In the Clouds
HARSHAW considered a knowledge of human nature as essential a tool of his trade as the Tennessee Reports, and the common human attributes, so far as he had discerned them, were definitely abstracted and tabulated in his mind, — for he was systematic mentally.
Nevertheless, he was profoundly ignorant of these traits as manifested in his own personality. Had another member of the legislature risen in his place, one day when the spring was just beginning to open, stating that he desired to make a motion based on public rumor, to which he considered the attention of the House should be directed, Harshaw could not have failed to note the ring of triumph in the voice, the predatory gleam in the eye, the restive eagerness of address, the swift fluency of excited words. He would not have been slow to deny to the demonstration those motives so insistently arrogated, — public justice, patriotism, sense of duty.
His manner had riveted the attention of the House, which was more than usually quiet. It wore that sombre, undecorative aspect common to assemblages exclusively of men. The effect of uniformity of attire was, however, annulled in a measure by the varying expressions in countenance, in age, in attitude. The metropolitan representatives had a more dapper aspect than the members from the outlying districts, who were distinguished chiefly by a redundancy of beard, a more lavish use of tobacco, and a solid and serious aspect that promised an intolerance of flippancy in matters of religion, and morals, and manners.
Here and there was a face individual enough to arrest attention. Kinsard’s head, with its high, earnest brow, its roving, melancholy black eyes, its sharp, characteristic features, stood out from the rest in strong relief, canceling the heads about it to a nebulous suggestion of humanity. He lounged in one of the most negligent of his dislocated postures, He had a smile of bitter contempt on his face, which bore no relation to his attitude of indifference, and expressed an energy of anger which he was at a loss how best to wreak. More than once he looked away from Harshaw, as if to divert his thoughts, to allay his irritation, by the contemplation of the scene without.
The windows stood open to the bland spring air. The languid, quiescent sunshine loitered along the great white stone porticoes, looking in often, a smiling, sheeny presence, upon the grave deliberations within. The river glistened in lustrous curves between high banks fringed with green as far as the eye could reach. The roofs of the city below were almost smokeless, — only here and there a wreathing hazy curl. The old forts on the hills wore all the dismantled and sunken aspect of desuetude, and gathered into the scars of war the blossoms of peace and the nestlings, and garnered the songs and the smiles of spring to make the waste places merry.
Hardly a sound entered at the window, — only the droning of a portly bee which, arrayed in a splendid buff jerkin and a black belt, came swiftly in and went again in a slant of sunshine. Harshaw’s voice, echoing from the stone walls, seemed doubly weighty and impressive and resonant.
The House had already received an intimation of what he was about to say, and although his animosity to Gwinnan impugned his credibility and relaxed the surprise which had been occasioned, his bold overt allusions to his antagonism, his sturdy, undaunted address, had their effect. He said he must impinge upon the indulgence of the House for some personal explanation. Had he consulted his own inclinations, he would have let the matter pass. It had come to his knowledge with no solicitation, no suspicion, by accident, or — with a reverent intonation — providentially, he might better say. But (suspended effect) he was sworn (with a wag of the head) to serve the interests of the people of Tennessee, and (he thumped the desk) right zealously would he discharge that precious and supreme trust! The duty of laying this matter before the representatives of the people was the more distasteful to him because he was personally in antagonism to Judge Gwinnan, whose title to the judicial office it controverted and whose integrity it assailed. He did not seek to disguise the truth; he wished it to be understood — and let the fact have what weight it might — that he would be glad to see Judge Gwinnan removed from the office which it was charged he had profaned. Apart from all else, he had practiced in his circuit; he had experienced his tyranny; he had seen a jury snatched from their deliberations and clapped into jail for some petty ignorant infringement of the deep reverence which Judge Gwinnan exacted for his presence. No! — and the walls rang with the strong, robust tones, — he would esteem Judge Gwinnan’s removal a source of great gratulation and a furtherance of justice. But he would be glad, for his own private considerations, if the circumstances upon which the motion would presently be made could have come to the ear of some other member; he appreciated that there was (sneering and smiling) a lack of grace, of seemliness, in the emanation of the proposition from him, an avowed personal enemy; moreover, he might expose himself to suspicions of his motive.
“ Right for once ! ” cried the unruly Kinsard, striking in suddenly.
The gavel sounded, and the interruption subsided.
Harshaw’s opaque blue eyes turned mechanically in the direction of the voice, but with a preoccupied air of seeing nothing he went on, holding the lapels of his coat, as he stood squarely beside his desk.
He could have evaded ; he could have delegated the duty to another member. — have made the facts known, have had the witnesses canvassed, have set the machinery in motion, without himself appearing at all. “ But, Mr. Speaker,” with an arrogant port, “ it is not my habit to beat about the bush. I may be maligned by my foes, I may be misinterpreted by my friends, I may be misjudged even by my constituents, but it is my principle to come forth openly, and let my personal feeling weigh for whatever it may be worth.”
He paused for a moment, stroking his yellow beard with an excited gesture, his flushed face grave, his eyes intent, absorbed; his whole presence instinct with determination, a hazardous tenacity, a ponderous force. Then dropping his voice to the artificial dead-level elocutionary intonation, he proceeded to make a formal motion that a committee be appointed to investigate and report upon the accusations brought against Judge Gwinnan, charging him with having fought a duel, thus being disqualified for office, and with perjury in taking the official oath.
There was an interval of absolute silence when he had resumed his seat. Significant glances were interchanged. It seemed that the motion would be lost, until a little bland, cat-like fellow arose to say in a falsetto voice, Mr. Speaker, I second the motion.”
Kinsard turned his indolent anatomy about, and looked with a scathing eye at the little man as, flushed and flustered, he took his seat. There was no possible propriety in the charge of collusion ; the two members had all the liberties of consultation and cooperation. Then why, he argued within himself, should Forsey look like a cat stealing cream? Bestirring his recollection, he recalled in him a certain willingness to think ill of Judge Gwinnan when previously threatened by Harshaw; and still dredging for a motive, he remembered, though it happened some years ago, that Gwinnan, sitting as special judge, had blocked the game of a big public contract swindle, in which Forsey had had a large money interest.
Forsey had not the nerve of Harshaw, who was looking about him in reddening displeasure and frowning prognostication of the baffling of his vengeance. If he had indeed no backing but the irresolute Mr. Forsey, the measure would be defeated by a most triumphant majority. The prospect roused all his belligerent spirit, and he held up his head with a snort of defiant welcome, like a war-horse sniffing the battle from afar, when, upon the question being stated from the chair, a member rose to say that he doubted the jurisdiction of the House.
” If this matter be reported correctly as I have heard it during the last two or three days, — to my very great surprise, — if Judge Gwinnan be disqualified by reason of having before his incumbency fought a duel, then he never was a judge except de facto. As I understand it, only an officer de jure can be impeached for crimes committed while in office.”
Forsey wanted to know if perjury in taking the official oath were not a crime committed in office.
Another member asked whether it were the commission of the crime itself which disqualified, or the conviction of the crime.
The gavel sounded, and the member who had the floor persisted.
“I take it that the House cannot prefer articles of impeachment against a private citizen who has unlawfully usurped an office. If he is removed at all, it should be by proceedings in the chancery court in the nature of a quo warranto.”
Mr. Kinsard rose, half leaning against his desk with a swaying negligence of posture, to call attention to the fact that anything in the nature of quo warranto would n’t begin to do. To have a little one-horse chancellor, way up yonder in the seclusion of the mountains, dump Judge Gwinnan out of his office would not serve the purpose. Could any man imagine that that proceeding, known merely to the members of the bar and the few intelligent citizens of that benighted district who took note of such matters, would satisfy such an animosity as the member from the floaterial district of Cherokee and Kildeer had avowed, with a cheek which might be contemplated only in astounded admiration ? Would the infliction of that limited degradation glut the member’s ravening greed for revenge for his personal grudges? No! the member wished to disgrace Judge Gwinnan with all the publicity that even the attempt to impeach would entail. He designed that it should be canvassed throughout the length and breadth of the State. It should resound through the clarion columns of every newspaper. Every State in the Union should know that the Senate of Tennessee had organized as a court of impeachment, and the name of Gwinnan should be the synonym of contumely. Upon his word, he could hardly take in the vastness of the effrontery that emboldened the member to acknowledge, to proclaim to this House, his gross, his sordid personal motives in attacking one of the most able, most respected, most diligent, most upright, of the state judiciary. He appealed to the higher feeling of the House. He begged that they would not be driven like so many sheep into an investigation which was in its very inception an insult, an outrage, and a scandal.
A member demanded from his seat if it were not an obligation imperatively imposed upon the House to inquire into such a rumor, for the purpose of ascertaining and eliciting the truth or falsehood it promulgated. Since such a rumor was abroad, it behooved Judge Gwinnan’s friends to advocate an investigation, for it was his only hope of vindication if he were maligned.
