of these aggressive views of his guilt. His lawyer sneered, and now and then exchanged a glance of scornful comment with him. — for Harshaw had recovered his equanimity in the exercise of that most characteristic quality, his pugnacity, during his wrangles with the attorney for the State in challenging the jurymen.
The crude gray light of the autumn day waned. A dim shadow fell over the assemblage. Gusts of wind dashed the rain against the grimy panes, the drops trickling down in long, irregular lines ; the yellow hickory leaves went whirling by, sometimes dropping upon the window-ledges. and away again on the restless blast. The mists pressed against the glass, then quivered and disappeared, and came once more. Occasionally a great hollow voice sounded from the empty upper chambers of the building through some open window; the doors left ajar slammed now and then, and the sashes rattled as the wind rose higher.
It was not more cheerful when the lamps were lighted, for the court did not adjourn at the usual hour. A strong smell of coal oil and of ill-trimmed wicks pervaded the air; a bated suffusion of yellow radiance emanated from them into the brown dimness of the great room. The illumined faces were dull with fatigue and glistening with perspiration, for the stove was once again red hot, — an old darky, with a tropical idea of comfort, appearing at close intervals with an armful of wood. Old man Griff’s long white hair gleamed among the darker heads within the bar. He had happily fallen asleep, his forehead bowed on his hands, his hands clasped on his stick. Strange shadows seemed to be attending court. Grotesque distortions of humanity walked the walls, and lurked among the assemblage, and haunted the open door, and looked over the shoulder of the judge.
It began to be very apparent to the assembly, the bar, the prisoner, the attorney-general, and the sheriff that Judge Gwinnan had the fixed purpose of sitting there without adjournment until the requisite competent dozen jurors should be secured. It was already late, long past the usual hour for supper, and although the lawyers and the crowd, who could withdraw and refresh themselves as they wished, might approve of this ascetic determination neither to eat nor to sleep until the jury was achieved, the sheriff, his deputy absent, felt it a hardship. He was a plethoric, bulky man, accustomed to locomotion only on horseback. He had taken much exercise to-day on foot, a sort of official Diogenes, searching for a mythical unattained man of an exigent mental and moral pattern, and with not even a tub as a haven to which he might have the poor privilege of retiring. When he next darted out with a sort of unwieldy agility into the hall, lighted by a swinging lamp, the wick turned too high and the chimney emitting flames tipped with smoke, he was not easily to be withstood. He seized upon a man leaning idly against the wall, his hands in his pockets, whom he had not seen before to-day. “ Ye air the very feller I’m a-lookin’ fur !” he cried, magnifying the accident into a feat of intention.
Peter Rood drew back further against the wall, with a shocked expression on his swarthy face and in his glittering black eyes. “ I can’t!” he cried. “ Lemme go! ”
“ Why can’t ye ? ” demanded the sheriff.
“ I ain’t well,” protested Rood, more calmly.
“ Shucks ! ” the officer incredulously commented. “ Ef all I hev hearn o’ that sort to-day war true, thar ain’t a hearty, whoppin’ big man in Cherokee County but what’s got every disease from the chicken pip ter the yaller fever. Come on, Pete, an’ quit foolin’.”
Under the strong coercion of the law administered by a sheriff who wanted his supper, Rood could but go.
Despite his rapacious interest in all that concerned the tragedy, he had hitherto held aloof from the court-house ; he had withdrawn himself even from the streets, fearing to meet the sheriff. Seeing the great yellow lights in the windows, each flaring in the rainy night like some many-faceted topaz, he had fancied that the trial must be well under way, for no gossip had come to him in Ins hiding-place of the difficulty of securing a jury. He could no longer resist his curiosity. He strode at his leisurely gait up the steps, meaning merely to glance within, when the sheriff issued upon him.
As he came with the officer into the room Mink scanned him angrily, leaned forward, and whispered sharply to the lawyer. Rood was trembling in every fibre ; the fixed gaze of all the crowd seemed to pierce him ; his great eyes turned with a fluctuating, meaningless stare from one official to the other.
