MARCELLA was spinning on the porch, when Teck Jepson and her father came across the open field toward the cabin, — spinning at the little flax-wheel, as she sat in a low chair, her foot on the treadle. The jack-bean vines that hung above her head blossomed lilac and white ; the amethystine mountain looming behind the gray roof had turned a darksome purple ; the blue and curling smoke that issued from the stick-and-clay chimney made spiral progress up and up the slope. The zenith was a lustreless golden hue, and the west was crimson and burned with a passion of color, and the evening star was kindling. The daylight lingered, nevertheless, for it shone upon the flax ; and as the girl drew out the long fine fibre, it glistered yellow, while the wheel whirled, and she seemed to be spinning sunbeams. Her face was serene, though unsmiling, and she sat silent, while the swift wheel whirred and whirred, and a katydid clamored in the gourd-vines hard by. Amidst their luxuriant tangles a firefly sent forth a fluctuating gleam.
It was some moments before Jepson noted Andy Longwood, the “ frequent visitor,” sitting on the steps of the porch, or heeded the high, chirping voice of the callow Isabel, who evidently carried on most of the conversation. The young fellow s fair hair floated down upon his shoulders in loose ringlets, as he leaned back among the gourd-vines. He had a pensive brow, a long, curling dark lash, a large and tranquil eye.
“ Dad-burned purty little Woolly, I ’ll swear,” Teck Jepson commented to himself, while courteously saluting Eli Strobe’s mother, who had instantly come to the door to receive him, and had sat down in a chair in the porch, folding her knotted hands peacefully in her lap. She was a thin, active, wizened little woman, considerably below the average height, and there were some sharp suggestions of mental agility, as well as physical, in her quick dark eyes. Her feet did not quite touch the floor, and as she stayed them on a rung of the chair she seemed rather mounted or perched than seated, and the instability of her position accented her tiny proportions. Her tall, burly, and deliberate son bore no trace of likeness to her, and she often observed, with the manner of discarding all responsibility for him, that he was “ his dad over agin.” This “dad ” of his had evidently not been an ornament to his sphere, and if he had met joy in his future estate it was well, since he had left peace behind him. For thirty years his relict had worn that peculiar freshened, released aspect common to many widows, and it was in Eli’s most stubborn moods that she usually felt called upon to remark the filial resemblance.
Teck Jepson strode up the steps, including the two girls in the cursory glance which he bestowed upon the rest of the party, and a succinct “ Howdy.” There was something always impressive in his height, his gait, and his imperious face, and Marcella was vaguely awed. Her hand trembled upon the thread she was spinning, and it broke beneath her touch. She did not have the voice, somehow, to join in the soberly piped “ Howdy ” with which Isabel returned the salutation. Jepson gave the “ frequent visitor ” no further notice, and he held himself sedulously aloof from the younger people, accepting a chair on the porch which Eli Strobe tendered him, and looking over their heads at the waning sunset-tide.
“ Waal, Teck,” Mrs. Strobe observed, after the greetings, “ how d’ ye like livin’ up on the high mounting ?
She turned upon him her bright eyes, set very close together, like the small Isabel’s, and her dry lips distended in a faint smile, and then became speciously grave, as if they meant to keep all the fun to themselves.
“ It don’t make no differ to me, Mis’ Strobe,” he answered, — his rich, melancholy voice seemed to constrain the air to silence, and caused a remark of the “ frequent visitor ” to halt upon his lips, as he looked up with mute, respectful curiosity at the new-comer. “ Whar the sperit leads me I will fuller.”
Mrs. Strobe was too small to toss her head aggressively, but she had scant faith in any holiness save her own, and less patience with its assertion. And thus it was that she herself spoke now as one of the uncovenanted : —
“ Ef I war you-uns, I’d wisht the sperit hed better taste ’n ter lead me whar M’ria Bowles hed set up her staff. Ef the sperit could do no better leadin’ ’n that fur me, I ’d jes’ turn in an’ blaze out my own road. Yes, sir.”
She turned her head suddenly, and looked at him with incongruous daring, like a reckless wren.
“ Need n’t tell me nuthin’ ’bout M’ria Bowles,” she continued, taking her knitting out of her pocket, — “ her ez war M’ria Price. I knowed that gal, — a hard, tantrum-y gal, with the kind o’ good looks ez I hed ruther be ugly than hev hed.”
She twisted the thread around her little finger to restrain its presumable impetuosity, and the needles began to twinkle as they moved. Then she proceeded, with triumphant disregard of logic : —
“ I tried an’ tried ter git suthin’ out’n Eli ’bout’n her, arter he went a-visitin’ up in the mounting at Ben Bowles’s house. But 'Yes ’m ’ an’ ‘ Naw’m ’ air all ez he hev got fur his mother nowadays, bein’ ez I can’t vote fur him. Eli air so ’feared he ’ll git somebody set agin him ’fore the ’lection, by tellin’ suthin’ he said or did n’t say, he air purty nigh mum ! His tongue ’ll limber out arter awhile, though, ye mark my words. Time the polls air closed he ’ll know whether his soul’s his own or no.”
Eli Strobe sat under this criticism with an impassiveness that could have been attained only by long practice. He gazed with somnolent, meditative eyes at the landscape, his broad-brimmed hat pulled over his brow, his elbow upon his crossed knee, his chin in his hand.
Marcella had flushed deeply. The spinning-wheel had ceased to whir. She looked up, her brown eyes alight, the broken thread in her hand.
“ Ye mus’ hev furgot, granny,” she said, her voice trembling with the effort at self-repression into due respect; “ dad tole ye a heap ’bout the folks on the mounting.”
“ Till we war both tired out’n with the name o’ Bowles,” put in the uncompromising Isabel.
“ He tole ye Mis’ Bowles war goodlookin’ ez ever, an’ her husband ’peared well-ter-do an’ mighty tuk up with her,” itemized Marcella ; “ an’ he reckoned she treated her step-chillen well, — leastwise they war fat enough ; an’ she seemed — so ter say — ez happy ez she ever war, — some lonesome, mebbe, bein’ on the mounting. He tole ye, an’ he tole ye ! ”
“ Yes, he tole ye ! ” said Isabel, with an unfilial flirt of her tousled hair.
“ An’ dad ain’t boldin’ his jaw fur fear o’ settin’ the voters catawampus.” There were tears in the deep brightness of Marcella’s eyes. “ He ain’t afeard o’ not gittin’ ’lected. He kin bide by the vote ez onconsarned ez ever. It’s jes’ me an’ Is’bel ez hev sot our hearts on his bein’ lifted high, above all the people. Dad ain’t ’feared.”
“ Naw. dad ain’t ’feared o’ nuthin’,” declared Isabel, tossing her head, in the pride of “ dad’s ” courage.
