In the Clouds
GWINNAN, upon recovering consciousness, showed no retrospective interest in the scene at the depot. He remarked imperatively to the physician whom he found in attendance that it was necessary for him to leave during the afternoon, — in fact, as soon as possible, — to hold court in a distant county. He added, for the instruction of the doctor, that the clerk could open court, and had no doubt done so on Monday and Tuesday, and would be obliged to repeat this on Wednesday, without the presence of the presiding judge, but Thursday was the last day for which the statute had provided the alternative. He evidently expected that if the physician had any flimsy objections he would withdraw them before this grave necessity, understanding that this was no time for the indulgence of professional whimseys.
There was something so arrogantly disregardful of any other claims upon his attention, so belittling of merely corporeal considerations, that the physician would have been a little less than medical had he been able to repress a certain sense of domination as he answered, “ Well, that happened more than two weeks ago, judge, and I reckon court was adjourned over to the next term.”
Gwinnan became aware with a sort of amaze that the hands he lifted did not seem his own ; that his head was light and giddy, or dully aching; that he was fretful and helpless ; that no manner of respect was paid to his views. He was hardly pleased by the exchange of identity with this ill-adjusted, listless, forlorn being; the less when he finally grew able to stand upon his feet again, and was informed that for the next month or so he must do nothing but seek to interest and entertain the invalid, to see that he forbore to dwell on business, to seek to occupy his attention with passing events, to divert him with trifles.
It might have seemed even to others an arduous task to amuse with incidents a man whose every waking moment was occupied by principles. So completely had his rarefied, almost impersonal judicial ambition, his pride of office, his solicitous reverence of its dignity, attenuated his sense of self that he cared little for Gwinnan as a man ; he respected him as a judge, He had held himself sedulously to his aspirations ; as it were on his knees, he had served his vocation day and night. It was to him as essential an organic constituent of his being as the lungs ; he could ill live without it, even for a time. Perhaps he might not have made the effort had not the physician warned him that he might never be fit for business, never again sit upon the bench, should he overexert himself now, before recovering from the effect of those terrible blows upon the skull. He became suddenly tractable, wistful, and turned mournfully to the search of light entertainment. He assented with a dreary docility to the prescription of a change of air and scene. He accepted without demur, with a dull sense of endurance, the plan briskly devised for him to spend a week or two in Nashville, and if he did not recuperate rapidly to go thence South for the winter. He was not given to scanning his own mental poses and adjusting them to some theory of symmetry ; he could but feel, however, as if he were already dead, stalking among scenes in which he had no interest, halfheartedly mingling with men whose every instinct was as far removed from the spirit that swayed him as if some essential condition of existence divided them. It was with a truly post-mortem indifference he listened to the talk of his friends who sought him out during his stay in Nashville, — very interesting talk, doubtless, but purposeless, inefficacious ; they cited neither case nor section. He preferred to sit alone and idle before the blazing coal fire in his own room,—expressionless with the stereotyped hotel furniture; now and then he roused himself, with a conscientious start, when he found his mind revolving like a moth around some scintilla juris which had especial attraction for him.
He had experienced a sense of reluctant relinquishment to find how the weeks had fled during his illness. Winter had advanced ; the Cumberland River was full of floating ice ; the town had the shrunken, deserted, torpid aspect common to every Southern city when the snow is on the ground. No one was abroad without absolute necessity except the English sparrow, prosperous exile. In the hope of varying the tedium, one evening, Gwinnan sat down in one of the arm-chairs drawn close to the balustrade of the corridor overlooking the rotunda. It was a coigne of vantage from which all the life of the hotel was visible. Below, at the desk, the in-coming travelers were registering their names ; the click of billiards was a cheerful incident of the atmosphere, with the rising of the fumes of many a cigar. On the opposite corridor the clatter of dishes could be heard from the dining-room, and occasionally there emerged gentlemen and toothpicks. The rumble of the elevator sounded ceaselessly, and now and then fluttering flounces issued from its door which was visible down a cross-hall.
Behind Gwinnan the great windows opened upon the snowy street. He could see the white roofs opposite gleam dimly against the nebulous sky. Carriagelamps sometimes flashed past, yellow, lucent with jeweled effects. An electric light hard by flamed with a fibrous radiance, and empurpled the black night, and conjured circles, mystically white, far-reaching into the snow. The plateglass gave a reflection of his long lank figure and the red velvet arm-chair, and of the innumerable children of the place, racing about, unrestrained, in white frocks, much bedizened. There was a dog among them, a poodle, in his white frock too, accoutered also with a sharp, shrill cry, and swiftly gamboling despite much fat. He had as independent an aspect as if he knew that all the legislators crowded into all the caucuses in the city could not compass a dog-law that would interfere with his pretty liberty, or place a tax on his frizzy head. The sovereign people would have none of it. And so the obnoxious law stands repealed, and the dog-star is in the ascendant. Now and then he came and sat at Gwinnan’s feet, with a lolling tongue and panting sides.
There had been a caucus in the reading-room of the hotel, and presently the doors, opening upon the corridor, began to disgorge knots of men, some of whom walked off together, others stood in discussion. Now and then one was seized by a lobbyist, lying in wait. Gwinnan was aware of Harshaw’s presence before he saw him : a liquid, gurgling, resonant laugh, and then the floater, accompanied by a colleague into whose arm he had hooked his own, came through the door. His hat was thrust on the back of his yellow head ; he stroked his long yellow beard, with a gesture of self-satisfaction ; his face was broad, and animated, and pink with prosperity.
Fortune was favoring Mr. Harshaw, and few men have ever basked in her smiles so appreciatively. He had attained the reputation of being very influential in the House. His coöperation was eagerly sought. In truth, as a wirepuller he had developed marked dexterity, and there were precious few things that Mr. Harshaw could not accomplish in a caucus. He did a little “ logrolling,” but he was chary of the interchange of favors, carrying his point usually by persistence and pugnacity, and he possessed tremendous staying power as a debater. He had a certain barbaric delight in oppression ; having become possessed of the opportunity, he used it often when neither he nor his constituents had anything to gain. He took advantage of his ascendency to pay off many old grudges, some of them of a purely arbitrary construction and æsthetic nature. He was in some sort aware that his colleagues were ashamed of his rough manners, his bullying, his coarse onslaughts, in which, being of the same political party, they were often constrained to appear as his supporters. He continually alluded to himself as if he were of peculiarly humble origin, representing himself as being of the People, from the People, and FOR the People, and forcing the conclusion that the other members from his region were bloated aristocrats. Nevertheless, whoever would go to the state Senate next session, it was safe to say that the demagogue had assured his own nomination ; for merit had a fine chance to be modest, as behooves it, while Mr. Harshaw was shaping the future by manipulating the present.