Harshaw, leaning forward, both arms on his desk, attentively listening, pursed up his red lips meditatively and nodded with abstracted affirmation, as if pondering the position. He gave no outward expression of gratulation, but he was quick to mark the accession of recruits to his ranks. He could command a stalwart and callous fortitude. He could receive without wincing, without anger, without shame, Kinsard’s jeers and thrusts, for the sake of the aroused antagonism which seemed the natural sequence of the young man’s insistent arguments.
“It specially becomes the House,” continued the member, “to countenance no leniency in regard to dueling and all that pertains to it, after the will of the people has been so unequivocally expressed in regard to the matter of the challenge, or what was so construed, upon this floor.”
The member was rebuked here for infringement of parliamentary usage in upbraiding, as it were, the previous actions of the House and interrupting the member who had the floor.
Kinsard, restive under the interpolations, seized the opportunity to resume : “There is no pretense of justification for adopting formal resolutions to asperse the oath of an honorable man, least of all at the instigation of his avowed personal enemy. The story we have heard is at its worst merely a country boy’s ‘ taking up a dare.’ I will venture to say that there is not a man within the sound of my voice who has not had similar affrays, — has not in the days of his youth ‘ taken up a dare,’has not fought by appointment.”
“ Will the member explain what he means by a duel ? ” demanded Harshaw. He did not turn his big yellow head ; he only cast his opaque blue eyes at Kinsard, and once more looked down at his hands clasped on his desk.
For a moment Kinsard, taken unaware, was checked.
“ Perhaps the member had best begin at the beginning, and define a challenge,” suggested a satiric voice from the rear.
There was a sharp call to order from the chair, and Kinsard, rallying himself, went tumultuously on.
“ I am not a dictionary,” he proclaimed angrily. “ I am not here to enlighten your ignorance.”
Harshaw, elated by the allusion to the old question of the challenge, intimating anew a flocking to his standard, interrupted cleverly : I have a dictionary right here, — a law dictionary.” He read aloud : “ Dueling is the fight ing of two persons, one against another, at an appointed time and place, on a precedent quarrel.”
Kinsard vociferously claimed the floor, although it had become very evident to the House that the interest he advocated fared hardly less severely at the hands of its friend than its foe In debate he was no match for the wily Harshaw, — his natural endowments, his enthusiasms, his finer emotions, succumbing to a practiced logic, and a militant habit, and an instinctive discernment of the vulnerable point.
” It is impossible to seriously maintain that a fight between a couple of country boys is a duel,” he vehemently insisted. “ Everybody knows that the common acceptation of the idea of a duel is a combat between men — men of station ” (Harshaw leaned forward with an air of mock attention, placing his hand ostentatiously behind his ear) — “ on some question of honor, fighting under the control and direction of their seconds, at a specified number of paces, and with pistols ” —
“ Enactment provides that they shall be silver-mounted, hair-trigger,” sneered Harshaw.
Once more there was a call to order. But Kinsard, badgered, turned at bay.
“I heard Judge Gwinnan tell you once that unless you kept out of his way he would beat you with a stick, like a dog. How you do tempt the cur’s deserts ! ”
Harshaw rose hastily to his feet. He stood for a moment, his head lowered, his eyes flaming from under his knitted brows; he looked like the champion mad bull of an arena, about to charge. Suddenly he turned,and without a word resumed his seat. There was a storm of applause from every quarter of the house. A dozen voices were crying that the offensive words should be taken down; the clerk hastily obeyed; they were read aloud, and the speaker called upon Kinsard to deny them or retract.
Kinsard could have said with all the fervor of truth that he was sorry indeed, but it was in an inapplicable sense. He saw, with a sinking of the heart, the havoc he was making in another’s fate, — the moral murder that hung upon his hands. He looked about with despair at the faces around him: they had been friendly, partisan, when he began to speak against the motion ; now they were reluctant, alienated, antagonistic. It were better for Gwinnan had he had no friend but his own repute. The impetuous young fellow felt that he had done the worst that was possible. He would not now eat his words. He looked at Harshaw with an indignant divination of his motives, when that gentleman, begging the indulgence of the House, moved that the matter be dropped. He was not here to maintain personal consequence. He was willing — nay, eager—to waive any individual considerations which hindered the deliberations of the House and the course of justice. If the member were so ungenerous as to decline to apologize for words spoken in heat, confirming them in cool malice, he himself was able to overlook them: the more as his character was, he trusted, too favorably known to be injured by these reflections.
He sat down in the midst of a clamor from a number of eager occupants of the floor, — one of whom the speaker presently recognized, — protesting against the unparliamentary nature of the proposal. The objectionable words were again read, and the speaker called upon Kinsard to apologize or to deny them.
Perhaps Kinsard, alone appreciated in this edifying demonstration, Harshaw’s policy. He could not be tempted to run counter. He would not slack his pursuit of Gwinnan for another trail, however alluring. He had higher game in view than the stripling’s insults could furnish. And he had made himself an example of marvelous tolerance, forbearance, and dignity.
Kinsard, lowering and pierced with all the barbed realization of futility and defeat, adopted his words, refused to retract or apologize, and, being commanded by the speaker to withdraw, took up his hat, and, with a scornful, indifferent manner that angered every member as if charged with a personal relation, strode out of the room.
Harshaw had followed his motions with narrowing eyelids. His attention had relaxed with momentary exultation at this result. He was smiling a little in his beard, and he glanced in a debonair preoccupation out of the window near his seat. The sky was red, for the sun was going down. He noted the flush with a casual eye, unprescient how it should be with him when the day, fading now and dropping its dulling petals on every side, should whitely bloom again. Then he reverted with zest to the proceedings within.
Kinsard walked slowly along the portico to the flight of steps. A belt of clouds, their edges glinting with gold, obscured the scarlet disk of the sun, but from their lower verge a great glory of yellow light gushed down, each of the multitudinous rays distinct, giving a fibrous effect, upon the blue hills of the horizon, upon the city in the foreground. Here and there they struck upon a spire or a tin roof that responded with a glister fiercely white. The intervals showed soft shadows of restful tints, the tops of the budding trees, the silver-gray shingles of an old house, and here and there an open space where the renewed bluegrass grew apace. It wore a dark richness all adown the slopes of the Capitol hill. Somehow, as he noted it, there was borne upon him for the moment a subtle intimation of the serenity of that life of Nature close to our artificial existence, mysterious, inevitable, quiescent. The contrast gave a sharpened sense of the turmoils of his heart, the weariness of his spirit, the rasping jars of his petty cares. He paused on the sidewalk and looked about him. Then he produced a cigar, and took his way down into the city.
He did not fear the sentence of the House. He was resolute in the position he had taken, but he carried throughout the evening an imperative sense of abeyance. He noticed with a secret scorn the clumsy efforts of his legislative friends to sound his state of mind, when they came down from the Capitol; he divined their fear of a collision, their anxiety that the asperities with Harshaw should be allowed to quietly drop. They sought to have him observe that they considered he had the best of it, and that an apology now from him would mean merely a desire to promote public interest. Only the age of another adviser — his father’s friend as well as his own — restrained him from openly ridiculing the deep satisfaction which this mentor evidently derived from the fact that the young man’s mind would be occupied with lighter themes during the evening, and he might forget the rancors of the debate. His thoughts, however, were incongruous enough with the scene of a fashionable wedding, where he officiated as an usher, and he paced the aisles of the church with as mechanical a notice of his surroundings as a somnambulist. His attention hardly pretermitted its hold upon the subject that had absorbed him, and when again at liberty he went at once to his room at the hotel, with a view of changing his dress to attend the night session of the House.
It was the slightest matter that attracted his notice. He had lighted the gas, and as he glanced into a drawer of the bureau some trivial difference from the usual arrangement of his effects caught his eye. He stood for a moment in motionless surprise. Perhaps it was accident, perhaps his alert divination, but he slipped his hand beneath the pile of garments and touched a wooden case of pistols. He flushed slightly, and for a moment he was ashamed. He had doubted if it were still there. He had thought that perhaps his cautious friends might have robbed him, pending the time when he was in anger, of the means to do more than war with words. He had taken instant fire at the idea of an interference with his liberty. It was the smouldering embers of this thought that actuated him rather than any serious expectation, but suddenly he turned back to the bureau and lifted the case. He opened it slowly. It was empty. He gazed at the vacant space, his eyes flashing, his cheek flushing. The pistols had been abstracted, and the case left that his attention might not by its absence be directed to the weapons. He could easily divine all of his friends’ arguments. He would not notice the disappearance of the pistols, they must doubtless have said, unless he wanted them. He would not want them unless he were intent upon some fatal folly. He could not supply himself anew, for all the shops were closed, and by tomorrow he would be in a cooler frame of mind.