The little old woman glared down upon the youthful partisans of “ dad ” with an elaborate show of displeasure.
“ Air Eli Strobe yer chile or mine ? ” she sourly demanded of the damsels.
This potent logic bereft them of all rejoinder.
“ I hev ’lowed fur forty year an’ better ez he war my chile,” Mrs. Strobe continued, sarcastically. “ Mebbe though I hev been mistaken.”
But while she folded her arms in a pose of important dudgeon, letting her knitting rest idly on her lap, she glanced at Teck Jepson with a sort of internal chuckle, as if to call his attention to the crushed champions.
“ Mos’ folks would ’low ez I hed tuk toler’ble good keer o’ him without enny holp from you-uns, an’, bein’ ez he hev throve toler’ble, it mought ’pear like I warn’t likely ter do nuthin’ ez would hurt him sure enough, or make him seem small ennywise. Eli Strobe hev made out ter git along fur a good many year ’thout you-uns ter take keer o’ him, — ’fore Marcelly an’ Is’bel war ever hearn tell on.”
For the first time the bone of contention lifted his voice. Eli Strobe wished to prevent retort on the part of his defenders.
“ Shet up, chil’n,” he observed, in his calm, heavy tones. “ Shet up. Ye talk like ye ain’t got no sense.”
“ Sense! ” cried the sharp little dame. “ Sense don’t run in the fambly, ez fur ez I know it.”
She did not include herself among those thus deprived. She chose to consider her departed lord the head of the family, and herself as only an accidental interloper.
“ Naw, sir,” she observed. “Eli brung no news home. I never knowed a man ez would. They gredge news to wimmin folks. But law,” — she was knitting again with an appearance of great inattention to the industry, looking about casually over the whisking needles, — “ the gals air nigh ez bad ’bout bringin’ news home, ef not wuss. Ye see, Teck, I can’t go ’bout much, bein’ rheumatic. Ye mought ’low thar warn’t enough o’ me ter ’commodate much rheumatism, but I got more ’n I need. So the gals went ter the baptizin’. Sir, they hearn nare word o’ the preachin’, nare whisper o’ the singin’, salvation seemed afar off, an’ the gran jer o’ this worl’ war more ter them ’n the waters o’ Jordan. Yes, sir! Answer me no questions could they, — no text, no psalm, could n’t even tell what saints war ’tendin’ on the baptizin’, nor who war saved nor who war shoutin’. Fur they war all set ter wonder over a strange man they met a-kemin’ home ; special good-lookin’, ’cordin’ ter Marcelly.”
“Granny/” cried the girl, starting up from her chair, overturning the spinning-wheel upon the surprised “ Woolly.”
“ Hold yer jaw whilst yer elders speak ! ” exclaimed the imperative old woman. “ Good-lookin’, it seemed, till Marcelly could n’t rest, but hard-hearted an’ cruel-eyed, fur all he hed eyes blue an’ deep ez a well, cordin’ ter Marcelly; an’ she b’lieved he hed no religion, though pious words war on his tongue! An’ I hed that man fur breakfus’, an’ dinner, an’ supper; an’ when Marcelly war plumb beat out talkin’ ’bout him, Is’bel tuk her turn.”
“ Granny! ” faintly reiterated Marcella, crimson and faltering, and hardly heeding Andy Longwood at her feet, as he sought to lift the wheel to its place before her, and to disengage his elbow from the “ spun-truck.”
Isabel looked aghast from one to the other.
“ Granny, it’s that same man ! ” she cried, with a facial contortion of great significance, but which her aged relative failed to interpret. Eli Strobe looked heavily on, a little doubtful, but unable to understand the commotion.
“ I know it’s that same man I’m a-talkin’ ’bout,” Mrs. Strobe observed with dignity. “Ye did n’t know his name, nare one o’ ye ; his looks war enough fur ye an’ Marcelly, special Marcelly. An’ ez ter his hard heart, an’ his cruel eyes, an’ his bein’ a hypocrite, it’s him ez hev got ter burn in Torment fur that, not Marcelly; so she rej’iced an’ rej’iced in the handsome sinner, a-purtendin’ ter despise him so ! ”
Isabel, less daunted by the situation than her sister, found strength to rise from the step where she sat near the “ frequent visitor,” and faced round upon her unconscious grandmother. She relied now upon nothing less pointed than her index-finger, and as she leveled it at Jepson she declared, —
“ It’s him, granny, — him ez be a-settin’ thar in the cheer! ”
Mrs. Strobe’s jaw dropped, as the realization of the social enormity of which she had been guilty was borne in upon her. She turned her faltering eyes upon Jepson, who sat beside her motionless. He was outwardly calm. His brow bore only a slight corrugation that could hardly be called a frown. His face was impassive ; perhaps its imperious and lofty suggestions were accented by a touch of disdain, but in his eyes his anger burned. Mrs. Strobe realized now how deep they were, how blue, how full of fire, how alive with a tempestuous spirit. His long legs were stretched out before him ; one hand was on his hip ; his hat was pushed far from his brow, and he looked forth with sedulous unconcern at the mustering shadows. She remembered in dismay the opprobrious epithets, — cruel-eyed, hard-hearted, no religion, and Marcella, the candidate’s daughter, despised him.
Now, for all that this old woman was so sharp of tongue, the good of her household lay very near to her heart, and her deeds were widely at variance with her words. Moreover, her pride in her son was very great, and Eli himself was not a more watchful and cautious politician than she, when need arose. A breach of hospitality was not less abhorrent to her than an infringement of the ten commandments; but hard upon this came a poignant and politic monition for the interests of the impending election.
“ Teck ! Teck ! ” she cried, quaveringly, “’t warn’t ye ez them two sillies met an’ 'lowed war a strange man ? ”
“ I tole ye, granny,” declared the self - sufficient Isabel, buffeted by the storm of emotions the crisis had roused, but gallantly weathering it, — “I tole ye he ’lowed ez he did n’t know me an’ Marcelly, but he knowed dad, an’ he war kin ter Ben Bowles. Kin ter Bowles, — I said it, an’ I said it.”
“ Shet up ! Who knows ye an’ Marcelly, ennyhows ? Marcelly hev shot up hyar like Jonah’s gourd in a single night,—tall ez a bean-pole an’seventeen year old. I ’ll be bound ennybody ez bed nothin’ ter do but ter medjure Marcelly would find an inch lengthwise onter her fur every day she lives. Who knows ye an’ Marcelly, ennyhows? Powerful fine folks ter know, I ’ll be bound! Teck,” — she turned suavely to the visitor, — “ye ain’t tellin’ me’t war you-uns sure enough, what I hev knowed sence ye war a-toddlin’ roun’ yer mam’s knee — a mighty good ’oman she war, an’ the end she made war a sampler to the saints, fur I war thar an’ see her takin’ off — bless the Lord fur the saints ! — ’t warn’t ye, Teck, ez them gals war a-makin’ sech a miration over, ez ef they hed fund a mare’s nest? ”
“ Yes’m,” he assented in his melodious low tones, “ ’t war me.”