And now suddenly he was not quite sure that he wanted the nomination. In these days, while he divided his time between the beautiful Capitol building and one of the hostelries of the town, which was in his rural estimation hardly less magnificent, he meditated much upon Mink’s assault upon Judge Gwinnan in the depot of Glaston. Not in the interest of his client; even the most solicitous of counsel could not be expected to occupy his attention with the fate of the wayward Mink, who had passed beyond his aid. Mink’s deed did not in truth seem to Harshaw so very much amiss. Of course he recognized its moral turpitude, being one of those cognizable by the law, but he also perceived in it the finger of Providence. — laid somewhat heavily, it must be confessed, on Gwinnan. He speculated deeply, despite his other absorptions, on who would probably be elected to supply Gwinnan’s place, in case of the death of the wounded incumbent, and he reflected that he himself as a lawyer was highly esteemed in that circuit, for he had a large practice throughout the region, and that moreover, by a certain fortuitous circumstance, he was eligible for the position ; although his law office was in Shaftesville, he lived on his farm which was several miles distant, just within the boundaries of Kildeer County, one of the judicial circuits over which Gwinnan presided. Apart from his repute at the bar, he was well known to the people at large through certain popular measures he had advocated. He devoted himself to these with renewed ardor. He never allowed himself to view with a vacillating mind any course, however obviously salutary, when he had once discovered with a keen instinct that it was unlikely to secure the approval of the masses. Nevertheless, he applied his tact with such success that this foregone conclusion was not readily apparent, and he was continually beset for his influence. He had a secret gratulation that he was held in special veneration by the lobbyists. He could ill maintain the aspect of unwilling captive. when he was waylaid and buttonholed, and his attention eagerly entreated for certain measures. As an anxious-faced man, who had evidently been awaiting him, stepped forward now, glancing with a casual apology at his friend, who walked on, Harshaw’s reluctant pause, his frown, his important bored sufferance, were as fine histrionically as if he were playing at being a statesman on a stage, — which, indeed, he was.
He listened with a divided mind to the outpouring of the lobbyist, his opaque blue eyes fixed in seeming deliberation upon the chandelier hanging down into the rotunda below, his exceedingly red lips pursed up in a pucker of dubitation. Now and then he patted the toe of one boot on the floor meditatively. Occasionally he looked his interlocutor full in the face, asking a question, presumably a poser ; then he would triumphantly thrust out his very red tongue, and his resonant, burly laugh would vibrate above the dancing of the overdressed children, and the riotous barking of the dog, and the tinkling waltzes played by a band of musicians ranged about the fountain in the rotunda. His entertainment in his own self-importance and posings was so absorbing that the lobbyists and the advocates of many measures were often at a loss to know how best to reach Mr. Harshaw’s desire to serve his country; for he did not love money, and his integrity, as far as it was concerned, was above suspicion.
All at once genuine interest suddenly usurped these feignings on his face. His eye fell on Judge Gwinnan walking along the corridor, and leaning upon a stout cane. He looked very thin, very pale, taller than before, and somehow his face was more youthful with the wistfulness of illness upon it, his hair clipped close, and the black patch on his head. He moved slowly, and with little spirit.
Harshaw stepped briskly forward, with a curt “ Excuse me” to the lobbyist, taking no reproach for leaving him with his mouth open, for it seemed his normal condition.
“ Why judge,” Harshaw exclaimed, with his bluff familiarity, “ you look bloomin’!” He was about to stretch out his hand, but desisted, noticing that Gwinnan held his hat in one hand, and leaned upon his stick with the other. He took the judge by the elbow, as he walked a few steps with him. A dim image of the pair paced along in the plate-glass windows, as if their doubles were stalking without in the snow in scenes of which they were unconscious. “ I had no idea you were pulling together so fast,” he continued, scanning the face which was almost spectral in its attenuation and pallor, in close contrast to his own fat floridity of countenance, his red lips, his gleaming white teeth, his mane of yellow hair, and his dense yellow beard. His wide, black soft hat stuck on the back of his head accented his high color. “ But I declare, it’s worth while for a man to get hit over the head to find out how important he is, and how he is esteemed. I never knew more profound sympathy and indignation than the affair excited. As to myself, I felt it especially, as I had taken so much stock in that rascally client of mine.”
There was a pause. Gwinnan made no reply. His face was turned toward Harshaw with a certain unresponsiveness, an inscrutable questioning, a cadaverous gravity. His hollow eyes were very bright and large. Somehow they put Harshaw out of countenance. Something there was in their expression beyond his skill to decipher. He became a trifle embarrassed, and yet he could not have said why. He went on at random. He had observed that a number of people were remarking them. There was nothing strange in the peripatetic method that the interview had taken upon itself, but suddenly he found it odd that Gwinnan had not paused.
“That fellow, Mink Lorey, is a most extraordinary and unexpected kind of scamp,” Harshaw proceeded uneasily, making talk. “ To my certain knowledge, he cared so little about the girl that he refused to see her when she came to visit him in jail. But the idea of another man admiring her seemed to set him wild.”
Gwinnan stopped short.
“ What girl ? ” he asked, in his soft, inexpressive drawl.
“The girl that testified, — Alethea Sayles,” said Harshaw, relieved that Gwinnan had spoken, striving for his old bluff assurance, but still conscious that he had lost his tact. “ She was pretty, very pretty indeed, and you were not alone in having the good taste to notice it. The rest of us did n’t have to pay for it with a broken head, though, eh, judge ? Ha! ha!”
There was a moment’s pause.
“ Mr. Harshaw,” said Gwinnan, leaning against one of the great pillars, the reflection in the plate-glass duplicating the posture on the snowy sidewalk, as if that other self, liberated and in isolated independence, busied in different scenes, now meditated, and now spoke, and now lifted a fiery glance, “ I will take this opportunity to tell you that I believe you to be an egregious liar, and I know you for an arrant hypocrite.”
“ Sir ! ” cried Harshaw, starting back, tingling from the words as if they were blows, He made an instinctive gesture toward his pistol pocket; it was empty. He was acutely conscious of the men who pressed a little nearer, noticing the excitement.
Gwinnan’s voice had a singular carrying quality, and every deliberate, lowtoned word was distinct.
“ I repudiate your professions of friendship. I despise your protestations of sympathy. If your threats at the court-house door at Shaftesville had been earlier repeated to me, ludicrously impotent as they are, you should never have approached me again. Now,” — his voice broke suddenly, in his feebleness and excitement, and was thin and tremulous and shrill, — “ keep out of my way, or I will beat you with this stick like a dog ! ”
Gwinnan had lifted the stick, and shook it threateningly in his trembling hand. Harshaw, with his own reasons for declining to give the first blow, could only shrink and wince in anticipation. The stick did not descend on him, however, for Gwinnan turned, and, leaning on it. made his way down the corridor among the wondering men, who slowly opened an aisle for him in their midst.
It was a confused scene which Gwinnan had left. Harshaw’s friends pressed about him, animated equally, perhaps, by curiosity and surprise. His self-restraint had given way. He swore with every breath he drew, repeating, in answer to questions, the unlucky threat over and again. “ I said that he would be impeached, and that I would introduce the resolution in the House myself. And so, by God, I will! ”
His face was hot and scarlet. The perspiration stood out on his forehead. He ground his teeth and clenched his hands. He would walk forward a few unsteady steps, then pause to reiterate and explain, and swear that if Gwinnan were not at death’s door he would cowhide him within an inch of his life. The progress of the group, slow as it was, with these frequent interruptions, was in the direction of the stairs. It was chiefly composed of members of the legislature, and, there being a night session, they mechanically took their way to the Capitol. A few gentlemen lounging about the corridor were watching their exit with the gusto of disinterested spectators, as they disappeared down the staircase, reappearing below in the rotunda,— Harshaw still in the van, his florid face bloated with rage, his hat on the back of his head, his hands thrust in the pockets of his trousers. His friends wore a becoming gravity, but Harshaw was too thoroughly a man of this world not to know how much more they valued the diversion he furnished than his interests as affected thereby. They all crossed the office, and disappeared finally through the street door, and the spectators on the corridor shifted their postures, and tipped off the ash grown long on their cigars, and commented.