His indignation was natural enough. He took heed, too, of contingencies on which his anxious friends, accustomed to him always in the character of assailant, lost sight. “ I should be helpless,”he said, “ if that man should attack me. I should be incapable of selfdefense.”
Suddenly he caught up a light spring overcoat, threw it over his arm, and left the room. As he went down the staircase into the rotunda of the hotel, he seemed the embodiment of handsome, gay, fortunate youth. His cheek was flushed ; his eyes were very brilliant. He paced up and down the floor for a moment in front of the counter, for strangers were registering their names and the clerks were busy. The fountain tossed up its spray, and the tinkling drops fell into the basin ; around it plants were blooming. Somebody journeying from the South had presented the hotel with a little alligator, that splashed about in the water and was a source of diversion to the out-comers and in-goers, many of whom paused to rouse it up with their canes and punch the head of the infant saurian. Kinsard walked presently to the desk.
“ I want to borrow a pistol,” he said to the clerk, to whom he was well known.
The official, fancying that the guest contemplated a journey or a long nocturnal drive into the country, and that the request was a matter merely of precaution, turned with alacrity, took a pistol out of a drawer, and laid it on the counter. He was looking for the cartridges, when an acquaintance of Kinsard’s demanded casually, “ What do you want a gun for ? ”
Kinsard lifted his brilliant, reckless eyes. “ To shoot Bob Harshaw,” he declared.
The clerk turned hastily from his search, and made a motion to clutch the pistol.
Kinsard’s grasp had closed upon the handle.
“Man alive!” he cried angrily, “do you think I would use it except for selfdefense ? ”
He hastily thrust it into his pistol pocket, and went out into the night.
It was moonless and very dark, despite the myriads of scintillating stars The Capitol was visible only as suggested in the irradiations of its great flaring yellow windows, and the lights without on either side of the long flight of steps. As Kinsard ascended, he noticed on the broad portico a group of men, separating at the moment, three of them going within and one approaching the steps.
He could not fail to recognize Harshaw’s bluff manner, his portly figure, his long yellow beard, and his brisk, light step; and as the younger man walked along the portico Harshaw’s eyes, glancing out sharply from under the brim of his slouch hat, identified him. There was no one by to note how they should meet; the significance of the encounter might have rejoiced the lovers of sensation. Kinsard was about to pass without salutation, but Harshaw, whirling half round on his light heel, paused, and with a bantering smile on his dimpled pink face showing in the gaslight above their heads, “ Great news ! ” he exclaimed. “ They ’ve appointed a committee to investigate ‘ the jedge ! ”
Kinsard experienced a sharp pang of dismay for Gwinnan’s sake.
“ And I suppose now you are satisfied,” he said, bitterly.
“Oh, no, my dear little sir. I am not half satisfied ! ” cried Harshaw, with his liquid rotund laugh. His foreshortened shadow swayed on the blocks of white limestone, as if it could scarcely contain itself for laughter.
He had lost the poise which he had endured so much to maintain that day He was intoxicated with his triumph; and indeed he could afford to indulge it, for he felt that there was nothing now at stake.
“And that is the reason,” continued Harshaw, “that I feel I owe you an obligation which I must not let pass without acknowledgment. In your able and cogent speech, this afternoon, you did more to effect Judge Gwinnan’s impeachment than, unaided, I could possibly have compassed. Let me beg you to accept my thanks — ha ! ha ! ha ! ”
Deeply wounded by this thrust, and conscious of the injury he had done Gwinnan’s interests, Kinsard turned upon him, but not without dignity.
“ Mr. Harshaw,” he said, “ if I believed you to be sincere in this matter, if I thought you were not ingeniously perverting the facts and the law, I should most willingly cooperate with you. But I know your motives to be a rancorous jealousy and an insatiable spite. And if I have not done anything to nullify them, it is not because I am without the will.”
He looked at his interlocutor from head to foot, as if he found a source of surprise in his very embodiment.
“ I cannot imagine how a soul so petty should be so corpulently lodged. It might appropriately animate some tiny writhing worm that, showing venom, could be crushed by a foot.’
“ Look here, youngster,” said Harshaw. sneering and showing his strong white teeth, his eyes gleaming under the brim of his hat, “ I know you mean you’d take my life, if you could defy the consequence. But you’d better mind how you go to extremes in Gwinnan’s service. I have a contempt for you, but a pity, too. I know you are only his miserable tool, his abject creature.”
Kinsard sprang forward with the suddenness of a tiger. A stinging thrill ran through Harshaw’s face before he could realize that with an open palm he had been struck upon the cheek.
It was the impulse of the moment, — he never could afterward explain it to his will, he never could justify it to his policy ; he was shocked with an extreme surprise when the keen, abrupt tone of a pistol rang upon the chill night air, and he became conscious that he was shaking a smoking weapon in his right hand, jarred in some manner by the discharge. The young man had flung himself upon him ; he saw as in a dream Kinsard take one convulsive step backward, and fall from the verge of the great portico to the stones below. There was a moment of intense silence. Harshaw looked wildly to the doors, the windows, expecting the issuance of startled men, roused from their deliberations. It was strange ; if the pistol-shot had been heard, it had doubtless been accounted some violation of the ordinance prohibiting target-practicing within the corporate limits. Hardly a moment had elapsed when Harshaw ran down the long flight to where the man lay, half in the shadow and half in the light, at the foot of the stone wall.
“Are you hurt?” he cried in an agonized voice, as he bent over the motionless figure. “ Are you dead — already ? ”
He took one of the listless white hands,— very listless it was, and chill.
As he moved the submissive figure he felt the pistol in the pocket; he drew it forth, glad at least that the man was armed. As he turned it in his hands he saw in despair that it was unloaded. What theory of self-defense could this bear ? The next moment his quick eye noted that the bore and make were the same as his own weapon. He slipped in a cartridge, two, three, and replaced it in Kinsard’s pocket. Then he rose to his feet to summon help. He turned as he was about to ascend the steps, and looked back fearfully over his shoulder.
The sudden remembrance of his vision smote him. He gazed upon the scene as if he had before beheld it. The man lay there at the foot of great rocks, motionless and with an averted face.
He had braced himself as well as he might to endure the shock of public reprehension, surprise, repulsion, reacting on his own nerves, sensitive to every variation of popular opinion, when he should go to his associates, his weapon in his hand, the report of his own foul deed upon his lips. And yet, strong as he was, he faltered, he tottered, he fell almost fainting against the door at which he entered. He had a vague idea of the startled faces turned toward him, the expectant stillness, the sound of his hoarse, disconnected words in an appalled staccato, the sudden rush, the wild clamor. He hardly recognized the two men who disengaged themselves from the turmoil and came to him, — the best friends he had in the world, he might be sure now. He was only aware of what he had said and how well he had said it, when he was supported between them to a carriage, and was driving with them, and with the officer who had been summoned at his request, to the magistrate’s house. His friends were talking together in respectful undertones of this “ unfortunate affair,” and arranging the details,— a little complicated because of the late hour,—that there might be naught more unseemly than giving speedy bail. Neither intruded on his reserve. The officer was silent, unofficial, respectfully null, effaced. The stars were bright in the dark sky. The horses’ hoofs flashed fire.
The magistrate, roused to the fact that justice may not sleep when wrongs are to be righted, made the necessary inquiries in so grave and courteous a tone that it seemed he recognized that the occasional killing of a gentleman may be lamentable to the deceased and inconvenient to the surviving, but nothing to unduly stretch the limits of his elastic impartiality and abeyance of harsh opinion. He promptly accepted the proffered bail, and Harshaw’s friends left, him only at his bedroom door, where they shook hands gravely and kindly with him, and in response to some muttered thanks declared they proposed to see him through.
He found beneath the door the cards and notes of other friends, who, hearing some wild rumor of the trouble, had called to proffer services. His lip curled triumphantly as he scanned them one by one. They represented the estimation in which he was held. They intimated a reliance on his good faith and motive in any deed.
“ But I tell you, Mr. Harshaw,”he said ceremoniously to himself, “’t would have been mighty different if ’t was n’t for your own smartness!” For he could hardly thank his craft enough for the timely expedient of slipping the cartridges into Kinsard’s empty pistol.
He slept badly in the earlier part of the night, but toward day he fell into a deep and dreamless slumber, and woke refreshed. It was later than usual, and he was solitary at breakfast save for the presence of strangers. The corridors were well-nigh deserted when he came out, with his unfolded newspaper in his hand, — he would not look at it earlier. Most of the members who sojourned at the same hotel had gone to the Capitol. The reading-rooms were quite empty, but for the presence of the sunlight in glittering white blocks upon the carpet. He had lighted a cigar and flung himself into a chair, nerving himself to read the accounts of the shooting and the comments, when suddenly one of his bondsmen came into the room with so precipitate a manner, so perturbed a face, that the trouble so cleverly manipulated assumed anew an indefinitely threatening aspect. He felt his muscles tighten, his pulses quicken, as he asked hastily, “ What’s up ? ”
He could not disguise the nature of the look the man bent on him ; it made him tingle from head to foot. And yet his errand was the last offices of friendship.