She noted the heavy frown gathering in the shadow of Eli Strobe’s big hat, drawn far over his brow. He cast a slow glance toward the group ; then maintaining his mute, surly dignity, he gazed steadfastly forward at the glooming mountains.
Marcella, still grave and silent, had risen from her chair, more circumspectly this time, and the spinning-wheel was not overturned, although the “ frequent visitor” put up his arm to guard against it. He had been greatly edified by the disastrous commotion, and had briskly turned his placid face, lighted with an animation that might have hitherto seemed impossible, from one speaker to the other. A shade of regret crossed it as he noted Marcella’s movement, but it was in a jocose undertone that he demanded, “ Whar be ye a-travelin’ ter, Marcelly ? ”
“ I be a-goin’ ter dish up supper,” she answered stiffly, and with her voice at its usual pitch. She held herself a trifle more erect than usual; some sudden defiant bourgeonings of pride were perceptible in her manner, as she threaded her way through the group, but in passing Jepson her long lashes swept her red cheek, for she could not encounter his gaze.
“ I ’ll be bound everything air burnt ter a crisp,” said the officious Isabel, but looking hopefully over her shoulder into the dusky brown interior. It was lighted only by the smouldering fire, that cast a gigantic shadow of the slight Marcella upon roof and walls, and a grotesquely magnified and frightful image of the old hound. For the dog of the “ frequent visitor ” was singularly accomplished in accurately understanding the English language, and had sprung up with much youthful alacrity upon the mere mention of supper.
He had followed the girl into the room, and sat beside the hearth, watching with anticipative delight each dish as it was borne to the table, licking his chaps with a zestful expression ; now rising up suddenly, and then composing himself to sit down again, while his shadow on the wall made queer genuflections and obeisances to the table with all the ardent spirit of a gourmand.
Without, the old woman seized the opportunity. She sat for a moment demurely silent; then, shaking with her internal chuckle, she said in a low tone to Teck, —
“ Marcelly’s plumb outdone, I know, ’kase ye hev fund out ez she war streck with yer good looks, Teck, an’ called ye han’some. Laws-a-massy, gals is mighty purblind an’ foolish critters ; they think the men air gin over ter studyin’ 'bout’n ’em, an’ tryin’ ter sense what they mean, when the fellers, mos’ likely, air jes’ standin’ with thar arms a-kimbo, a-lookin’ at the weather-signs, an’ a-wonderin’ what the chances air fur huntin’ termorrer.”
She glanced toward Jepson with a laugh, expectant of ready acquiescence. But there was upon his face, distinct enough even in the closing shadows, an expression so haughty, so aloof and unresponsive, that the little dame was at first perturbed and troubled, but presently grew angered in turn.
“ A spiteful sinner ! ” she exclaimed to herself; “mad now, jes’ ’kase Marcelly ’lowed he hed no religion, — an’ he ain’t got none.”
All her facile cleverness was roused, however, and she was mindful, too, of the interests of the approaching election. Thus, although she struck, it was with a cautious hand and a crafty insight, the processes of which were hardly realized.
“ But I reckon, mos’ly,” she said, lowering her voice cautiously, “ ez Marcelly war tormented, bein’ feared ez Clem Sanders mought hear somehows ez she hed been streck with yer good looks. I ’ll be bound that skeered her.”
She forbore a moment to mark how her shaft had sped. She sat motionless, her feet perched on the rung of the chair, and she looked very small and unintentional, and reflective, as she placidly contemplated the night scene. The fireflies fluctuated in the dank shadows, that gloomed duskily about the porch; now a glittering point close at hand, now a momentary gleam far away in a bosky tangle, still multiplying, till they seemed some elusively glittering network spread as a snare for the darkness. The mountains were invisible in the blackness, save for their rigid summit-lines. The frogs chanted by the water-side, and katydids were monotonously shrilling in the orchard. The grating of Teck Jepson’s chair on the floor, as he abruptly shifted his position, was the only sound that broke upon the quiet with the jarring effect of interruption, and as Mrs. Strobe turned she saw his face thrown into strong relief by the rays of a tallow dip within, which Marcella had just kindled. The white light streamed forth as far as the great gourd-leaves behind his head, eliciting their faint green color with the interstices of olive-hued shadows. His face had relaxed ; it was haughty no longer. There was an alert anxiety in the blue eyes which the mountain girl fancied so daep. He had taken off his hat, and pushed back his dark hair from his forehead. He was frowning a little, and yet he hardly noticed the sudden flare of light upon his face; his compressed lips had softened, had parted. He said nothing. Another voice came out of the darkness : —
“ I dunno what Clem Sanders mought ondertake ter set hisse’f up ter git mad fur, ’kase Marcelly ’lows ez this one or that one air good-lookin’,” Woolly spoke up, with an acrimony and a decision which showed that his discourse was not exclusively confined to the placid “ baa.” “ Clem Sanders hain’t got no right ter say nuthin’ ’bout good-lookin’ folks, the Lord above knows, all marked up with cinders an’ soot ez he be. I 'll be bound Marcelly ain’t a-goin’ ter interrupt herse’f studyin’ ’bout what Clem Sanders thinks ’bout good looks.”
“ What ye talkin’ ’bout ? Hev yer senses deserted ye ? ” the grandmother remarked to the “ frequent visitor,” with a tart familiarity induced, perhaps, by the frequency of his visits. “Ye can’t expect a blacksmith ter be nuthin’ but cindery an’ sooty,—like folks ez plough gits miry. None ter choose twixt ’em, I’m a-thinkin’.”
“ Yes’m.” Andy Longwood made a feint of acquiescence; then continued droningly, as one who has a grievance, “ But Marcelly ain’t mindin’ Clem Sanders, — else she ain’t the gal I take her fur. Looks so grizzly an’ sooty, I ain’t s’prised none ef the Satan ez Pa’son Donnard seen settin’ on the anvil in the forge warn’t nuthin’ but Clem hisself.”
“ Shucks ! ” said the uncompromising Isabel. “ He hed wings an’ hawns, ’cordin’ ter pa’son, an’ Clem hain’t nare one.”
“ Waal, I don’t keer,” growled “Woolly.” “Clem’s a sight ter be seen, a scandal ter the jaybirds.”