“ Biggest blatherskite out of hell, Harshaw is,” remarked a young fellow, who flung himself diagonally into a seat, hanging his long legs over one arm of the chair and resting his back against the other. He put his cigar into his mouth, and puffed at his ease. He had a pale face, thin dark hair, irregular features, straight black eyebrows, and wide, restless black eyes, quickly glancing, with a suggestion of melancholy. He was handsomely dressed, although he wore his clothes with a slouching, irreverent air, as if he gave his attire scant heed. Despite their cut and quality, there was nothing dapper about him. He had a lank, listless white hand and a foot singularly long and narrow. His forehead was remarkably high, austere, and almost noble ; one might look in vain for correlative expressions in the other features. He was languid and inattentive, but this manner suggested affectation, for it did not eliminate the idea of energy. He smoked a great deal, and drank not much, but discriminatingly ; he was proud of seeming reckless, and of being more reckless than he seemed. He had other qualities more genial. He knew a good dog when he saw him. He knew a good horse, and he loved him. He was the possessor of a liberal hand and a long purse. He had an enthusiastic admiration of fine principles, and he had — the pity of it! — his own definition of fine principles. He entertained a horror of anything base, and he had a command of verystrong language to characterize it. He arrogated to himself the finer attributes. He strained for the heroic poise. He would feel nothing, believe nothing, do nothing, that was unbecoming of what he esteemed the noblest expression of man and gentleman. Nevertheless he had no serious objects in life, no absorbing ambition, no ability to originate. But he could espouse another man’s cause with a fervor of unselfishness. The excitements and vicissitudes of the affairs of others rejoiced the voids of his capacities for emotion. He was of the stuff of which adherents are made, essentially a partisan. His prototypes have ridden in the ranks of every losing cause since the world began. He was of the essence of those who are born for freaks of valor, for vagrant enthusiasms, for misguided fantastic feuds, for revolution. One need have no special powers of divination to know that he was a man who must die in his boots.
“ Do you think, sir, that Mr. Harshaw had no foundation for his threat,” said an elderly granger, who leaned against a pillar, — “no foundation for this charge against Judge Gwinnan ? ”
“ Gwinnan may have ruled against him a time or two,” said Kinsard. “ That’s about the size of it.”
He had a pedigree as long as his favorite colt’s, but this was the way he talked.
“It is a gross slander, then ; it implies a stealage, or taking a bribe, or some malfeasance in office, — the judicial office,” said one of the by-standers.
“It was very shabby in Harshaw to say it; then, thinking Gwinnan had never heard of it, to go fawning up, pretending to be so mighty friendly,” rejoined another.
Kinsard’s black eyes turned slowly from one speaker to the other.
“ If I had been Judge Gwinnan, I would have killed him for it,” he said, with his cigar held lightly between his fingers. “ I would have spilt his brains, not his blood ; and I would have had some scientific man to find the precise section of the brain structure which ideated that theory, and I would have had it comminuted, and vaporized, and transmuted into nothingness.”
He spoke with calmness, as if these things were done every day for the vengeful in Tennessee.
The granger took off his spectacles suddenly. He wanted to see this extraordinary young man, who he had an idea was too dangerous to be at large.
The others looked at him with a less serious air. They had heard him talk before.
“Well,” said a certain Mr. Forsey, also a young man, who had dropped upon the broad window-seat and lounged there, holding one knee in his clasped hands, and smoking too, “ do you think Harshaw would have ventured to say it if there were no foundation for it, — if Gwinnan had done nothing to suggest such a proceeding ? What motive had Harshaw ? ”
He was a different manner of man. He had close-cut fair hair, a face broad across the cheek-bones and narrow at the chin, sparse whiskers and a light gray, wide-open eye. He had a sedulously neat appearance, a soft tread, and delicate white hands, in one of which he held his hat.
“What motive ? What motive for slander ? Go to first principles. Gwinnan has got something that Harshaw wants.” He put his cigar into his mouth and went on talking as he held it fast between his teeth. “ What fools we all are! We make laws against predatory beasts and decree their extermination. Pay a bounty for the scalps of the marauding men, I say, — the sharp fellows who ravage and pillage and have contrived so far to keep the law on their side. But pshaw !” he shifted his legs over the arm of the chair impatiently. “ He can’t hurt Gwinnan. Talk can’t compass the impeachment of a judge. Gwinnan is one of the strongest men on the bench. Made the stiffest show that ever was seen when he ran against old Judge Burns, who had sat on the bench in that circuit till everybody thought he owned it. Old man could have mortgaged the bench, — could have raised money on it, I have n’t a doubt. Gwinnan couldn’t have beat Burns, if he had n’t been above reproach and suspicion ; it’s a tremendous thing to upset an old fixture like that. Gwinnan is a sound lawyer and a splendid man.”
Mr. Kinsard’s views, as his colleagues in the legislature had discovered to their confusion, were apt to confirm his hearers in the opposite opinion. A bill was much safer when he arrayed himself against it. Mr. Forsey was not convinced that so serious a charge would have been made with absolutely nothing to support it. The idea of the blurtings of an uncontrolled rage occurred to neither of them. Forsey sat looking so steadily at the dapper toe of his boot for a time, and yet with so stealthy a stillness, that it might have suggested the bated exultation of a cat that had had a glimpse of a frisking mouse in that neighborhood, and was waiting to pounce upon it.
“Judge Gwinnan has the reputation,” gravely remarked the granger, who looked as if he might be a pillar of the church, “ of being a very upright man, a most worthy man, and a Christian gentleman.”
“ Of course he is.” said Kinsard ; “ no question about it, and nobody but a fool would have thought of anything else. I am going to introduce a bill,” he added seriously, “ to make the foolkiller a State officer. We need him in Tennessee more than a geologist, or a governor, or anybody but a sheriff. A fool-killer ought to be on the State payroll.”
No one said anything further, for Kinsard was lazily pulling himself out of the contortions into which he had sunk in the chair.
He was very striking when he stood at his full height. There was an air of spirit and dash and bravery about him very engaging to the imagination. His high, broad forehead gave nobility and seriousness to a face that would otherwise have been only sparkling, or sneering, or melancholy, as his mood dictated. There was something essentially untamable in his eyes. But for the finality of this obvious limitation one might have hoped that should he wear out his fiery, fantastic, erratic spirit, should some blow subdue it and give it into his control, there were great gifts there awaiting development denied. He was aware of them in some sort ; he bore himself as a man endowed with some splendor of preëminence. And others accorded it. Youth has much credit given to its promise, despite that it so often falls in the bud or fails in the fruit. But it rarely has so brilliant a prospect as here ; and after he had strolled off at a leisurely, swinging gait, saying that he was going to the House, where a bill was coming up that he wanted to kill, they all looked after him, and commented on him, and called him a fine, highminded young man, and said it was a good thing for young fellows to have political ambition, and it was dying out among that class generally, who were too fond of making money and of using their time to their own advantage.
He stood for a moment on the steps of the hotel, drawing on his gloves. Despite the snow, there was a faint suggestion of spring in the air. A thaw had set in. He heard drops slowly pattering down from the cornice above. The blue-white splendors of the electric light, with its myriad fine and filar rays whorled out into the darkness, showed a deserted street. A carriage, looking with its two lamps like some watchfuleyed monster, pulled up in front of the door, and the colored driver, with a wide display of a toothful grin, alighted with a “ Want a hack, boss ? ”
“ Jim, Tom — oh, it’s Dick,” said Kinsard, glancing at the dusky face in the lamplight; he knew all the colored folks in town. “ Well, drive me to the Capitol, and don’t be all night about it, either.”