“ You ’re too quick on the trigger in more ways than one, Harshaw,” he said. “ Kinsard was not hit.”
If Harshaw’s conscience had suffered one pang, this announcement might have weighed more with him than all that was to come. The extreme surprise told only on his nerves : his heart thumped heavily ; his breath was short, his face flushed; he looked at his interlocutor with eyes that seemed lidless in their intentness.
“ Kinsard was not shot. He lost his balance, and was stunned by the fall. They have been working with him all night long, but the doctor says he ’ll pull through now.” The man faltered a little. It was hard to look into another man’s eyes and say this. “ He revived once before you left. He saw you. in the gaslight, load his pistol with your cartridges. And then he fainted again. I thought I “d tell you. The whole town ’s talking.”
It was admirably managed, — Harshaw’s long amazed stare, the slow rising from the chair, the rotund, resonant laughter filling the room. It renewed his friend’s faith in him.
“ Lie, eh ? ” lie asked anxiously.
“ Go away ! ” Harshaw bluffly waved him off. " I ’m done with you. Coming to Me with a cock-and-bull story like this,—the visions a stunned man saw between his faints ! ”
As he took his way boldly down into the rotunda, amongst the crowds of men assembled there, the effect of his presence, his manner, his bluff, hilarious voice, as he canvassed the story, did much to annul the belief in it: in fact, might have destroyed it but for the recollection of the clerk’s declaration — silently pondered — that the pistol loaned was new, had never been discharged ; that the box of cartridges was unopened in his possession ; that Kinsard went straight from him to the Capitol; that the shooting occurred within fifteen minutes.
The subtle perception of this mental reservation had no effect on Harshaw’s capable swagger and burly ridicule, but as he noted it he was saying again and again to himself, “You’re a mighty smart man, Bob Harshaw. You ‘re just a little mite too smart. There’s no mistake this time. It is you who are dead, — politically as dead as Hector.”
No action was taken in the matter by the legislature, for it bristled with unprecedented difficulties. The session was drawing to a close. Harshaw’s usefulness had already ceased. Whatever measures he had advocated were tainted with suspicion and encountered disfavor. Bereft of the influences of his enmity toward Judge Gwinnan, the committee appointed to investigate the charges against him deliberated, and dawdled, and finally reported adversely to the resolution to prefer articles of impeachment. Their doubt of the jurisdiction of the legislature was said to be the determining cause of their action. It was a perplexed and a troublous question. And thus they washed their hands of it.
It had been in this cause that Harshaw had flung himself away, and it was in this result that he experienced the extremest rigors of defeat. It added to the helpless chagrin with which he watched his future, coming on so fast that already its coarsened grotesque features were wearing the immediate aspect of the present. A fine contrast he was, to be sure, to the man whose seat on the bench he had sought to shake, still serenely immovable, while he, the loiterer about the tavern at Shaftesville, beginning to drink heavily now, although his habits had been temperate, telling idle stories to the other loiterers with the zestful skill acquired as a politician, useless now, must needs watch all the interests that he had spent his life to conserve dwindle by degrees, till, case after case withdrawn from him, he should become a mere hanger-on in those courts in which he had aspired to preside.
And then there came to him news for which he felt he had no commensurate capacity for astonishment. Gwinnan, aggrieved by the indecision of the legislature, was clamoring for a vindication. It was nominally at the relation of a third party that the attorney-general brought a suit in the chancery court to test his title to office; and in the interval before the trial Mr. Harshaw had a great deal to say about judicial whitewashing, and speculated much concerning the probable result of the case, and pondered deeply on Gwinnan’s motives in encountering its hazards.
Sometimes he was half minded to accredit their probity, and then, ambitious of all that may serve to lift, he fell envious again, and railed at his harsh penalty, that, being not all base, one crafty deed — sequence of how many crafty thoughts ! —should determine his future and affix his life sentence.
It seemed to Mink Lorey, trudging on toward the mountains, as if they had been suddenly caught up in the clouds. The horizon had fallen from their invisible summits to the levels of the cove, and where the flat stretches of the perspective met the nullities of the enveloping vapors the scene had all the prosaic, denuded desolation of prairie distances. Yearning for the sight of the blue peaks, he felt as if it were in rebuke, in alienation, that they had hidden their faces from him, had drawn the tissues of the air about them and veiled their heads. As the day unfolded hour by hour, as the distance lessened mile by mile, he sought if perchance in a rent of the mist he might not glimpse some dome, the familiar of his early life, unchanged through all the vicissitudes that time had wrought for him. Once he was not sure if it were mountain or cloud outlined in individual symmetry amongst the indeterminate, shapeless masses of vapor. Then the haze thickened, and he lost the semblance, whether of earth or air.
It was before dawn that he had escaped from the haven he had found, and Mrs. Purvine, throughout the day, keeping watch over these snug quarters, guarded an empty nest. After the first deep, dreamless slumber of exhaustion he had silently slipped out, taking his way toward the Great Smoky, the thought of Alethea heavier than all his calamities. He knew naught of the report of his pardon ; he hardly cared now what might betide him. He would see her and tax her with her fickle heart, and then he would flee whither he might. Sometimes, as he toiled along, he would raise his arm with a frantic gesture, and again and again his lips moved unconsciously as he forecast in sibilant mutters the words that he would say.
There was little danger at this early hour of meeting any traveler along the deserted road, but he hardly felt safe until he reached the base of the Great Smoky, and was amongst the dense laurel of those mighty forests, still veiled with the mists and effaced from the day. He turned back often, despite the numbing clutch of despair in his heart and the turbulence of his rage, hoping that he might see again Chilhowee with the sunshine on it ; with the circuit of birds in the adjacent domains of the sky ; with the detached flakes of mist, like stole-clad figures, in airy processional pacing the summit to elusive evanescences; with its colors of bronze-green, and anon purple, and, stretching far away, more finely, softly azure than the heaven it touched. Alas, no, — this he might remember. And yet he had chance rencontres with old familiars. A torrent, gray-green, glassy, whitely foaming, darted out from the vapors suddenly, and was suddenly withdrawn into the blank spaces. And was he akin to the balsam firs; could he have met brethren with more joy ? Even when they towered undistinguishably above him, they whispered to him a word now and then, and filled the air with the cordial, inspiriting sense of their presence. And what was this ? He stood still to listen, staring into the white vagueness of the invisible woods. A fitful, metallic tinkling. Was he so high up the great steeps that already he could distinguish the bells of the herds, or was this a stray? He heard a hoof struck upon the ground presently, the sound of munching teeth, and suddenly a horse’s head was thrust forward amongst the mists, showing a black mane and wide brilliant eyes and the arch of a claybank neck.
“Thar ye be. Grasshopper! At it agin, air ye ?” Mink called out, with the rancorous formula of an old reproach.
It was a horse that he knew, and knew well, — one of the charges of the herders during the previous summer, — a wild young creature, with a proclivity for breaking bounds and straying. The animal pricked up his ears at the sound of his name, and his eyes met Mink’s with seeming recognition. The young mountaineer reflected that it was he who had usually salted the animals. With a hope of bettering his plight he held out his hand.
“ Cobe ! Cobe ! ” he called seductively. The horse looked dubiously at him, as he stood, one hand thrust in his leather belt, his white hat— an old one belonging to Jerry Price, which Mrs. Purvine had loaned him — perched on the back of his head, his red hair limp with the moisture of the damp day. The creature approached gingerly, snuffing at the empty hand. He moved back abruptly, detecting the deception ; but Mink had caught him by the halter which he wore, and sprung upon his back.
“ Gimme a lift up the mounting, Grasshopper,” suggested Mink placidly.
The stray reared and plunged and kicked, striving to unhorse the rider, who, although without saddle or bridle, contrived to maintain his seat, but could neither govern nor guide the animal, that at last bolted off through the woods, running as rapidly as the nature of the ground would admit. On he went, invading the mists ; piercing the invisibilities of the wilderness ; up hill and down ; among bowlders and gigantic trees, dimly looming; fording streams and standing pools and morasses; pausing to kick and rear and plunge anew, and away once more. Mink waited calmly till the stray should exhaust his energies. This proved longer than he had anticipated. But after several delusive intimations of abating speed the horse fell into a canter, then into a trot, and as Mink pulled on the halter the comity with his rider was renewed once more, and he lent himself to guidance. Looking about him, the young mountaineer could hardly say where he had been carried. Once, as the mist shifted, he saw through the limbs of stunted trees a great peak, a mile away perhaps, appearing and disappearing elusively among the rifts. He began to understand that he was on the summit of the ridge, in the interval between two great uprising domes. Often he must needs lie flat on the horse’s back, lest the low boughs of the ancient dwarfed trees sweep him to the ground ; as it was, they played cruel havoc with his old jeans coat, and once snatched his hat away, He drew up with difficulty, and as he clapped it on his head he heard again, in the momentary silence of his horse’s hoofs, the tinkling of bells other than the one which the nomadic Grasshopper wore at his neck. He rode toward the sound. It led him into a limited open space, where the trees, struck and burned by the lightnings, had fallen charred upon the earth ; two or three cows were pausing to crop in the lush grass, despite the crack of a whip and the call of a herder. Mink recognized the voice of his old comrade, Doaks.