“That don’t make no differ! ” cried the little old woman, staunch in argument. “ Blacksmithin’ air a powerful fine business; the folks in Brumsaidge could n’t git along ’thout Clem. An’ ’fore him, — shucks ! way back in the Bible times they hed smiths, an’ I reckon they war ez sooty an’ cindery then ez now; dirt ain’t improved none noways, ez I onderstan’, sence them days. Thar war a man then, what the Bible speaks respec’fully of, by the name o’ Tubal Cain, — a cunnin’ workman, — warn’t thar, Teck ? ” She appealed to him with animation as to a biblical authority, expecting an eager and interested response ; but he only said, “Yes’m,” with an evident effort, cleared his throat, and was silent.
Eli Strobe had risen in obedience to some signal from within. “ Kem in to supper.” His big voice rumbled out with all its wonted intonations of hospitality. If Jepson had not been otherwise absorbed, he might have noted the candidate’s self-control and self-repression, remarkable in so tantalizing an episode. It did not escape Mrs. Strobe’s keen atention, and she deported herself with a trifle of gay bravado, feeling beyond the reach of retribution, since the dictates of policy so hampered deserts.
“Waal, sir, eatin’ supper by a taller dip, — who ever hearn the beat! ” remarked Isabel. “ A leetle mo’, an’ we would all hev gone ter bed hongry.”
“ It do be a powerful late supper.” Mrs. Strobe had a slightly harried aspect ; if conscience abode within her, it wielded its power in her housewifely instincts. “ Be ye hongry, Teck, — ye an’ Andy an’ Eli ? It’s all Marcelly’s fault, a-furgittin’ ter dish up supper till nigh on ter bedtime. An’ me, too: I jes’ sot an’ talked, I will ’low, ez ef my tongue war tied in the middle an’ workin’ at both e-ends.”
The feeble focus of the candle glowed with dull yellow light in the centre of the table, sending out a subdued glimmer upon the faces that surrounded it amidst the encompassing obscurity. A vague glimpse was had of the smokeblackened ceiling just above, with a rich dash of color where a cluster of strings of red peppers hung. The walls darkly merged into shadows; the fire was a dull, tawny-tinted coal ; the ceaseless night sounds came through the door, — the chirring of insects, the sigh of the woods, and the fret of the torrent. As Marcella waited upon them, she was invisible for the most part in the dark periphery of the circle : sometimes there were transitory visions of the fair dispenser of hospitality, the white light falling on her delicate face, and floating hair, and rounded arm, and deft hand, as perchance she leaned forward and tendered the cracked blue bowl of honey to one or the other of the guests ; then only an alert, noiseless shadow, slipping about in the kindred gloom.
It was a silent meal, albeit the little old dame and Isabel were among the partakers. When they all repaired again to the porch, they found the moonlight there, with yellow slanting rays and long, melancholy shadows, and the distorted waning disk itself hung in the purple spaces above the black mountain that the house faced. The fireflies were quenched ; only now and then a feeble gleam stole forth from a dark cluster of gourd-leaves. The perfume of the orchard was sweet on the air; the dew glittered on the low summits of the old gnarled trees. The men and the old woman lighted their pipes, and the coterie silently smoked, while Marcella sat on the steps of the porch, in the full radiance of the midsummer sheen, her idle hands folded upon one knee, her lustrous eyes turned upward to the moon, the wind lightly tossing her curling hair. Within, the candle still sputtered, while Isabel washed the dishes and pans, — this being her allotted task, — and made a great clatter to better express her industry.
It was all very still without; a constraint oppressed the group. Each had regrets in the premises, and harbored resentments. The occupation of smoking, the meditative languor which the consumption of tobacco warrants, precluded the necessity for conversation, and afforded an interval for the recuperation of the downcast spirits of the company. Small wonder that Clem Sanders, listening from his roof-room window, heard no laughing or talking at Strobe’s!
Suddenly the shrill clamor of a screech-owl invaded the nocturnal quietude ; again and yet again, with its sinister, mirthless chuckle supplementing and seeming to ridicule its own hysteric outcry. It grated upon the nerves of Mrs. Strobe, already subjected to some unusual tension.
“ Laws-a-massy, jes’ listen ter that thar n’isy fow-el. He be a-goin’ ter screech thar haffen the night, I ’ll be bound; an’ he air a sure sign o’ death, ter holler nigh a chimbly. Jes’ listen at him, now, a-laffin’ at the corpse ! ” Once more the low, joyless, mocking merriment jarred the air. “ Take yer dad’s gun thar, Marcelly, an’ run down in the orchard, an’ fire it off at him. He be right yander in that thar sheep-nose apple-tree.”
Marcella rose slowly. “ I ’ll drive him off,” she said, “ but I ain’t a-goin’ ter fire no gun off at him ; the critter hev got ez good a right ter live ez I hev. I 'll fling a sheep-nose apple at him, an’ that be ez much ez I be a-goin’ ter do ter him.”
“Listen at the sassiness of the stiffnecked generation ! ” exclaimed the old woman, evidently the exordium of a tirade against the young folks nowadays. But Marcella was already far down the grassy slope, and out of hearing; and with one scornful glance after her, Mrs. Strobe put her pipe into her mouth, and sourly relapsed into silence.
The high grass, tasseled and rank, glimmered with dew, as Marcella went. The moonlit spaces wore a finer and a fairer lustre for the deep romantic shadows that hung about the boughs. There were long and glittering arches, where the fruited branches interlaced, and in the dappling shade beneath, the boles, all at regular intervals, had a columnated effect; and these arboreal aisles seemed endless. Even the homelier incidents of the orchard shared the enchantment of the moonlight: some blight that had fallen on one of the goodly branches had bereft it of leaves and fruit, and a web that had been woven about it shone, a refulgent gauze, and radiated a delicate and fibrous splendor. Down these simple ways she went, the light upon her face ; her hair fluttered with the slight breeze; her step was sure and free; she seemed so ethereal, so fine, so fair, that she too might have been some embellishing fantasy of the night. The bird of ill-omen had ceased to cry, as if her very presence exorcised all evil fortunes. She paused, gazing upward, the moonbeams full on her shining eyes, her floating hair, her oval face. She had lifted one arm and laid hold of a fruit - freighted bough. It seemed strange that she did not see the owl, so well she realized how it must look, up among the boughs somewhere, demurely silent, shuffling down and suppressing, as it were, its fearful identity among its mottled feathers, its head askew as it watched her with its big yellow eyes. She had her hand upon the retributive apple; a sudden footfall,—Teck Jepson was approaching along the dewy colonnade.
The owl was safe, very safe indeed: a pity that the “ fowel ” might not have known this, and have spared itself the anguish of fright that it endured, as it sat almost within arm’s length, discreetly silent, refraining from stirring claw or feather, and wisely looking down upon them.
The bough was shaking with more than the wind, for Marcella’s hand trembled on the unplucked apple.
Jepson’s hat was thrust on the back of his head. His face, too, was distinctly visible as he approached. Somehow he had never seemed to her so tall, so imperious of temper, so impressive, as now. But there was a trifle of embarrassment in his manner, and he only said, —
“ Whar ’s that than ow-el? ”
“ I dunno,” faltered Marcella.