He flung himself upon the seat, lifted his long, slender feet to the opposite cushions, and with a complete collapse of anatomy resigned himself to the transit. The vehicle moved from the curb with something of the sound of a boat pushing off from shore, so splashing was its progress through the deep slush of the streets. The hoofbeats of the horses were muffled ; the voice of the driver sounded, and was still again. Kinsard smoked in idle abstraction, hardly thinking, perhaps, even of his mission and the slaughter of the “innocent William,” as he slangily called the bill which he intended to kill. When the carriage had climbed the Capitol hill, on which the fair edifice towered, glimmering vaguely white against the purple night, its rows of illuminated windows all a gleaming yellow, and casting dim shafts of light adown the snowy slopes of the grounds below, he roused himself and looked up. Even after he had alighted and ascended the long flights of stone steps, between the groups of great figures that stand beneath the flaring gas lamps, he turned, and more than once walked the length of the stately portico, gazing down with a vague attraction he could hardly have explained at the snowy roofs of the city, on its many hills, amidst the dun-colored intervals of the streets and the misty depressions. The heavens were purple above it; the stars palpitated in the infinite distances ; a late moon was rising. He recognized the outline of Fort Negley to the south against the sky ; he saw the steely gleam of the river. Spires, long glancing lines of light, domes, turrets, mansard roofs, mingled in picturesque fantasies of architecture. A bell rang out a mellow note ; the icy air had crystalline vibrations. Here and there the aureola of unseen electric lights, the mere fringes of lustre, seemed the rising of some more cheerful orb; for melancholy hung upon the progress of the moon. In the tower of some public building Time lifted a smiling face in an illuminated dial, and far away to the west he saw a planet touch a spire, in an unprophesied conjunction. The lights of homes, yellow, steady, gleaming in some fantastic braidery of form, seemed themselves a constellation of more genial suggestion than the pallid keener clustered scintillations of the chimeras of the skies. The gilded cross of the cathedral held aloft over the city was sublimated in the moonbeams and the fair nocturnal influences; it was mystic, effulgent, seeming to radiate light like the consecrated sign in a vision. He did not feel the cold; he stood for a long time, with his hands in his pockets, his overcoat falling back on his shoulders, watching with his restless eyes the quiet snowy town suffused with dreamy yellow light and pervaded by long, pensive shadows. Suddenly he turned, and went within.
The House of Representatives presented a spectacle not altogether unprecedented in his experience. A spirited debate was in progress. Sixteen men were trying to speak at once. The seventeenth earnest orator was forcibly held in his chair by his friends. The speaker’s gavel sounded continuously, and with the cries of " Question ” aided the coherency of the discussion. Other members were talking in low tones of alien matters ; here and there a knot stood in earnest discussion. One had fallen asleep. His snores might have been generally noticed but for the commotion. Kinsard glanced at him as he took his seat close by.
“ That’s the best oratorical effort I ever heard McKimmon make,” he said to a friend. “ Observe how he sticks to the point: iterative, it is true ; tautology might be urged against it as mere diction ; but I admire its simplicity, its comprehensibility, its continuity. There are no digressions ; nothing is done for effect ; plain, cogent, impressive. It is a fine display of natural eloquence.” His colleague burst out laughing, and Kinsard looked at him in apparent surprise, lifting his straight black eyebrows a little. Then he asked if the bill to remove the county seat of Kildeer County had yet been reached.
” No,” said his friend, “ but Harshaw has been around here after you three or four times.”
The speaker’s gavel had succeeded in securing order, and now the sixteen men’s statements and counter-statements were elicited in decorous routine. The sudden cessation of noise roused Mr. McKimmon, whose somnolency ended in a snort and a conviction that he had not closed his eyes. He perceived a suspicion to the contrary in the minds of his nearest neighbors, and he could not account for it.
After the Assembly had voted upon the question of public policy which had so agitated it, various minor bills were taken up, and there was a good deal of quiet movement, groups of two or three colloguing together here and there, and Harshaw came up again to talk to Kinsard.
“ I want to know whether you ’ll cooperate with us against the bill for moving the county seat of Kildeer County.”
He stood leaning one arm upon Kinsard’s desk; the other was akimbo. He knitted his brow meditatively, and pursed up his red lips, and looked not at Kinsard, but at his inkstand. He had not altogether recovered from the rebuff so publicly given in the hotel corridor.
It is always a misfortune when a man of Harshaw’s stamp has to contend with any degree of injustice. He had repeated to Gwinnan the truth, and for it he had been given the lie direct in circumstances under which he could not resent it; even the original threat was only the blurtings of an honest rage and for another man’s sake. He was clever in adroitly justifying means and ends. To be armed with the truth, a genuine grievance, endowed him with a force, a self-respect, all-potent in their way, and a wonderful driving-wheel to an already lubricated and too alert machinery, He had an imperative, serious air which seemed to intimate to Mr. Kinsard that this was no time for fooling.
Kinsard was eccentric, ill-balanced. He was made up of prejudices, and he obeyed the impulse of the moment as other men obey interest or law. He was not predisposed in Harshaw’s favor. He took a different view of the scene upon which Harshaw presumed. He looked up, a whimsical light in his grave eyes, as he allowed Harshaw to waste his breath in urging him to vote against a bill which he was already pledged to kill.
“ The county line of those portions taken from Cherokee and Kildeer counties to form a new county in no instance approaches the county seat of Kildeer within eleven miles. There is no use for the people of Kildeer to commit the extravagance of a new court-house when they already have one, — a frame building, it is true, but spacious.”
He looked very spacious himself, as he stood erect and waved his arm, the mental vision of the commodious Temple of Justice of Kildeer before him.
“Then, sir, it is thought there may be a railroad to the present county seat, a branch of the T. C. V., which will aid in developing the resources of the country.”
“ Well, I don’t believe in railroads,” said Kinsard, unexpectedly. “ Whenever they get to talking about running a railroad from one little town where there is nothing to another little town where that nothing is not wanted, I understand it as developing the resources of the country.”
Harshaw was not in a mood to be bantered.
“ Mr. Kinsard,” he said, “ you are either a fool absolute, or you think I am.”
“ As far as you are concerned,” said Kinsard with mock courtesy, “ I have the highest opinion of your intelligence ; ergo, it is more than probable that I am a fool.”
Harshaw endeavored to recover himself. He reassumed his more genial manner. “ Admit that we are a choice brace. Well, now, we want you on our side; all the solid, substantial people of Kildeer County are arrayed against it.”
“Oh, there are some solid citizens for it,” said Kinsard perversely, “ or you ’d be willing for it to be put to the popular vote.”
Harshaw looked keenly at him. “ Judge Gwinnan has been talking to you, has n’t he ? We ’ve had to fight his influence all the way through.”
“ Well, Judge Gwinnan is a prominent citizen of that county and a very sensible man, and if he is in favor of the change he must have good reasons,” said Kinsard, seriously. “ That’s enough to take it through.”
Harshaw cast an indignant glance upon him. “ Well, before I’m done with it I ’ll show you that this General Assembly is n’t run by Judge Gwinnan’s influence and by his myrmidons. I am glad you have let me know at last whose mouthpiece you are ! ”
He walked away with that extraordinary quickness and lightness so incongruous with his portliness. Kinsard’s black eyes, that seemed kindled with actual flames, followed him for a moment. Then, as comprehension slowly dawned upon him, and with a wrench as if he broke from actual physical restraint, he started from his seat to follow.