The mounted figure of the fugitive loomed, half discerned, gigantic in the mist, as Ben Doaks stood and stared. The horse, restive, freakish, rose upon his hind feet, pawing the air. The young mountaineer, half doubting the policy of revealing himself, his prudent fears returning, hesitated, then leaned forward and waved his hand. He did not speak, for Doaks suddenly, with a wild, shrill cry of terror, turned and fled.
Mink sat his horse motionless, staring in amazement. An angry flush rose to the roots of his hair.
“ Ben’s ’feared ter hev enny dealin’s with law-breakers an’ sech,” he sneered. “ Feared the law mought take arter him.”
He rode along for a few moment’s pondering his jeopardy and the long imprisonment to which he was sentenced. If this demonstration were any indication of the feeling against him, he would be taken again here amongst the herders, or at his home in Hazel Valley, or in Wild-Cat Hollow.
“ I ought n’t ter go ter see Lethe,” he said to himself. “ I ought jes’ ter hustle over inter North Car’liny, whar they dunno me, an’ git in with some o’ them folks ez lives lonesome, — the herders, or them Injuns at Quallatown, — till the sher’ff gits tired o’ huntin’ fur me. Nobody ’lows but what I ’m dead ’cept Mis’ Purvine, an’ she ain’t a-goin’ ter tell on me. I dunno ’bout Lethe; mebbe she’ll ’low’t ain’t right, ’specially sence she air so powerful pleased with the jedge. I’ll git cotched sure ef I keep a-roamin’ ’round nyar like a painter, or that thar harnt o’ a herder ez rides on Thunderhead.”
With the words there flashed upon him a new interpretation of Ben Doaks’s sudden flight. He recollected the significance of an equestrian figure here, strangely silent, looming in the mist. As he looked about him, catching vague glimpses of the neighboring peaks, he recognized the slopes of Thunderhead.
“ Ben mus’ hev been over ter s’arch fur strays, an’ I reckon ye air one of ’em, Grasshopper,” he said.
His lips were curving, and his eyes brightening beneath the brim of the old wool hat. His prudent resolves vanished. He leaned forward, and deftly divested the horse of the bell. He tossed his head gayly as he struck his heels against the flanks of the animal, with an admonition to get up.
“ Ef I don’t ride up thar an’ skeer them herders on Thunderhead inter fits, I’m the harnt Ben takes me fur, that’s all.”
That misty morning was long remembered on Thunderhead. To the herders, busy with their simple, leisurely, bucolic avocation on the great elevated pastures, as aloof from the world, as withdrawn from mundane influence, as if they herded on lunar mountains, there appeared, veiled with the mist and vague with a speedy gait, the traditional phantom horseman : more distinct than they could have imagined, more personally addressing its presence to the spectators, silently waving its hand, and then leaning forward and clutching at the empty air, as if it would fain reach them, and once assuming an aggressive aspect and leveling an unseen weapon.
The cattle had not all arrived at their summer pastures from the coves and the “ flat woods.” To-day young Bylor, whose father was a farmer on the slopes below, had driven up a “ bunch ” of cows, and while he was standing quite alone, at some distance from the cabin, engaged in readjusting a brass tag which had been lost from the horn of one of the animals, he heard the sound of an approach, and glanced about him in the fleecy white nullity that had taken the place of the erased world. He did not recognize in the dim figure of the horseman the terrible ghostly herder, the steed rearing and plunging, the erect figure looming gigantic, merging with no distinct outlines into the enveloping uncertainty of the mist. He stood stolidly gazing for a moment.; then he hailed it.
“ Howdy, stranger ! ” he cried.
The figure paused; the horse fell upon his haunches and pawed the air with his forefeet, while the rider leaned forward, beckoning slowly as Bylor approached. What monition induced him to pause he could hardly have said. The significance of the insistently beckoning apparition flashed upon him in the moment. He turned precipitately, stumbling over the roots of a tree and falling prone upon the ground ; then, recovering himself, he ran at full speed through the blinding fog toward the cabin. He swore afterward that he heard behind him the tramp of a horse’s hoofs and a voice laughing mockingly.
At the herders’ cabin he found Ben Doaks and his partner from Piomingo Bald, pallid and shaken, among the other herders who had gathered there, all panic-stricken, and each arguing to shift to his partner the responsibility of the care of the cattle, that he might leave the weird, haunted summits, and find rest and peace and reassuring human comradeship in the prosaic depths of the cove.
“From what I hev hearn tell ’bout that thar herder,” said Doaks, with his facile credulity, “ none o’ we-uns air a-goin’ ter hev sense enough ter keer fur cattle hi’ nuthin’ else fur a year an’ a day. Leastwise that hev been the ’speriunce o’ other folks ez hev viewed the harnt.” He laid on another stick of wood, for the day was chill, and the great fire crackled and sparkled, and the red and yellow flames darted up the rude and tremulous chimney, and gave the one bright element of illuminated color to the dark interior. The bearded men grouped about the fire were seated, one on a keg of salt, three on a log, and Ben Doaks had dropped on a saddle flung down upon the hearth. The door was closed ; once it came unbuttoned, and every face turned quickly to scan the shivering mists, pallid and cold and opaque, crowding to the entrance, to be shut out summarily into the vast vagueness of the outer world.
“I dunno ez I feel ennywise lackin’,”observed another, after a long introspective pause. He rubbed his hand meditatively over his beard. “ I never ’lowed ez I war special gifted, but I ain’t a spang fool yit.”
“ I reckon we hain’t hed time ter ’speriunce it,”said Doaks, as he settled himself to wait for the dreaded doom, a little astonished, subacutely, to be conscious of no diminution of mental power.
“I seen him so close!” cried Bylor. “ I wish ter goodness I hed shot at him ! ”
“ Bullet would jes’ hev gone through him,” said Doaks, “ ’thout interruptin’ him none.”
“ Waal,” rejoined Bylor, “ I hev hearn some folks ’low ef ye shoots at a harnt they don’t like it, an’ sorter makes tharse’fs sca’ce arter that. I dunno what ailed him ter take arter me. I never herded with him on Thunderhead. I ain’t no herder, an’ never war. I hate powerful ter go down inter the cove ter drivel fur a year an’ a day. I never done no work, sca’cely, las’ year, through feelin’ sorter keerless ’bout’n it. An’ ef I hed drempt, ’bout’n this hyar harnt a-takin’ arter me, I’d hev put in my work then.”
“ Waal, ye can’t git the time back,” said Ben Doaks; and many an idler before and since Bylor has learned this melancholy truth.
He sat silent for a time, ruefully pondering upon his blasted industrial prospect. Then he broke forth fretfully once more : —
“ I war fool enough ter go so close. I seen the very hat he wore,” — his tones were full of a despairing regret,— “ a big white hat sot onto the back o’ his head.”
“ That war jes’ Josh Nixon,” said the eldest of the herders, gravely shaking his head. “ That war the very kind o’ hat he wore, an’ set the same.”
Three of the five hats in the room were of that exact description; in fact, it was a fashion common enough in the region for Jerry Price to have two alike, and the old one which Mrs. Purvine had lent the fugitive was hardly distinguishable from Mink’s own, floating down the Tennessee River.
It did not shadow a face altogether appreciative of his own pranks, as Mink drew it down over his brow and rode away in the mist, when convinced that the herders were likely to come out no more for the present.
I can’t take no sure enough enjyemint in nuthin’,” he complained. “ I feel so badgered an’ hunted.”
He looked about him doubtfully. A few strides of his horse and he would be across the state line, and safer than for many a day. He stood drearily contemplating the vacancy of the clouds above the Carolina side, as unresponsive to the imagination as his future, which in vain he sought to forecast. He suddenly wheeled.
“ I’m bound ter see Lethe, though ! I’m bound ter tell her I hev fund her out. She ’ll know what I think o’ her afore I ‘m done.”
He pressed the horse, broken now to a steady gait, into the elusive ways of the herder’s trail through the weird, stunted woods along the ridge to the great Piomingo Bald; thence into a path that led down into Wild-Cat Hollow. He noted its well-worn and smooth curves.
“ Ben Doaks hev made a reg’lar turnpike, a-travelin’ ter see Lethe Sayles,” he said, with some half-scornful pity that would not bestir itself to be jealous.