He did not seem to care. His mind was evidently little concerned with the “ fow-el.”
He paused, looking steadily at her, as if he expected her to speak again. But she still stood silent, the moonlight in her lustrous eyes and on her upturned face, her hand on the apple as it swung on the low hough.
“ I never expected ter hear ez ye heel been talkin’ ’bout me that-a-way; I never looked fur it,” he said.
The quick color surged into her cheeks ; her eyes flashed ; she let go the bough so suddenly that, swinging elastically into its place, the little owl was almost dislodged from its perch, and it tightened its toes and even slightly spread its wings to keep its balance. It uttered a low sound, a sort of mutter, that they might have heard had they not been too absorbed; and it was with a sort of resentful dignity that it settled itself again in its feathers, and cocked its head askew, and looked down at them with its round, bright eyes.
“ An’ I dunno what sorter man ye kin be, ter kem makin’ remarks ter me bout’n it,” she cried indignantly.
I hev knowed ye seek a little time, I reckon nobody would hev expected sech from you-uns,” he resumed.
She stood for a moment in blank amazement. Then she seemed ready to burst into tears. “I never said it ’cept ter granny, — an’ who would hev thunk o’ her seitin’ up an’ tellin’ it all ter you-uns, not knowin’ ye war the same one ? Ye never tole we-uns yer name, that evenin’. I jes’ ’lowed ye war kin ter Bowles.”
“ I don’t keer who ye said it ter,” he declared, his voice full of reproach. “I ain’t keerin’ fur nuthin’ ’ceptin’ ye thunk it, — an’ I never done nuthin’ ter make ye think it.”
Once more she looked at him, aghast. She put up her hand again to the bough, now for the sake of support.
“ Tellin’ folks, an’ settin’ out ter b’lieve ez I be a hypercrite, an’ purtend ter be pious, an’ ” —
“Oh! ” she exclaimed, with a note of comprehension and relief so marked that he paused abruptly, and demanded sternly, —
“ What did you-uns ’low I war talkin’ ’bout ? ”
She did not answer. Her expression suddenly changed, as she stood under the bough. No dryad, no ethereal native of the tree, could wear a face more airily lightsome, more elfinly gay, than she, looking out through the sheen and the flickering shadow.
“ Waal,” said he, staring blankly at her, “ what war ye a-talkin’ ’boat ? ”
She only shook her head in gleeful silence.
“Ye never said nuthin’,”he resumed, seeking to review the conversation that he might unravel its mystery, “ ’ceptin’ I war a — a ” —he stumbled at the word, — “a hypercrite, an’ a sinner ; — yes, an’ special good - lookin’, but I never minded that.”
Her face had grown conscious again. “I reckon not,” she remarked dryly.
“Ye mind that, though,” he said penetratingly, at last; “ that’s what ye thought I war talkin’ ’bout, hey ? Waal, I jes’ mind ye callin’ me a sinner an’ sayin’ ez Ipurtend ter be pious.”
He noted her instant relief at the change of the subject. “ Ye don’t mind folks knowin’ ye called ’em sinners,” he continued, " but whenst it comes ter handsome sinners ” —
He desisted, for the sake of the look in her face.
“I tell ye now, Marcelly,” he said gravely, as they mechanically took their way together toward the house, “ye may 'low ez I be hard-hearted, an’ cruel-eyed, an’ got no religion, but I be a-goin’ ter furgive ye fur them words, — like a Christian! ”
It was the first wrong that he had ever overlooked. He found forgiveness easy to be exercised, and very sweet.
She stole a shy look at his face. “ That’s powerful good in ye,” she said softly. “ I war jes’ a-talkin’ ter be a-talkin’, an’ ” —
Their shadows, close together, followed them over the shining grass, and for a time they were silent as they approached the group on the porch.
He paused abruptly, and looked down at her.
“ An’ I don’t want ye ter be aggervatin’ yerse’f by ’lowin’ ez I ain’t goin’ ter do all I kin fur Eli in the ’lection. What ye said ain’t goin’ ter header. I ’ll vote fur him, an’ git all others I kin ter do likewise.”
Marcella began to experience a sensation as of coals of fire heaped upon the head. She could only murmur, " I war jes’ a-talkin’ ter be a-talkin’.”
That night, from time to time, as the hours wore on and the house was still, the little owl in the apple-tree lifted its voice and shrilled aloud, and laughed in sinister and chuckling mirth, while the moon slowly climbed the skies. And Mrs. Strobe, turning on an uneasy pillow, evolved bitter reflections concerning the inefficiency of the present generation.
“ Sen’ two hearty young folks — one of ’em mos’ seven feet high ’ceptin’ what’s lackin’ — down inter a orchard ter fling a apple at a owel an’ drive him off, — an’ a body would think they hed invited the critter ter bide ter supper, an’ sing hyme chunes arterward.”
Whatever might be the character of the nocturnal visitant of the forge, it seemed safe enough in the broad glare of noontide ; and as it was the votingplace of the district, it was by no means deserted on that momentous Thursday in August when the election was held. Marcella had felt throughout the canvass the terrible strain of suspense, but when the day had drawn near she was deprecatory of decision, and wished that if the worst must be it might not be at once.
“ A body would ’low, ter hear ye a-goin’ on, that Eli war ter be hung terday,” her grandmother remarked, tartly. “ He ain’t los’ a ounce o’ flesh nor a hour o’ sleep sence he war a candidate, an’ he went off from here this mornin’ high-colored ez common. An’ look at you-uns — big-eyed, an’ pale-faced, an’ lean-lookin’, an’ flattery — drapped the blue bowl an’ bruk it in two ; an’ Is’bel patterns arter ye, till thar ain’t no ch’ice fur a fool ’twixt ye. Shucks ! I mus’ be mistaken,” sarcastically ; “ they be goin’ surely ter hang Eli.”