“ No, you won’t, now ; no, you won’t.” His colleague had locked his arm into Kinsard’s, and held it like a vise. He was a square-built, slow, muscular man, solid as granite. His eyes were fixed upon Harshaw, who was already speaking against the bill. “ What is that man saying ? ”
Kinsard at once lapsed into attention. Harshaw was a clear and forcible speaker, and with lucid arguments ranged upon the side of conservatism and economy he was giving the advocates of the measure a very stiff fight. They got on their feet time and again, and came at him. He had a great fund of pugnacity, and on principle fought every point. His face was flushed; his eyes were grave and intent; his frequent gestures ponderous and forcible. Now and then he tossed back his mane of yellow hair, as if its weight vexed him. He sought to show the ephemeral nature of the advantages urged, the solid interests relinquished. Presently his old slogan was resounding on the air. He was representing that the sacred interests of the people were imperiled by the machinations of the bloated plutocracy of Kildeer County. He wanted it to be distinctly understood that he did not charge any nefarious practices, any corrupt influences; only that most subtle, insidious, and pervasive sway always exerted by the views of men of position, men of family, men of “ prawperty,” against the simple will and simple needs of the Plain People. The high-toned folks, the few rich folks, wished the county seat moved to Damascus, because they had “prawperty” there. (He pronounced “ prawperty ” with so contemptuous an intonation that one felt one could never take pleasure in paying taxes again.) They had “ prawperty,” and railroad stock, and thus from the people, the many of moderate means, who had built up the present county town and made it what it was, who spent their money right there instead of going off to patronize merchants and schools in Glaston, as was the habit of the wealthy, — from this class would be wrenched those privileges which they had made valuable. All those advantages, which had been nursed for years, which were so much actual materialization of the efforts of the Plain People, would go to — not to Tophet, as one might have expected from the tone, but to — Damascus !
But he would champion their rights ; he would be heard ; he would not heed the ostentatious reference of the gentleman from Cherokee to his watch. Why, he could tell the speaker that these same influential men had their personal representation in this House. A member confessed to him that because one of these little great men wanted a thing it had to go through this General Assembly. “ And so his mouthpiece repeats his wish, his tool does his will !”
A murmur arose.
Kinsard was on his feet in an instant.
“ Mr. Speaker,” he thundered, “ the member means me ! ”
There was sudden silence.
He stood at his full height, his head thrown back, his brilliant eyes fixed angrily on Harshaw.
Harshaw was dumfounded. He had expected Kinsard to quake silently and secretly under the lash ; to quiver in terror lest his identity be hinted. This open avowal had routed him. He was in an ill-humor, but he had no desire to seriously attack Kinsard on a point like this. He wanted to punish him, to intimidate him; to threaten that most sensitive possession of the young and spirited, his reputation, or, as Kinsard would have called it, his “ sacred honor.” He had the usual contempt of a man of forty for youth,—its self-assertion, its domineering. He intended the chance allusion as discipline. He had fallen under his own lash. He stood in dismay as Kinsard reiterated, “ He means me !”
There was a general laugh ; the imputation, in view of his character, his prominence, his wealth, his very eye, was so absurd.
“ But, Mr. Speaker,” — Kinsard’s tones were grandiloquent — “in view of the publicity of this charge, I consider that I am wounded in my reputation, and I demand reparation.”
“ I can make no forma] retraction,” said Harshaw, hastily, “ for I have imputed no discredit, except being easily dominated.”
Kinsard fixed upon him a look of amazement. He turned again to the chair. " Mr. Speaker,” he said, “ the member from the floterial district of Cherokee and Kildeer ” — he sedulously avoided the word “ gentleman ” — “ labors under a mistake. I do not demand the retraction of a word. Perhaps he will understand this token.” He took his glove, and cast it in the open space before the speaker’s desk.
Only a nineteenth-century kid glove, with two porcelain buttons at the wrist, but it was flung down with as splendid and gallant a gesture as if it was a gauntlet of mail.
The old fellows, who had outlived folly like this, were grinning at the revival of their ancient manners. The younger men, profiting by the traditions of their elders, were grave and quivering with excitement. Harshaw was in a quandary, conscious of being ridiculous in the eyes of one class, and of being dared and defied in the eyes of the other. He would not do so absurd a thing as to lift Kinsard’s glove. Yet with the significance of the “ token ” he was ashamed to let it lie.
And the speaker had a big job on his hands.
The gavel sounded now and again. Some one, with a pious view of making bad worse, was calling the attention of the house to the anti-dueling legislation. Another reminded Mr. Kinsard of his “sacred obligations ” to his constituents, to the people of Tennessee, to the Assembly, all of which seemed to have escaped him for the moment. Kinsard’s colleague had sprung forward, recovered the somewhat ridiculous integument, and, crumpling it up, put it into his own pocket. He succeeded in attracting the attention of the chair and of the House. He wished — he spoke in a labored way, with a pause between each phrase, and a rising inflection — to remark that the House was disposed to take a great deal on trust. The gentleman had not given any challenge. Did the members ask what that glove meant, then? Why, defiance ! Dueling was with a deadly weapon ; deadly weapon was of the essence of the offense. The gentleman might have preferred to have a round or two at fisticuffs, or, perhaps, simply to engage in debate. (Derisive cries and laughter.) Defiance only ! It was a breach of all the proprieties to mention the anti-dueling laws in this connection. Too much taken for granted, Mr. Speaker. If I should be heard to say to a man that I would see him before dinner, it would be highly preposterous to have me arrested. We might be going to kill each other, it is true, but then, again, we might be only going to “ smile.”
The speaker sat listening gravely, much wishing to further the acceptance of this view, for he considered the demonstration mere boyish wrath and folly. He made strong efforts for the adjustment of the difficulty. Harshaw rose presently, and begged to call attention to the fact that he had named no names, had given no intimation as to identity. He had spoken indefinitely, and the gentleman had insisted upon revealing himself. He would say that he desired to provoke no quarrel; he had no ill-will to the gentleman in question. He begged to withdraw what he had said, and he tendered his apologies.
Kinsard, under the pressure that was brought to bear, could hardly do less than accept them, and thus, it seemed at the time, the matter ended.
It had been a stormy evening for Harshaw. He was, however, well accustomed to contention. It was not this that irked him ; he writhed under the sense of disadvantage, of being brought in propinquity to defeat, He was a man not susceptible of the finer emotions of success, of gratulation because of the thing attained rather than the plaudits of attainment. His sensibility to achievement was manifest in a certain sordid inversion of values. He made popularity, position, social opportunity, political preferment, the end of mental supremacy, rather than its humble incident. And thus it was that, rough as he was, courageous, obstinate, full of rugged nodules of traits, hard, strong, but limited, there was no solid substratum of absolute sincere purpose in his nature, no bed-rock impervious to all infiltration of temptation or extraneous influence ; whatever he might build would fail at the foundation.
His world had changed to him in some sort during the short hours since the darkness had fallen. He strode into the hotel feeling a different man. He found it necessary to assert himself. All the fight in him was on the alert. He cared little for Knisard or for the scene itself in the House, but it was peculiarly obnoxious to him that it should have been another chance allusion to the man he hated which precipitated the collision. He writhed under the sense that it might seem a reiteration of the lesson received earlier in the evening. He knew that many commented upon the coincidence, and that doubtless he was recommended to leave Gwinnan alone. Now submission was not what he was prepared to offer. He preferred that it should seem a persistent attack on Gwinnan. Once more he returned to the charge.
He was serious, lowering, formidable. He did not go at once to his room, as the lateness of the hour might have impelled him. He was quick to observe the faces of the legislators about : some were merely curious ; others held a half-cloaked triumph; and still others an open gloating satisfaction. It was with a manner which was a distinct replication to all three manifestations that he lounged about the reading-room with a striding gait, his hat on the back of his head, his hands in his pockets, and his cigar fast between his teeth. He finally threw himself into a chair by the table before the open fire in the inner room, and said in a meditative undertone to a gentleman with whom he had sufficient association to make it seem a confidence to a friend, “ I reckon I ‘11 have to write to Judge Gwinnan.” The others heard it, however, and it was to several that he read the letter when it was completed. They thought it very bold ; to show that it was not empty bluster, but written with all the sincerity of immediate intention, he rang for a bell-boy, and dispatched it in their presence to Gwinnan’s room.