He made a wide detour of the little house, nestling in the great cleft of the mountain, occasionally becoming dimly visible as the mist shook out its gauzy folds in long pervasive shivers, and anon obliterated as it dropped its denser curtain. Over the valley it was torn into fringes, a slant of sunlight gilding it, the blue of the sky showing through.
One of the sudden precipitous ascents from the deep depression of the hollow was distinctly imposed against the horizon. There were great rocks, with herbs and grasses growing in niches, on either side of a narrow gorge. Two splintered cliffs amongst them were like a rude and gigantic gateway, giving access to the higher verdant slopes of the mountain. His eyes, turning mechanically toward the opening vista, were arrested by the sight of Alethea high up the gorge, standing in the clifty gateway. Her sun-bonnet, still tied under her chin, had fallen on her shoulders ; her yellow hair was like the golden sunlight denied to the dreary heights ; her familiar brown homespun dress was distinct against the tender green of the slope ; a basket of herbs was on her arm. Now and then she moved a step and plucked a sprig from a niche, and again she would pause looking down upon the valley, where the white glister of the mist united with the suffusion of yellow sunshine beyond in a gauzy, splendid sheen, that now and then parted to reveal the purple mountains, the blue sky, the silver river, the fields as radiantly green as the meadows of the blest. His heart beat with emotions he hardly comprehended, as he noted her luminous, grave, undimmed eyes, her fair, delicately tinted face.
He dismounted, and hitched the horse by the halter to a tree. She did not see him ; site heard nothing; she silently looked about her, and plucked the herb she sought. He took his way softly up the gorge among the fallen fragments of rock ; he was standing still in the great rift that simulated a gateway when she turned slowly, and her eyes, widening with fear, with surprise, with rapture, fell upon him.
His heart could but thrill at her loud, wild cry of joy. He had meant to upbraid her. She was sobbing on his shoulder, and he held her in his arms.
The mists flickered and faded about them; the sunshine slanted down through the clouds. The wind lifted its wings, for they heard the flutter of the breeze, and beside some hidden nest amongst the gray old rocks a mocking-bird was suddenly singing — singing !
“ Ye war pardoned ! I know it! ” she cried. “ I know it! ”
He had for once a thought for her, — a vain regret to annul her joy. When had Alethea looked thus? — the radiant spirit of love, the triumphant delight of the spring.
He delayed replying. He stooped to gather up the herbs that had fallen on the ground ; for the old hound that followed her had smelt the basket, and was thrusting his intrusive muzzle among them.
“ What be ye a-doin’ of, Lethe ? ” asked Mink, restoring them, and setting the basket up on a bowlder.
To detail the simple domestic errand relaxed the tense agitation of their meeting, and it was a relief to him to listen.
” A-getherin’ wild sallet fur dinner,” she drawled, her happy smiles and tears together in her eyes. “ Our turnip patch never done nuthin’, sca’cely, an’ ez we-uns ain’t got no turnip-greens I ’lowed I ’d gether a mess o’ wild sallet. The chillen hone so fur suthin’ green.”
There was no quivering sense of deprivation in her voice ; the hardships of poverty would wear to-day the guise of triumphant expedient.
“ I hev got about enough,” she said, smiling up at him. “ Ye kem on ter the house, an’ I ’ll gin ye a soon dinner. Ye mus’ be tired an’ hongry with yer travels. They ’ll all make ye welcome.
He hesitated. In the supreme pleasure of the moment, his face had in a measure lost the lines that anxiety and suffering had drawn. But now, as he stood doubtful of what he should say, she noted his changed expression.
“ Reuben,” she cried, in tender commiseration, laying her hand on his arm, “ what makes ye look like that ? What hev happened ter you-uns ? ”
“ Waal,” said Mink, leaning against the wall of rock behind him, “right smart o’ different things, — fust an’ last.”
The simple heart’s-ease in being near her again, — he had not realized how dear he held it. — in hearing her voice, full of solicitude for him, in the renewing of his unconscious reliance upon her love, had begun to give way to the antagonism inevitable between them, with their widely opposing views of life and duty, their uncongenial characters and aims.
He laughed satirically. “Ye talk ’bout pardon ! I hain’t got no pardon. I ‘low ye wimmin-folks hev got no feelin’ nor pride nuther. I would n’t hev no pardon off’n Gwinnan. I would n’t take a favior from him, — not ter save him from hell, nor me nuther. But I hev got no pardon.”
“Ye air foolin’ me, Reuben, ain’t ye?” she exclaimed hopefully.
He shook his head.
She gazed gravely at him. “ How ‘d ye git away ?”
“ Bruk an’ run.”
She stood still ; her heart sank ; her eyes filled with tears. “ Oh,” she cried, with all the despair of a relinquished hope, “ I could n’t but b’lieve yestiddy, when Jacob Jessup kep’ a-lookin’ so secret an’ m’licious, ez thar war good news ez he would n’t lemme hear, — more ’n he told ’bout what Jedge Gwinnan said when he rid up ter the house, whilst we war all away ter the church-house ter the revival. An’ I b’lieved ’t war ez you-uns war pardoned. I hev drempt of it! I hev prayed fur it! I’d hev
died fur it! ”
“ Look hyar, Lethe Sayles ! ” he exclaimed. tense and erect again. “ That thar ain’t a true word ez ye air a-tellin’ me, — ez that thar man hev kem ter Wild-Cat Hollow!” His eyes blazed upon her.
She was deprecating and downcast. Her intuition warned her that it behooved her to be careful. She was too deliberate. He broke out vehemently :
“ He hev ! An’ ’t war ter see youuns.”
“ I know’t war, Reuben, but ” —
“ I swear ter Heaven,” he cried, lifting his clenched right hand, “ ez the Lord never afore built sech a fool ez me ! ” His self-pity and self-contempt were pathetic. “ Ain’t I jes’ now been down yander ter Mis’ Purvine’s, an’ hear her tell how that man — oh, curse him, curse him ! — air nigh dead in love with ye, an’ ye hed promised ter marry him! ”
“ No, Reuben, no ! ’T ain’t true. It air jes’ one o’ aunt Dely’s notions.”
“An’ I kem hyar fit in mind ter kill ye dead,” he went on. “ An’ the minit I see ye I furgit it all, an’ ye twist me round yer finger the same ez I war a bit o’ spun truck ! G’ way, Lethe! ” — his voice broke ; “don’t ye tech me.” He moved away, that she might not lay her remonstrant hand on his shoulder. “ I wait on yer word like a child. Ye got me inter all this trouble through heedin’ yer wisdom ez turned out folly fur me. The foolishness o’ them ez air bereft air wise ter me ! Ye done it! ”
He struck his hands despairingly together as he thought of his forlorn past. Perhaps he was the happier that his reflective moods were so rare.
“ I know, Reuben, — I know I did. But I never meant it. I jes’ wanted ye ter do what war right.”
“ Yes, but I hev got ter abide by the consequences o’ what ye think air right, — don’t ye know it ? ” he demanded.
“ Ef I could hev suffered fur it, stiddier you-uns,’ she declared, in tears. “ I ’d hev gone ter jail happy — happy.”
His manner changed suddenly. He was at once shocked and displeased. “What air ye talkin’ ’bout, Lethe?” he said, in stern rebuke. “ Don’t ye know thar ain’t no ’spectable wimmin in jail?”
This had not occurred to her. She only sighed, and looked away at the shifting mist over the sunlit valley, the heavier masses of cloud dropping down upon the mountain above. A great eagle, near enough to show the gallant spread of his broad wings, swept from their midst, poised in the sunlight high above the cove, and swooped to the slopes below. Mink’s gaze followed the bird, his easily diverted interest quickening. Alethea strove to take advantage of the moment. “ I jes’ want ter tell ye, Reuben ” — she began.
“ I don’t want ye ter tell me nuthin’! ” he cried, fixing on her his brown fiery eyes, with a bright red spark in their pupils. “ Ye make a fool out’n me. Ye don’t let me hev no mind o’ my own. I reckon it air kase I be in love with ye, — an’ nobody else. All the t’other gals war in love with me.”
There was none of his jaunty selfsufficiency as he said this, — only a dreary recognition of the fact.
“ Ye hev cut me out’n a heap, Lethe ; enny one o’ ’em would hev been mighty willin’ ter put up with me an’ my ways. They never harried me none, ez ef I could n’t do nuthin’ right. I reckon I ’d hev been happy an’ peaceable married ter enny o’ them.”
“ I know, Reuben, an’ that’s the reason I wan ter tell ye”— She paused, expecting to be interrupted. But he was looking at her coolly and calmly, waiting and listening. He was saying to himself that he might safely hear; it was best that he should know. He would be on his guard. He would not blindly fall again under her influence. He felt with secret elation, stern and savage, the handle of a pistol in his pocket. He had thought it no harm to borrow Jerry Price’s for the purpose of resisting arrest, finding it on the shelf in the spare room at Mrs. Purvine’s ; the less because it was he who had given it to his friend, with his wonted freehandedness,— but indeed he had won it lightly, shooting for it at a match.