From time to time, during the rich and dewy morning hours, when the bees droned about the blooming clover in the orchard aisles, and the birds were abroad in the highways of the skies, Marcella parted the sheltering gourd-vines on the porch, that she might look forth unobserved upon the voters gradually assembling at the polls. She knew many of them by sight, and was informed concerning their disposition toward her father’s pretensions ; and thus her heart weighed heavily or grew buoyant, as enemies or friends were in the majority. They came chiefly on horseback, and there were rows of saddle-horses hitched to the rack before the wide door of the forge, and to the boughs of trees hard by, and even to the badly chinked logs of the building itself; sometimes they dully drowsed, sometimes impatiently pawed, sometimes fell to bickering together, and necessitated the interposition of their masters to readjust their status. Many of the farmers had come in ox-wagons. The teams had been unyoked, and were leisurely munching the feed, spread out in the dappling shadows upon the ground before them. Casting a vote, the inalienable right of an American citizen, seemed a lengthy and serious matter, and was not to be lightly discharged ; during the main portion of the day it busied the denizens of the surrounding slopes, and thus deliberately they saved the country. The assemblage presented, therefore, something of the aspect of an exclusively masculine picnic, for such women and children as had been permitted to gratify a longcherished hankering to “ view ” the populous Settlemint had hied them decorously to the houses of various relatives, — the tender ties of consanguinity thus utilized on this auspicious occasion, — and were seen no more during the day. Old friends met, and smoked, and talked at great length. The well-being of crops in various localities was anxiously inquired after ; old gossip that had been on its last legs suddenly developed a new and brisk pair of members, and circulated like a fresh scandal. Pa’son Donnard could not have failed to hear his name excitedly coupled with that of the devil, as he threaded his way through the crowd ; but mindful of his vision, he placed no false nor sensitive interpretation upon this association, and there was an elongation of his thin compressed lips which in an ungodly man one might have thought singularly like a smile of flattered vanity. The heavy jeans-clad mountaineers reverently made way for him, and there was a perceptible abatement of the guffaws and slowly drawled jokes as he passed. But as in more cultured communities, the observance and the feeling are not always in close compatibility, and the criticism he encountered was as if he were of this world.
“ I dunno why pa’son be ’lowed ter vote,” said Joe Bassett, as he sprawled on the protruding roots of a tree ; one or two mountaineers perched hard by on the tongue of an ox-wagon from which the team had been released, and a third half reclined on a saddle which he had thrown upon the ground. “ Pa’son can’t run fur nothin’,” continued Bassett ; “ he can’t go ter the Legislatur’, nor nuthin’, nor be sher’ff. They don’t let preachers hold office, nor butchers set on a crim’nal jury,” — thus seeking in his ignorance to reconcile the incongruities and oddities of the law.
“ Pa’son oughter be a-studyin’ ’bout a seat ’mongst the angels, stiddier gittin" registered ’mongst the qualified voters o’ the deestric’,” said Gideon Dake, who always confirmed Bassett’s views, or added corollary matter.
“ What be Teck Jepson a-bobbin’ ’bout fur, like a float on a fish-line ? ” demanded Bassett. “ Actially a-stoppin’ the pa’son mighty nigh at the door of the forge. Looks ter be a-wrastlin’ in prayer with the old man, — in an’ about goin’ ter save the pa’son’s soul, fust thing ye know.”
“ Hain’t you-uns hearn,” said Dake, quickly seizing the opportunity to regale the professed gossip with a new story,
“ how turrible smitten Teck Jepson an’ Marcelly Strobe hev got, all of a suddint ? An’ Teck air a-workin’ fur the ’lection like he war demented. I made him beg an’ beg me fur nigh on ter a hour ter vote fur Eli, — like I hed counted on doin’ all the time. Now Teck’s argufyin’ with the pa’son.”
“ Every time I hear o’ Marcelly Strobe she hev got another feller a-danglin’. ’Pears like ter me she mus’ be a-foolin’ some o’ them boys,” Bassett commented sourly.
“ Laws-a-massy, jes’ look at Teck,” said Dake, laughing slightly, albeit his teeth were closed hard upon the quid of tobacco in his mouth, “ he hev gin the old man his arm an’ air jes’ a-draggin’ the pa’son up ter the polls ! Would n’t trest the old man’s word ter vote fur Eli; gone in ter see the job well done. Waal, sir,” — he shifted his position as the young and the old man disappeared together within the door, — “ that’s jes’ the way he done me. I could n’t hev got away from him, arter I hed promised ter vote for Eli, ef I hed wanted ter.”
There was a momentary hiatus in the conversation, when a tall, lank man, some twenty-eight or thirty years of age, with high cheek-bones and a sunburned, narrow face, joined the group. He had a brighter, quicker glance than was usual among the slow and dawdling mountaineers, and a smouldering spark of irritation aided its effect. His countenance wore a ready and propitiatory smile, the candidate’s smile, that seemed automatic in some sort, and not subject to the same springs that sufficed as motor for his other expressions. He flung himself upon a pile of shucks and hay, the forage of neighboring oxen, and he chewed a long straw as he talked.
“ Hy’re, boys,” he said, agreeably. “ How do the chances o’ the ’lection ’pear ter you-uns ? ” For he was Joshua Nevins, a candidate for constable, and Eli Strobe’s much-feared rival.
“ Mighty well,” said Bassett, reassuringly.
“ Why n’t ye go an’ vote, Dake ? ” said the candidate, leaning forward to scan Gideon Dake’s countenance.
“ Ye ain’t goin’ ter try ter git folks ter vote twict, air ye?” said Dake, jocosely. “ I hev voted wunst ter-day, an’ they tells me ez that be ez off’n ez the law allows.”
“ I hopes ye voted the right way,” said Nevins, with a bland and mollifying demonstration of the candidate’s smile.
The specious Dake nodded his head convincingly. “ I 'll be bound I did,” he said equivocally, and yet so unequivocally that the momentary fears of the candidate were set at rest.
The others, mindful of Dake’s recent representations as to the casting of his vote under Teck Jepson’s tutelage, experienced a certain embarrassment and preserved an awkward silence, none arrogating the tact to innocuously continue the conversation. If the candidate be a wily genus, the craft of the voter is sometimes commensurate.
Nevins seemed the most innocent of men, as he himself reopened the subject. He had approached the group with the intention of merely commending himself by some timely and jocose observations, and then strolling to other coteries. He had, however, encountered unexpected opposition to-day ; he had thought himself almost assured of success, and when the doubt began to arise in his mind, untutored to jeopardy, he felt himself losing his balance.
“What ails Teck Jepson, ter git so sot agin me ? ” he observed, anxiously. “ He hev jes’ been a-bouncin’ aroun’ electioneerin’ fur Eli ter-day like — like — a chicken with its head off. I axed him awhile ago, — I beckoned him off, an’ I say, 'What ails ye, ter work agin me, Teck ? I ain’t done nuthin’ ter you-uns, hev I ? Air ye holdin’ a gredge agin me ? ’ An’ he said, 'Don’t ye know I be kin ter Eli nowadays ? My half-brother married his cousin,’ Teck say. Shucks ! I know that ain’t the reason.” He looked in plaintive interrogation at the others.
“ Waal, things turns out mos’ly ez they air bid from above,” said one of the men, with an unexpected attack of piety.
Nevins looked lugubriously at him. This was an arbitration to which he was not prepared to submit. He was feeling exceedingly helpless in the hands of Providence.
“ I dunno ’bout that,” he observed. “ Things in Brumsaidge turns out mos’ly ez Teck Jepson wills, an’ Providence sings mighty small.”