That gentleman’s physician still urged his patient to cultivate a more vivid interest in life, in passing events ; to seek to absorb himself; to rouse himself. Mr. Harshaw’s letter very effectually compassed this result.
The writer begged Judge Gwinnan’s attention to sundry facts which he proceeded to set forth in due detail. He premised that he would endeavor to take no other notice of an insult offered him by a man who was virtually at death’s door, and who might uncharitably, perhaps, be supposed to have taken advantage of that circumstance; such as the advantage was, he made Judge Gwinnan most heartily welcome to it. In defense of his own reputation for veracity, however, he felt it necessary to state his authority, beside, his observations, that Judge Gwinnan had taken such notice of a very beautiful girl, who was a witness, as to render her lover, who was the prisoner, wildly jealous, and to result in the injuries from which Judge Gwinnan was now unfortunately suffering. His authority was the deputy sheriff and the two guards, to whom the prisoner stated these facts, swearing that he would kill Judge Gwinnan. Mr. Harshaw begged to remark in addition that he fully realized that he was ill advised in saying he would like to introduce a resolution to impeach Judge Gwinnan. He knew that the action of a court in a matter of contempt committed in the presence of the court is wholly a matter of judicial discretion, not liable to be reviewed by the court above, and therefore it should have been free from impotent criticism, which could avail naught to either counsel or prisoner, who have absolutely no resource nor recourse. He deeply regretted his words, and their futility.
The mock apology, which had been highly appreciated by the coterie in the reading-room, the whole tenor of the letter, the revelation which it made, had important results to Judge Gwinnan, who was accustomed to deal with larger motives and finer issues than Harshaw’s wrath or satire could furnish.
He had such exceeding confidence in the dignity and decorum of Gwinnan as judge that at first it seemed almost impossible that he should have taken such notice of the witness as to attract the attention of others. But there was a sort of coercive evidence in the circumstance that the girl’s face had lingered in his mind with a luminous distinctness, a surprised pleasure, a newly awakened sense of beauty, which he had associated with no other face that he could remember. He was not a sentimental man. He had had few romantic experiences, and the flavor they had left was vapid and foolish. Alethea had not primarily impressed him as beautiful. She looked so noble, so true, so radiantly good. It was altogether an abstract sentiment, a tribute to the lofty qualities which he revered and she embodied.
He cared so little for Gwinnan as Gwinnan that he entertained the mildest resentment toward the man who had struck him on the head with his iron shackles. The indignity offered by the foreman of the jury, and afterward by Harshaw, to Gwinnan the judge had burned into his consciousness, and the scars would be there on the judgment day. The knowledge that the attack was not in revenge for some fancied wrong in the trial, but that it was the frenzy of a madly jealous lover in chains and in expatriation, altered the whole aspect of the case for Gwinnan as Gwinnan.
The judge could not, perhaps, have sufficiently condemned Gwinnan’s state of mind as he sat down and wrote to Mr. Kenbigh, the attorney for the State at Glaston, requesting that no action should be taken in regard to the assault, as he was not willing to prosecute.
Alethea Sayles awoke early the morning after the momentous news of Mink’s journey had come to Wild-Cat Hollow ; such an awakening as a barn-swallow might know, the familiar of the rafters and the clapboards. There was no other ceiling to the roof-room. She might put up her hand and touch it where she lay, but in the centre it was higher, — high enough for many pendent uses: bags of cotton swung from the ridgepole ; hanks of yarn; bunches of pepper ; gourds ; old hats and garments, of awry, distorted, facetious aspect in their caricature of the habit of humanity. The snow pressed heavily without ; through the crevices vague white glimpses of the drifts might be seen, for the dull glow from the fire in the room below penetrated the cracks between the boards of the flooring, which served as the ceiling of the lower story. Light came in, too, from the rifts between the wall and the great stick-andclay chimney, which bulged outward, being built outside the house, as is the habit in the region. It was the light of the waning moon, fitful, fluctuating, for clouds were astir. Now and then, too, Alethea could see the great morning star with its tremulous glister, seeming nearer, dearer, than all the others, — splendid, yet tender and full of promise. She looked wistfully at it for a moment, feeling the dull aching wound in her heart, and forgetting what dealt it. Then it all came back to her, and she wondered she had awakened again. She could not understand how she lived. She felt as if she could rise no more. But the cow was to be milked; she listened to the cocks crowing. The baby, who had developed a virulent habit of early rising, was already astir. She heard his thumping bare feet on the floor of the room below ; he would be cold, and she thought of the danger of the embers, and remembered that the sluggard his mother still drowsed. The breakfast must be cooked, the dishes must be washed. Her physical strength was asserting itself against the shock to her mind. Her collapsed energies were recuperated by sleep, albeit the slumber induced by the primitive narcotics of the “ yerb bag.” Ah, the world of Wild-Cat Hollow, small though it was, was full of work, and she must lay hold. And so she rose once more, and joined hands with joyless duty.
Ben Doaks sojourned with them for a time, and went hunting with Jessup, and brought back game, and made Mrs. Sayles presents of the peltry. As he sat by the fire at night he told the news from the cove in great detail, and discussed it freely with Mrs. Jessup, and developed remarkable capacities for acquiescence. Old Griff, he said, was having a mighty hard winter. His mill had proved a sore loss, for he was bereft of his tolls and he had planted little corn. “ He mought make out, though. His meat looks thrivin’ ; he hain’t killed yit.” Ben spoke of the miller’s hogs afoot as if they held their fat in trust and were stewards of their own bacon. The old man seemed failing, and talked much about Tad ; sometimes as if he had already returned, sometimes as if he momently expected him. The children, too, “ ’peared thrivin’,” though Ben did n’t believe Sophy would ever be good for much except to look at, and the little ones “ all ’peared ragged ez ef she did n’t study ‘bout them much.”
“ Too many peart, spry boys in the cove fur her ter study ‘bout, stiddier them,” said Mrs. Sayles, with a scornful toss of the head, histrionically seeing the situation from Sophy’s standpoint.
“Jerry Price ’pears ter set a heap o’ store by Sophy’s looks,” submitted Ben, with the implication of the remark.
“ Waal, ’t would be a jedgmint on Dely Purvine fur all her onwholesome vanity an’ slack-twisted sort o’ religion, ef that thar Jerry Price, ez she hev brung up ez ef he war her own son, — though his looks air enough ter tarrify a mole, — war ter marry Sophy Griff.”
“Waal, sir, one thing, — her housekeepin’ could n’t ’stonish him none arter Mis’ Purvine’s,” remarked Mrs. Jessup, with an elaborate semblance of seeing the brighter side of things.
“Shucks!” Mrs. Sayles commented. “ He’d miss mightily the show and the shine he hev been used ter along o’ Mis’ Purvine.”
“Waal,” said Ben, “I don’t b’lieve ez Mis’ Purvine would mind much who Jerry marries, so long ez he keeps clar o’ Elviry Crosby. Mis’ Purvine air mightily outdone with her. She hev been actin’ ’bout’n Peter Rood same ez ef she war a widder-woman. An’ ye know she would n’t speak ter him ez long ez Mink war out’n the grip o’ the sher’ff. She tried ter toll Pete back arterwards. I hearn him ’low sech when they war drawin’ the jury. I dunno how she made out.”
Mrs. Sayles gazed at the fire solemnly from under her pink sunbonnet.
“ Death tolled him,” she said lugubriously.
“ I’d jes’ ez lief Death as Elviry Crosby,” said Mrs. Jessup, in calm superiority to the wiles of feminine fascination.
Old man Sayles shook his head in negation.