He stood with one hand on his hip, the other laid against the rock. His head was a little thrown back, his hair tossing slightly in the renewing breeze; he looked at her with dissent and doubt in every line of his face.
“ Ye see, he kem hyar ter ax me bout Sam Marvin. Ye know I tole on the trial ’bout him moonshinin’.”
Mink nodded. The thought of those terrible alternations of hope and despair and remorse was very bitter to him still.
“ An’ he ‘lowed I knowed vvhar Marvin be now.”
“ What’s he want along o’ Marvin ? ” demanded Mink, surprised.
“ He wanted Marvin, but mostly Jeb Peake, ter testify fur him, kase he ’lows thar air goin’ ter be some sort’n trial agin him. Mr. Harshaw got it up, Jacob Jessup said. Jacob ’lowed the jedge war powerful outed ter find out ez Jeb war s’pected o’ hevin’ kilt a man, kase he war feared nare one o’ ’em could be tolled out ter testify fur him. An’ Jacob tole him ez Marvin hed quit this mounting, but he hed hearn ez down on one o’ them ridges nigh Thunderhead thar war a strange man ez war a-moonshinin’, — Jacob’s mighty apt ter know sech ez that,. —an’ he hed tuk old man Craig’s house, what he hed lef’ ter go ter North Car’liny ter live with his son. An’ from the account Jacob hearn o’ these folks, he would n’t be s’prised none ef them war Sam an’ Jeb. An’ the jedge knowed the house an’ whar it be. An’ he jes’ lit out ter ride over thar an’ see. He went yestiddy evenin’, an’ he air kemin’ back hyar ter-day. Kase he tole Jacob ef he could n’t toll Sam or Jeb ter testify, thar ‘d be no witnesses but his enemies. He ‘lowed he ‘d stay all night at Bylor’s house, though Jake tole him ter be mighty keerful how he talked about Sam an’ Jeb thar, fur old man Bylor air runnin’ fur office,— sher’ff, or constable, or jestice, or suthin’, — an’ wouldn’t ax no better’n ter git a chance ter harry law-breakers. An’ the jedge ’lowed ez things hed come ter a pretty pass with him, an’ rid off.”
She looked up at Mink gravely, earnestly. She had sat down on one of the rocks, beside the basket; her hand toyed with a sprig of the herbs within ; her dense golden hair, heavily undulating, was all the brighter for the contrast with the dark green vine that draped the gray rocks behind and above her, the delicate coloring of her face the finer, the tint of the saffron kerchief knotted beneath her chin the more intense. Her brown gown lay in straight, simple folds about her lithe figure ; the gaunt old hound sat down at her feet and leaned his head on her knee.
Mink had not always been definitely aware of her beauty, — it was not of the type which most appeals to the rural admirer ; but its subtle, unrealized fascinations had swayed him unconsciously. Now he looked at her critically, speculatively. striving to behold her as she appeared to Gwinnan, to adjust his estimate to Mrs. Purvine’s report of the florid judicial compliments. He cared naught for the rumor of the impending trial. He felt no gratulation that Harshaw had been able to compass the jeopardy, if not the disgrace, of the man he hated. He gazed at her with sedulous attention, to see her with Gwinnan’s eyes.
“ Lethe,” he said, suddenly, — he had dropped down upon the ground near her feet, and leaned back against the rock, — “ did Jedge Gwinnan say ennything ter you-uns ’bout me ? ”
She was in a tremor instantly.
He did not seem to notice. He was affecting to offer the dog a morsel in a deceptive bit of stone, and us the creature, with a dubiously wrinkling and sniffing nose, would attempt to take it he would snatch it away. “ Did he ? ” he persisted, looking up at her from under the brim of the old white hat.
“ Whenst I talked ter him an’ begged him ter git ye a pardon or suthin’,” she said. She was not without the tact to avail herself of discreet ellipses ; but she forecast with dread that with this he would not be content.
“ What did he say ? ” He was suffering the hound to lick the stone in baffled reproach, and turn away disdainful. Mink’s lip was curling with fierce sarcasm, as he reiterated. “ What did he say ? ”
“ I could n’t ondertake ter remember all he said, Reuben. ’T war down yander at the post-office at Locust Levels. Me an’ Jerry Price rid thar in the wagin ter see ef thar war enny letter fur Mis’ Purvine.”
“ I ‘ll be bound I kin tell ye suthin’ ye said!” exclaimed Mink. “Ye tole him ez he war powerful good ter hold no gredge agin me.”
She turned her despairing eyes upon him. He could read the truth in their clear depths.
“ An’ he tole ye ez ye war too good ter marry me.”
There was no need to answer.
“ An’ ye b’lieved him ! ”
“ Oh, Reuben, ye know better ’n that! ” she exclaimed, reassured to speak freely. ”He jes’ talked ’bout’n ye like my stepmother, an’ aunt Dely, an’ Jake Jessup’s wife; none o’ them air gamesome, an’ they don’t set store on gamesome ways. ’T war jes’ sech talk ez theirn.”
He listened, his chin in his hand, his elbow on the rock. She should not delude him again ; he would not succumb to her influence. He felt the handle of the pistol in his pocket. There was affirmation in its very touch.
“ Gamesome ain’t what he said. He ’lowed I war m’licious.”
Once more he glanced up to read the truth in her eyes.
He slowly pulled himself to his feet. He stood for a moment, erect and jaunty, his hand thrust in his leather belt, his eyes bright and confident, his hair tossing back as he moved his head.
“ Ye tole him how good he war,” his merciless divinations went on.
She cowered beneath his serene and casual glance.
“You don’t deny it, an’ yit ye expec’ me ter not b’lieve what the whole kentry air a-sayin’, — ez ye hev promised ter marry him, an’ hev gin me the go-by.”
He turned abruptly away. Reuben,” she cried, “ air ye goin’ agin, when ye hev jes’ kem back ? ” She laid her importunate hands upon his arm. His resolution was strong now ; he could afford to be lenient and to humor her.
“ ’Bleeged ter. Lethe,” he said softly, looking down upon her with the calmness of finality. She did not loose her hold. “ Ef ye keep me a-foolin’ hyar longer ’n I oughter stay, I mought git cotched agin,” he warned her — “fur twenty year ! Jake Jessup would ez soon arrest me ez not.”
She relaxed her grasp, looking fearfully about her in the mist and at the summit of the great rocks. She followed him, the old hound by her side, down to the spot where the horse still stood hitched.
“But ye’ll kem back agin, Reuben ? ” she said, her heart-break in her voice, her eyes full of tears.
“ Laws-a-massy, yes ; times an’ times. I kin whistle plumb like a mocking-bird, an’ whenever ye hear one a-singin’ the same chune three times, ye kem out ’mongst the rocks, an’ ye ’ll find me.”
Once more he held her at arm’s length, and looked searchingly at her tearful face. Suddenly he mounted his horse and rode away.
He did not maintain this sedulous semblance of calmness, a he galloped the wild young horse along the mountain slopes in the mist. His eyes burned ; his teeth were fiercely set ; sometimes he lifted his right hand and shook it clenched, as if he held his vengeance within his grasp and would not lightly let it go. Over and again he cried aloud a curse upon the man he hated, and then he would fall to muttering his grudges, all unforgotten, all registered indelibly in his mind despite its facile laxity, despite its fickle traits. He reviewed the events since the morning that Alethea had stood by the judge’s desk, and he laid down his pen to gaze, to the afternoon when, amongst the blossoms and the sunshine and the birds, they had talked together, and she had asked a futile thing to beguile the hour, and he had warned her solemnly.