Then reflecting that this was a dolorous prognostication in his own behalf, he gathered himself together as jauntily as he could, and declared, “ But Teck Jepson’s rule is over. Folks in Brumsaidge hev tried Eli Strobe, an’ he did n’t ’gree with ’em, — he seen too much ‘ Eli Strobe, Big Man ! ’ in his office, ter suit ’em; an’ now they air lookin’ fur a man what jes’ wants ter sarve the people, — an’ that’s my bes’ wish.”
The others sat and gazed solemnly at him, all meditatively listening. For a moment there was no sound but the munching of an ox close to him, as the beast pulled at the pile of fodder on which he reclined. As the great horns came threateningly near, he threw up his hand, and the ox drew off with a muttered low of surly dissatisfaction.
“ I can’t onderstan’ Teck, though, — I counted on him.” He returned to his grievance with a lapsing courage.
“ Waal, ye mought ez well not,” said an old codger, with a grin. “ Hev youuns got a darter, seventeen year old ? ”
The young man stared at him in amazement.
“ Course I hain’t.”
“ Waal, that’s one o’ the special qualifications of a candidate,” continued the elderly wag. “Ye oughter hev been purvided — seventeen year ago — a tall, high - steppin’ darter, with long curly hair ; that’s what ye need, ter run agin Eli.”
Nevins was silent for a moment, in painful consciousness of this lack. He was a good-natured fellow, and had thought his two small boys at home possessed of all the filial graces and values, and he had never expected to be summoned to covet a tall daughter of seventeen. He resorted to contradiction.
“ That thar gal o’ Eli Strobe’s ain’t seventeen,” he declared, “ nor no higher ’n my vest pocket. I know her. I useter see her constant.”
“ Waal, she ’s been agein’ an’ growin’ sence then. Leastwise, she’s tall enough an’ old enough ter make Teck Jepson step around mighty spry. I ain’t seen better electioneerin’ fur forty year. I hed counted on the pleasure o’ hevin’ Eli goin’ roun’ hyar with his finger in his mouth, but I’m feared o’ that gal o’ his’n. Clem Sanders, too, war a-waitin’ roun’ the forge fust thing this mornin’, a-pinin’ fur nine o’clock, so ez the jedges would declar’ the polls open, an’ let him put in his vote fur Eli. His ticket ’peared ter burn his fingers till he got it inter the ballot-box.”
“ He in love with her, too ? ” asked the candidate drearily. He had never anticipated these potent odds. What avail was it to parade the virtues of citizenship, to vaunt his capacity and his will to serve the people in the office to which he aspired, — with tricksy Cupid afield !
Nevins rose presently, the straw still in his mouth, his hat pulled far over his brow, and sauntered down toward the forge. The great red and white ox instantly planted his cloven hoof where Nevins had sat, and took possession, as it were, of the pile of forage, trampling it down, that it might not afford further resting-place for loitering politicians.
The post-meridian sun was now a trifle aslant upon the valley below; the purple shadow of the summits had begun to creep down the green slopes. How warm was the fragrance of the grapes, hanging upon a great vine that draped an oak from topmost bough to root, and which was pillaged as high as the arm of man could reach! The tall weeds were all resounding with the whir of acrobatic grasshoppers, now and then leaping amazingly high into the air. Not a note came from the birds now ; not a wing was astir. All the landscape shimmered through the noontide heat. The forge, where the three judges of the election sat with the precious ballot-box, of which they were sworn not to lose sight till the polls were closed and the vote counted out, seemed a quiet and cool refuge, with its dark shadows, and its high, tent-like roof, and its unchinked walls, affording glimpses of the green vistas without. The little window at the rear, into which that mysterious semblance of the smith had stared, pale and reproachful, at its vigorous living self, was wide open ; showing now a squirrel frisking by on the mountain slope, and now only a devious winding path amidst the greenth up the mountain-side, with the trumpet-vine a-blooming scarlet over a gray rock, and in the low branches of an elder-bush a bird on a nest. Now and then faces were thrust in at this window, — most often young and beardless, but sometimes old and grizzly, — to curiously scan the judges and the practical illustration of the theory of election by suffrage. The judges, in rickety chairs, tilted on the hind legs, demurely smoked their pipes, while the clerk sat at the pine table on which the ballot-box rested. The hearth was fireless, the hood smokeless, the anvil silent. The stir outside came cheerily in, and when the line of voters slackened, and no ballot had been deposited for some time, and the interest of the proceedings seemed indefinitely suspended, the judges looked wistfully through the open door, and were not consoled for the dullness by their preeminence and responsibility and conspicuous honors. That spirit of humor, always freakishly manifest in a crowd, was quick to seize on the situation, and occasionally remarks were made outside, pointed and personal, obviously intended to be overheard within.
“ Did you-uns know ez Jethro Peake war jedge o’ ’lection?” demanded one tousled-headed apparition, at the famous batten shutter, of an unseen crony without.
“ Never lmowed he war jedge o’ nuthin’ ’ceptin’ jedge o’ whiskey,” the unseen crony replied.
And with these trivial incidents were bridged the intervals when it seemed as if all the district had voted that cared to vote, and that there was naught more for the judges but to sit in stately isolation, till the loitering summer sun should dawdle down the western sky, and the hour come when it would be lawful to declare the polls closed.
After a long time, when the stir of passing feet, the sound of talking and laughter, the champing and whickering of horses, had been more than usually marked to the tantalized referees, whom the county court combined to honor, they noted that an expectant stillness fell suddenly upon the crowd. Then half a dozen men pushed into the blacksmith shop, and turned about with excitement, as if to await and watch an entrance at the door. Other men stood by without. There were half a dozen heads at the little window, and the batten shutter was swinging. The bird had flown from her nest in the elder-bush to a bough of a dogwood-tree above, and perched there, with quivering, outspread wings, and a feverish, excited eye, and a harsh, querulous, ceaseless chirring. A ray of sunlight fell through a rift in the clapboards like some splendid glittering lance, reaching from the dusky, peaked roof to the “dirt-floor” beneath. Somehow, the polished face of the anvil caught a beam and reflected it, — all else was dark and shadowy ; even through the broad door the light was only a vista of deep green leafage and harmonious gray commingling tones, hardly definite enough to be called shadow, but of tender and modulating effects ; and the ploughs left to be sharpened, and the wheels to be tired, and the bar on which the smith’s tools hung, were but dimly descried. Thus stepping suddenly into this shaft of light, Jake Baintree’s figure was singularly distinct, but was not instantly recognized by the judges. One of them slowly brought down the forelegs of his chair to the ground, and sat looking at him, one hand on either knee, and with a round, red, wondering face and an inquisitive eye. So long it had been since Baintree was familiarly seen in Broomsedge — going thence a stripling, returning a man — that the certainty of his identity gradually dawning on their minds was not recognition, but inference. Who else unknown would present himself to cast his vote in their midst ? Who else wore so blanched a face but the jail-bird ; long shut in from the sun and the wind and all the familiars of the weather ? He was very tall and slender, and very soft and deft of step. In the shaft of light in which he stood, the extraordinarily sharp, clear cutting of his features was apparent. His hair was black and sleek, and lay close to his narrow head ; it had a fine and thrifty look, like the coat of an animal. He seemed very meek, but for all that his gray eye was uncertain, it glittered. He looked about him with a comprehensive understanding, unlike the dawdling inattention of the mountaineers. Despite the brown jeans that he wore, he was unlike them in many subtle, indefinable ways. As he offered the closely rolled scroll, his vote was challenged by one of the judges, and he was quick and ready and self-possessed, and took the oath which Jethro Peake administered with a steady manner, and evidently with a deliberate intention. He wished, perhaps, the crowd thought, to show that he was entitled to vote ; that whatever they might say, the law held him innocent and denied him none of the rights of citizenship. Still with one hand on each fat knee, and sitting very upright, Jethro Peake, his round, red face, with a bristly, unshaven stubble about the chin, solemn with the sense of the dignity and importance of the occasion, demanded, —
“Air you-uns cit’zen o’Tennessee?”