“ Mighty dark under the ground,” he said, with terror of the termination of life; which for him signified so little that a sponge with a vocable or two might have seemed his correlative.
But when Ben was gone, — and the sight of Alethea, silent, absorbed, pallid, broken-hearted, gave him little wish to prolong his stay, — the scene at the fireside was less amicable and cheerful. The elder women, bereft of gossip, bickered over the trifling mishaps of the day. The old man sorted his “ lumber.” Jessup slouched and lazed and smoked. Only the weather varied the aspect of the world. The snow slipped away in the thaw, leaving mud and ooze and intervals of blackened ice. Then the rains descended, and the scene without was dimly visible through the long, slanting, dun-colored fringes of the cloud. The roof clamored with the resonant fall of the drops, the clapboards leaked, and puddles formed even in the ashes of the chimney corner. The sun might shine vaguely for a day. The chill splendors of the wintry constellations scintillated icily in the dark spaces of the night. But the clouds, rallying from every repulse, closed once more about the Great Smoky, and ravine and peak and cove were again deeply covered with snow.
Mrs. Jessup bewailed the change. “ I war a-hopin’,” she remarked, “ ez we would hev no mo’ fallin’ weather, so Lethe could go ter the meetin’ at the church-house in Eskaqua Cove, an’ fetch up some word o’ what’s a-goin’ on down thar ter this benighted roost. I war raised in the cove! I ain’t used ter sech a dwindlin’ sort o’ life ez this hyar.”
“ What ailed ye, then, ter marry a mounting boy ?” Mrs. Sayles would demand in resentment.
“ Kase I war the mos’ outdacious an’ astonishin’ fool in Cherokee County.”
Mrs. Jessup was not a woman of great abilities, but she had an uncommon gift of conclusiveness in retort.
Mrs. Sayles could only knit off her needle with a sort of whisking scornfulness of gesture.
And presently, not to be silenced, she demanded when the meetin’ was to be held.
“ To-morrer’s the day ; this be Sat’dy. Ter-morrer’s Sunday,—second in December.”
“ The snow ’s a dry snow,” remarked Mrs. Sayles. “ I dunno what’s ter hender Lethe, ef she feels minded ter go ter meetin’.”
It never occurred to either of them to undertake themselves the hardships and dangers of the excursion. Even Mrs. Jessup, pining for the fuller development and richer social opportunities of life in the cove, did not covet them to the extent of exertion.
Alethea was glad to be alone. The burden of the work, however mechanically accomplished, had pressed heavily upon her consciousness. The acrimony, the continual talk, the trivial stir, had impinged jarringly upon her deeper absorption. The infinite solitude of the wilds, the austere dignity of their silence, harmonized with her mood. She had craved to hear the preaching. She was spiritually an hungered. She turned to the consolations of religion. Now and then she drew a deep sigh as she went, and paused and looked about her with eyes that felt as if they had wept long; but they were dry, and tears for a time had been strangers. She was fain to note closely to-day the aspects of the outer world, or, woodland creature though she was, she might have missed her way in the tortuous intricacies that the road had followed in striving to make and keep a footing among the steeps. Icicles still hung to the dark faces of the crags, grim and distinct upon the snowy slopes about them. On every side towered the great trees, their gigantic proportions more incredibly imposing when fully revealed in bare bole and branch and height than when the foliage had veiled them. Now and then she met a mist, stealing softly, silently along, or lurking like some half-affrighted apparition in the depth of ravines, or peering down from over unmeasured steeps. As the road turned abruptly she saw a mass of white vapor against the sky, — nay, it was Thunderhead, the great cloud-mountain. There was movement upon the slopes of the peak. The mists shifted to and fro, with vague gray shadows mysteriously attendant upon them. Sudden gusts of wind swept through the forest, rousing it to motion, to weird murmurs. She gathered her brown shawl about her and drew her bonnet forward. And then the wind would slip away, and she would hear it repeating its mystic apostrophe far off among the ravines of Thunderhead, or Big Injun, or another of the mighty company of the border. Among rifts of the clouds came sometimes a pallid glimpse of the midday moon. It had a strange ghastly gleam on this sad gray day, among the clouds above the great legendary mountain. She stood and gazed at it for a moment in vague fascination, then she turned and went on. She saw occasionally the footprints of small animals in the snow. Often she looked after them, for she had the compassionate tenderness of a compatriot for these little mountaineers. Once she noticed a rabbit that crouched chilled and trembling for an instant, and then went leaping through the frozen weeds.
She was not cold. It was growing warmer as she made her way down to lower levels, and much of the time she walked rapidly. Only when she crossed the mountain torrent, icy and motionless save that in its crystal heart a stream like a silver arrow swiftly and silently glided, glancing in the light, she felt the chill of the day. For the footbridge was hung with icicles and enveloped in deceptive snow that fell at the touch of her foot, and she began to be afraid she would lose so much time here that she might be late and miss some part of the sermon. The dense growth of laurel hung over its playmate of the summer, unchanged save in the heavy weight of snow banked upon the barbed leaves. The cove was visible now and then, and, looking down upon it, one might fail to discern any expression of the social opportunities for which Mrs. Jessup valued it. In its wintry guise it was peculiarly open to the eye : its forests were bare; the unbroken snow lay in its broad fields in lieu of its harvested crops ; its road was distinguishable by the narrow interval between the zigzag fences ; the serpentine lines of the river were defined by its snow-fringed laureled banks ; here and there a curl of blue smoke arose from the chimney of a little house heavily thatched with drifts.
The church had for her many melancholy associations. She paused at the palings, remembering the night when she had stood here in the silent moonshine, in the full summer-tide, and the vapors had shifted about, and in their midst she had seen the boy whom they had said was dead. How much had come into her life since then, and, alas, how much had gone forth forever ! The snow hung heavy in the pine-trees; the faint moon was in the fretted gray sky above the mountains. The little house was dark and drear under its whitened roof. The snow was melting close to the chimney. She heard the drops trickling down. The mounds in the inclosure were very distinct. Some of them had a square of palings close about: those were the graves of the well-to-do people of the cove. She could hardly have said, but for her lifelong knowledge of the place, which was the new-made grave where lay the man who had pointed at her with his last living impulse, whose last word was to her, becoming dumb on his lips as his life died in him, — a word never to be heard, never to be answered. Here they all were, little ephemeral mounds in the midst of the great eternities of the mountains. She wondered if there were words to be said buried with the others; deeds to be done or undone ; hopes unrealized ; promises deferred until now when time was no more for them. Life was transitory, and so she was minded anew of the preacher.
He was already in the pulpit when she entered the low, dark little building, with its scanty congregation huddled on the few benches. He was a long-haired, wild-eyed, jeans-clad mountaineer, with a powerful physique and an admiration of prowess. He was a worthy and a well-meaning man, and there are those of his profession wiser than he who forget that they are apostles of peace. The circumstantial account of various feuds detailed in the Old Bible proved of intense interest to the majority of his congregation, who listened with eager faces and spell-bound attention. The methods of slaughter in those days seem to have had phenomenal diversity, and certainly exceeded anything of the sort that had ever been heard of in Eskaqua Cove.
Alethea’s mind was too closely held in subordination to reverence for her to acknowledge, even to herself, how little this discourse met her peculiar needs. She endeavored to fix her attention humbly upon the harrowing details of human barbarity; now and then an expression of wincing sympathy was in her clear eyes.
The application of the sermon — for it had an application — was to be found in the thankfulness which every professing member should experience because his lot was cast in Eskaqua Cove, where such practices did not at present obtain, and the fear which the unregenerate should harbor, since these tortures were nothing in comparison to what would happen to him in the next world, unless he forthwith mended his ways.