“ I ain’t goin’ ter North Car’liny, an’ leave ’em hyar tergether,” he declared vehemently. “I’ll meet up with him somewhar this side o’ the Craig house. I ’ll dare him ter fight, an’ ef he don’t kill me I’ll kill him, an’ kiss the hand that does the deed ! ”
The mists shivered to listen ; the rocks repeated the threat, and again in hesitant dread, and still once more a word in an awed and tremulous staccato. On and on he went, — never abating speed, flying over the broken ground ; deaf to the sound of horn and hounds, borne fitfully from the slopes below on some hardly perceptible current of the air, and again dying to the dumbness of the shrouded woods ; blind to the burly apparition of a bear trotting out of the clouds and in again, although the horse reared and pawed the air; callous to the keen chill of the torrent, swollen out of its banks with the spring rains till it surged about his limbs as he forded through. Over and again the mountain water-courses intercepted his path, but only once his attention was attracted to his surroundings, and this was because there seemed here a check upon his progress, and he must needs take heed of his way. The stream known as Gran’dad’s creek showed in the thickening mist a turbulent volume, a swollen breadth, covering rocks and brush and gullies, and washing the boles of trees far from its normal channel ; he hardly knew where he might safely take the ford. Now the water elusively glimmered, swift, foaming, full of enormous bowlders, and with trees standing in its midst; and as he went down to the verge in a cleft of the rock the vapors closed again, and it seemed to recede into invisibility. The horse had become restive. He resisted and snorted, and finally deliberately faced about, as he was recklessly urged to enter the stream. The rider bad forced him again to the margin, when suddenly Mink thought he was dreaming. The fluctuating vapors parted once more, and in the rifts he saw on the opposite bank the man he sought. He stood in numb surprise ; a strange overwhelming sense of hatred possessed him with the image thus palpably presented; he quivered with a recollection of all his wrongs. This was no dream. It was Gwinnan returning from the moonshiners’ house. He rose from his stirrups and waved his hand with a smile. Mink heard his ringing halloo. Then Gwinnan pressed his roan colt down to the margin of the water and took the ford.
“ Saved us wettin’ our feet agin, Grasshopper,” Mink observed. He was very distinct as he sat on the bareback stray, his feet dangling without stirrups, his big wool hat, his flaunting auburn hair, his keen, clear-cut face, all definitely painted on the opaque white background of the mist ; a bole was barely outlined here and there behind him, or a towering crag, as if there were other elements of the picture barely sketched in. More than once Gwinnan lifted his grave eyes toward him. But when the mist came between them, surging in a great cloudy volume, Mink drew the pistol from his pocket.
“Ye don’t kerry straight. I ’member yer tricks. I reckon he hev got a six-shooter, but I ’ll resk ye, ennyhows. I ’ll wait till he kems across, an’ then dare him to fight.”
As he waited it might have seemed that he was the only human creature in the world, so desolately vacant were the barren mists, so unresponsive to the sense of the landscape that they hid, so null, so silent, save for the river, forever flowing on like life, resistless as eternity. The interval was long to his impatience, — so long that, alarmed at last lest his revenge be snatched from him by some mischance, at this supreme moment when it had seemed the fierce joy he had craved was vouchsafed, he hastily rode along the clifty bank above the tumultuous current. Once more the mist lifted. Suddenly he saw the roan colt, his full eyes starting from his head, his scream almost human in its frantic terror, pawing the cliffs, to the base of which the encroaching waters had risen ; finding no footing, no shallows, only the forbidding inaccessibilities of the rocks. The saddle was vacant. The rider had been swept away by the wanton vagaries of the current.
The young mountaineer stared stolidly and uncomprehendingly for a moment. In a sort of daze he dismounted from his horse. He hardly realized what had happened, until, as he climbed deftly down among the splintered crags, lithe, agile, sure-footed as a deer, he saw clinging to a bramble growing from a fissure, and supported on a ledge of the rock, the unconscious figure familiar to his dream of vengeance. It was forestalled ! The wild freak of the mountain torrent had given him his heart’s desire, and yet his hands were clean. The wolves, the wild dogs, and the vultures would not leave the man to creep away, were there yet life left in him.
And there was life. He noted the convulsive fluttering of breath, the trembling clutch of the fingers ; for the nerves remembered the saving boughs that the senses had forgotten.
As Mink stood looking down he suddenly lifted his head with a quick start, as if a word had been spoken to him from out the silence. Why this gratuity of pity, this surging fellow-feeling, this clamorous instinct to aid ? Was a hand held out to him in his hour of need ? Nay, he might have known rescue and release, his future might now be fair and free, but for the craft of this man who had bestirred himself to thwart the friendly mob. Was not his hope attained, his prayer? Here was a sublimated revenge. His enemy would die at his feet, and yet his hands were clean.
And at this moment he was muttering, " I ’ll be bound ef he hed a leetle wild-cat whiskey now ’t would save his life ez respons’ble ez ef ’t war ez legal ez the taxed corn-juice.”
He stood thinking for a moment. There was Marvin’s still at the Craig house, as Alethea had said, two miles away ; the man would be dead of exhaustion before help could come thence. But not a quarter of a mile below, on one of the divergent ridges of Thunderhead, was Bylor’s home. Mink started with affright. The old man was a candidate for office. The certainty of arrest awaited him there, whatever his mission. It was a decision swift as an impulse. It meant twenty years’ imprisonment at hard labor, and he realized it as he sprang upon the bare back of his horse.
“ I reckon I kin make a break an’ run, or tunnel out, or suthin’,” he said, with his preposterous hopefulness; “ leastwise, I can’t leave him thar ter die that-a-way, half drownded and harried ter death by wolves an’ painters an’ buzzards. Ef the darned critter,” he cried out, in a renewal of despair, “ would hev jes’ stood up an’ been shot like healthy folks ! ”
Mink never reached his destination.
It was not held to be a strange nor an unjustifiable action that young Bylor was led to do. He said afterward that that day, as he made his way home in the midst of the clouds that begirt the mountain, he was affrighted to behold again, evolved from their expressionless monotony, the equestrian figure of the mystic herder that rides on Thunderhead. His nerves were shaken, for before that morning he had seen him, and at close quarters. He noted the wildly beckoning hand vague in the mist; he heard, or thought he heard, a shrill, insistent hail ; he quickened his pace, pursued by the thunderous hoofs of the spectre, riding him down, as he feared. He faced about in desperate terror and fired his rifle.
Then he knew what he had done, for the figure lurched from the horse and fell, and the animal dashed past him, running at full speed. It was Mink Lorey whom he found upon the ground, — strong enough only to gasp out his errand ; and though Bylor rose instantly to obey his behest and go to succor Gwinnan, Mink was dead before he left.
No great loss, the countryside said, and indeed it was suspected for a time that Gwinnan’s straits had resulted from his wanton mischief. When the facts became known, one or two reflective souls — recognizing in his deed that universal vital spark of better possibilities alight within him, insistently militant, enlisting every sterling trait common to humanity — were moved to say that he was not all mink.
No one in the mountains, however, fully appreciated the impulse that had controlled him except Alethea. To her it served as a sacred apotheosis, and she adored his memory for what he might have been, and forgot what he was. Often, when the spring bloomed, or the summer was flushing with the wild roses and the roseate dawns and the red sunset tides, she hearkened to the mocking-bird’s singing, thrice, thrice the mystic strain; and she was wont to go and search for her lover at their tryst among the crags. And when she would come back, her face so full of peace, her eyes softly luminous, her drawling formula, “ Jest been talkin’ with Reuben ’mongst the rocks,” pervaded with tranquil joy, her stepmother and Mrs. Jessup would whisper apart and look askance upon her, and start at any sudden jar or sound, as if it were instinct with her spectre lover’s freakish presence.
And so, patient drudge though she was, they listened to Mrs. Purvine’s eager insistence to have her bide in the cove ; and although she went to live with this cheery soul, it was with tears and sighs and sadness to leave the clifty gorges that he haunted.
But she found the mocking-bird singing there thrice, thrice the mystic strain, amongst the rocky banks of the Scolacutta River. And so she smiled again.
Except for this delusion she gave little indication of the unsettling of her mind. She was placidly happy with her aunt, though the two women were much alone, for Jerry Price presently married Sophy Griff. He became the sole dependence of the miller and his grandchildren, but a measure of Mrs. Purvine’s jaunty prosperity seemed to follow him. Old Griff’s little log cabin took on a more pretentious guise, and there was a slipshod thrift within. Jerry lifted the millstones and rebuilt the mill, and the whir began anew as if it had never left off; and the old miller sat without the door, and listened, and grew garrulous and cheerful and dusty with meal and flour, and brightened into some faint reflection of his old imperative self. Tad never reappeared from the moonshiners’ lair, and they still successfully elude the law.
The failure to secure their testimony proved no disaster to Gwinnan, as the chancellor held that a duel is a matter of deliberate and formal arrangement between men who recognize both the nature of the proceeding and the law infringed.
Nevertheless, Gwinnan was not satisfied. He had never regarded the matter as a duel; he had forgotten even the circumstances. Once brought forcibly to his mind, he dissented from the decision of the case, which he had watched more as if from the bench than from the bar. He resigned when reinstated.
The relinquishment of his ambition was very bitter to him. He had infused into it much of the essence of his identity ; it had amply promised the end for which he had rejoiced to labor ; it had borne a lofty and isolated existence. And yet, as he brooded upon his despoiled life, his trained mind, applied to moral discernment, could but perceive at length that it had been sheerly a technical excellence toward which he had bent his energies, a selfish end he had held in view. Without a high, ennobling purpose, without a dominant hope to dispense benefit, his unsanctified ambition had only lured with a wish to rise, and despite the heights to which it had attained it had been held to earth by its own inherent weight.
Charles Egbert Craddock.