He was a freeholder, not a householder. He had expressed no opinion as to the guilt of the prisoner. He had formed none ? He had not thought about it. He was challenged by the defense on the score of personal enmity toward the prisoner, the peremptory challenges being exhausted. As he was otherwise eligible he was put upon his voir dire.
Harshaw looked steadily at him for a moment, his red lips curling, sitting with his arms folded across his broad chest. Mink’s bright, keen face close behind him was expectant, already triumphant. His hand was on the back of his counsel’s chair.
Suddenly Harshaw, tossing his hair from his brow, leaned forward, with his folded arms on the table before him.
“ Did you not, sir,” he said, smacking his confident red lips, and with an exasperatingly deliberate delivery, — “ did you not on the twentieth day of August ascend a certain summit of the Great Smoky Mountains called Piomingo Bald, and there ” —he thrust out his red tongue and withdrew it swiftly —“ shoot and kill a certain cow, believing it to belong to Mink Lo— to Reuben Lorey ? ”
The judge’s eyes were fixed upon Rood. He seemed strangely agitated, shocked; his face assumed a ghastly pallor.
The attorney-general protested that the juror was not obliged to answer a question which tended to fasten disgrace, nay crime, upon him; Harshaw the while still leaning on the table, laughing silently, and looking with the roseate dimples of corpulent triumph at their discomfiture.
“ The juror need not answer,” said the judge.
“ I’m mighty willin’ ter answer jedge,” gasped Rood. “ I never done no sech thing sence I war born.”
it was natural, in the estimation of all the crowd, that he should say this ; to accept the privilege of silence would be admission.
“ Let me put another question in altogether another field,” said Harshaw, smoothing his yellow beard. “ If it please the court to permit us to cite the decision of an inferior court, perhaps, but altogether beyond the jurisdiction of this honorable court,” — he thrust out his triumphant tongue, — “ I should like to refer to the dicta in the courts of Cupid. Were not you and the prisoner suitors for the hand of the same young lady ? ”
It tickled him, to use a phrase most expressive of the titillation of enjoyment he experienced, to describe in this inflated manner the humble “ courtin’ ” of the mountaineers. There was a broad smile on many of the faces within the bar, the towns-people relishing particularly a joke of this character on the mountain folks. The judge’s discerning gray eye was fixed upon him as his pink laugh expanded, his peculiarly red lips showing his strong white teeth.
“ Yes, sir, we war,” Rood admitted. He was calm now ; his agitation had excited no comment; it was to be expected in a man surprised, confounded, and dismayed by so serious a charge.
“ You were! How interesting! Go where you may, the world’s the same ! The charmer spreads her snare even up in the cove ! And you and Mink fell together in it, two willing victims. And as he got the best of it, as the lady preferred him, it would be natural that you should have some little grudge against him, hey ? ”
“ I dunno how he got the best of it,” said Rood sharply. “ I ain’t got no grudge agin him fur that. ’T war jes’ yestiddy she sent me word by her mother ter kem buck ; she war jes’ foolin’ Mink.”
He was evidently glad to tell it ; he did not care even for the giggle in the crowd.
The lawyer was abashed for a moment, and Mink, so long accustomed to be rated a breaker of hearts, a ladykiller, was grievously cut down. In all the episodes of that day which had so bristled with animosity this was the first moment that his spirit flagged, despite that he had never heretofore cared for Elvira, — did not care for her now.
Rood hardly was aware how the examination was tending; in the interests of self-defense he had overlooked its purpose. He stood staring with blank amaze when the judge’s voice ended the discussion.
“ The juror is competent,” he said.
The two remaining talesmen being unchallenged, the jury was duly impaneled and sworn.
The court was adjourned. The sleepy crowd filed out into the streets, the lights in the court-house windows disappeared, and a dark and vacant interval ensued.
Charles Egbert Craddock.