It left a certain trace of meditative astonishment, however, among the heavy mountaineers, slouching out to their horses and wagons, slowly commenting while chewing hard on their great quids of tobacco. The women lingered and talked in a lack-lustre fashion to one another of their ailments, and interchanged inquiries concerning absent members of the family. Sophy Griff stood by the palings, debating whether she should accept the proffer of one of the youths to take her home on his horse behind him.
She was looking about doubtfully. " I brung two o’ the chil’ren along o’ me, but they ’pear ter hev runned off somewhar. I dunno ez I wanter leave ’em.”
“ They ’ll be home ’fore supper-time,” urged the gallant. “ Treat ’em ter git thar ef thar’s enny eatin’ goin’ on.”
With this logic she suffered herself to be persuaded, mounted his horse behind him, and they rode away after the manner of a cavalier and his lady-love of the olden time.
Alethea trudged along the road to Mrs. Purvine’s house, for the journey up the mountain was hardly a possible achievement after the fatigues of the descent. The sun had come out. It scintillated on the snow. The cascades in the half-frozen river glittered iridescent. The bluffs were outlined with snow in all their fissures ; icicles clung to them at every jutting point, and the stunted trees of their summit, whose insistent roots seemed to pierce the stone, were encased in ice, and sparkled as the wind moved them. In the midst of all this splendor Mrs. Purvine’s house was dark and humble, despite the porch, and the front steps, and the glass windows. In the half-buried garden spot a bevy of dark figures sped this way and that over the snow. They were aunt Dely’s boys chasing rabbits. The creatures, half famished and bold with necessity, — fatally distinct on the whitened ground, — were deftly knocked on the head with a stick, and one blow from such experts was sufficient. In the party was a smaller boy, whom, at first, Alethea was puzzled to remember. Presently she recognized ’Gustus Tom, and this prepared her to see, when she entered, sister Eudory, sitting in front of aunt Dely’s fire.
The pernicious glass in the windows added much cheerfulness to the apartment in weather like this. It aided the firelight in revealing sister Eudory’s tangle of flaxen hair and beguiling plumpness, as she sat, looking demure and wise, in one of the large rickety chairs. She was nearly four years of age now, and a great girl, and when she got down and went and stood behind the churn, in an affectation of shyness because of Alethea’s presence, she was not hidden by the article, and the handle of the dasher was insufficient to obscure her downcast face and her finger in her mouth.
“ Yer aig will pop an’ bust, fust thing ye know,” said aunt Dely, the politic.
And Eudora forthwith came briskly out to investigate an egg which she was roasting in the ashes, the kind present of Mrs. Purvine. The hen that laid it was stalking about the room in unconscious bereavement. Now and then there was a shrill piping from a basket on the floor, from which overflowed, as it were, a downy collection of fall “ deedies,” hatched too late to stand any chance of weathering the winter except by being reared into those obnoxious animals, house-chickens. A matronly feathered head would occasionally be thrust out with a remonstrant cluck, and the assemblage, miraculously escaping the heedless human foot, would climb into the basket, and there would ensue a soft sound of snuggling down and drowsy pipings. All of which excited sister Eudory almost to ecstasy.
Mrs. Purvine experienced less complacence. “ Ef ennybody ain’t got no baby, an’ feels like adoptin’ one ter take trouble about, jes’ let ’em git ’em a settin’ o’ aigs an’ hatch out some fall deedies. It ’ll do ’em fur twins! ”
“ Why n’t you-uns stay ter the meetin’ ter the church-house, Eudory ? ” demanded Alethea.
The little girl, kneeling on the hearth, anxiously adjusted a broom straw on the egg to see if it were done, — when, according to culinary tradition, the straw would turn ; she glanced up with her charming smile showing her snaggled little teeth.
“ ’Gustus Tom would n’t bide,” she declared.
“ Waal, now, ’Gustus Tom oughter begin ez early ez he kin,” said Mrs. Purvine. “ Sech ez ’Gustus Tom hev a mighty wrastle with Satan ’fore they git grace. ’Gustus Tom hev got a long way o’ wickedness afore him. He oughter be among them in early youth convicted o’ sin an’ afeard o’ Satan.”
“ Naw,” said the child, sitting upright and staring steadily at the straw. “ He be ’feared o’ Pete Rood. An’ he won’t ’bide a-nigh the church-house.”
The firelight was on her face. Its breath stirred her bright hair. Her chubby hand hovered above the egg in the ashes. Surely the straw was turning at last.
“ Pete Rood is dead, Eudory,” said Mrs. Purvine, rebukingly.
“ In the groun’,” said Eudory unequivocally.
The mention of him recalled to Alethea that momentous day of drawing the jury, the mystery of Tad’s fate, the hardships of Mink’s unjust duress, and finally the calamity which he had brought upon himself.
Alethea had taken off her bonnet, and sat down in the rocking-chair before the fire, her eyes fixed reflectively upon the great burning logs. The interior of Mrs. Purvine’s house always had a leisurely aspect; to-day it wore the added quiet and ease of Sunday stillness. It was evident that here no anxious female heart was “ harried ter death,” in yearnings for the perfecting of a theory of housekeeping.
Mrs. purvine, sitting with her empty hands in her lap, once more rebuked sister Eudory, the decorums of the day giving a more stringent interpretation to her code of manners.
“ Ye must n’t say ’Gustus Tom air ’feard o’ Pete Rood, kase he air dead.”
“That’s what ’Gustus Tom say — he say don’t talk ’bout’n it.” Eudora looked up gravely. “ He be wusser ’feard now ’n he war when Pete Rood war ’live.”
There was a sudden hand on the latch, and ’Gustus Tom came hastily in.
“ Look-a-hyar, sister Eudory ! ” he cried remonstrantly, seizing her by the arm, “ what ails ye ter let yer tongue break loose that-a-way ? Shet up! Ye promised ye would n’t tell.”
He had an excited, grave, frightened look that was incongruous with the roguish east of his features ; his torn old hat was jauntily askew; his clothes were ragged ; a single suspender seemed quite adequate to support so many holes ; his shoes were broken. There was a distinct deprecation and anxiety in his face more pitiable than poverty, as he looked from one to the other of the women. He was evidently wondering how much of his secrets the faithless sister Eudory had told. He could not control his fears. He broke out suddenly.
“ Hev she tole ’bout’n what I done ? ”
Mrs. Purvine, who was jocose with children, and who could not appreciate at this stage of the disclosure that anything of serious moment impended, folded her arms slowly across her bosom, looked at him over her spectacles, a great deal of the whites of her blue eyes showing, and with mock solemnity nodded assent.
“Waal, waal — did she tell ’bout’n the — the mill, too ? ”
Aunt Dely shook her head in burlesque reproach. “ She hev tole on ye, ’Gustus Tom. Yer wicked ways air made plain.”
His eyes were wildly starting from his head ; he caught his breath in quick gasps. The little girl first detected the genuine terror with which he was suffering, and as she held his hand began to whimper and to lay her head against his ragged shirt sleeve.
“ Oh, Mis’ Purvine,” cried ’Gustus Tom, “ I never knowed aforehand how ’t war goin’ ter turn out, else I’d never hev gone thar that night, an’ I would n’t hev knowed no mo’ ’bout who bust down the mill ’n nobody else !”
“ Did n’t Mink bust the mill down ? ” asked Mrs. Purvine, staring.
“ Naw,” said ’Gustus Tom, miserably, “Mink never.”
Aunt Dely suddenly sat upright, and took her spectacles from her astonished eyes. She was about to speak sharply, but met Alethea’s warning glance, and desisted.
Charles Egbert Craddock.