“ Twenty-one ? ”
“ Yes, sir.”
“ Reside in this county ? ”
“ Resided hyar six months ’fore this day ? ”
“ Yes, sir.”
As the vote, the first he had ever cast, was accepted, he looked curiously on, while the closely rolled scroll was dropped unread into the ballot - box. Somehow he seemed unaccountably disappointed by the mysterious silence in which his choice was enveloped. He walked slowly toward the door, looking back over his shoulder at the guarded ballot-box. Suddenly he remarked in a strange, offhand manner, “ I ain’t keerin’ who knows how my vote be gin. I scratched one name off’n my ticket. I know how ter write Eli Strobe.”
There were the makings of a politician in Joshua Nevins ; he answered instantly from out the crowd, “ I kin spare yer vote, Jake Baintree. An’ ef I can’t, I ’d ruther be defeated than hold office by the favor o’ a scape-gallows.”
There was a sensation in the crowd, and some “ scratched tickets ” were presently deposited that might have shown, if unrolled, another name written in, that was not Strobe. There was a change in the atmosphere of popular feeling. It was not definite, but Teck Jepson, with a thousand fine fibres of sensitiveness, newly developed, which he had not known he possessed, became painfully sensible of it, and fiercely complained to Eli Strobe.
“ I’m minded ter fling ye over the fence, Eli,” he said. “ Ef ye hed n’t gin yerse’f ter upholdin’ that thar Jake Baintree, ye would n’t hev been lumped with a murderer like him.”
Eli Strobe rested his slow, pompous gaze upon his friend.
“ He ain’t no murderer. An’ ef he war, his votin’ fur me don’t lump me with him.”
He turned his heavy - lidded, fulllashed eyes ruminatively upon the landscape, and said no more. Despite his deliberate burly dignity, there was a sense of trouble and perplexity about him, indefinitely perceptible, and he evidently listened heedfully when his friend and backer rejoined, —
“ Waal, his votin’ fur you-uns, an’ tellin’ it out that-a-way, will make a heap o’ folks vote agin ye. I be powerful glad it never happened no sooner in the day, an’ ye hev got what ye hev got. What ailed the darned idjit ? ”
“ I reckon he ’lowed he war doin’ me a favior,” said Strobe, with unexpected moderation. “ He wanted me an’ all the folks ter know ez he war fur my ’lection. He never voted afore. An’ he hev been cooped up in jail so long he don’t ’pear ter sense much ’bout some things. An’ yit, ’bout others he ’pears powerful sly. Pore feller ! ”
“ Poor fool! ” ejaculated Jepson, irritably. “ What ails him ter set his heart — dog gone him ! — on yer ’lection ? ”
He grudged Jake Baintree any sentiment that he shared.
“Waal,” said Eli, hesitating, “the folks down ter my house tuk some thought o’ his’n whenst his trial an’ imprisonment war goin’ on, an’ I reckon he feels thankful. Marcelly air one o’ them kind ez can’t rest enny ef she ’lows ennybody air hongry, or lackin’ ennywise; an’ she toted ’em gyardin truck whenst they never planted, an holped ’em sew an’ weave whenst they hed no heart ter work. It’s the natur o’ Marcelly.”
Jepson stood with his hands in his pockets, his brows contracting heavily over his blue eyes, that the candidate s daughter had thought so cruel and yet so deep. His hat was drawn down over his face, and the shadow of the beechtree, circumscribed to its minimum by the almost vertical sunshine, was soft upon it. He turned mechanically when others joined the group, and he listened with frowning displeasure to the suggestions of defeat that seemed somehow to be suddenly and bountifully deduced.
“I be powerful afeard I hev flung my vote away on ye, Eli,” said Gideon Dake, “ I never looked ter see ye hev sech a backer ez Jake Baintree,” with a jeering glance. “An’ some others say the same.”
“ An’ yit,” said Jepson. feeling keenly the instability of popular sentiment, “ the tother day, whenst I purvented him from gittin’ baptized ’mongst the saints, a body would hev ’lowed ez haffen the church members could n’t rest easy in the fold ’thout Jake Baintree ’mongst ’em. Sech a haulin’ over the coals ez I got! An’ now ye ain’t willin’ fur him ter jine ye at the polls, whar the devil’s vote would n’t be challenged ef he hed been livin’ six months in the county.”
Dake made no defense of this lack of logic on the part of the community, but fell to whittling a stick with a large clasp-knife, as he leaned against the bole of the tree.
“ That ain’t what makes me oneasy ’count o’ Eli,” put in an elderly grizzled wight with an air of pleasure, fetching cumulative disabilities into the discussion. “ Eli hev been too spry ez constable ; he hev been too keen ter pry inter the doin’s o’ folks agin the law. Now Nevins, he mought do the same, an’ then agin he mought n’t. He hain’t been tried, — that’s the main chance. Nobody’s got no gredge agin him, dunno nuthin’ ’bout his doin’s in office. But Eli, he hev been too sharp-set ter administer the law.”
Look-a-hyar,” argued Jepson, “ ye be a-takin’ arter the man fur doin’ of his jewty.”
The elderly interlocutor prefaced his reply by an astute wink. “ His jewty air ter please the people, ef he wants ter git 'lected agin ! ” — a golden rule for incumbents.
Jepson relapsed into moody silence, and this choice reasoner proceeded with an illustration in point: —
“ Eli can 't low sleepin’ dogs ter lie. He ain’t got no ’scrimination. He dunno who ter sot the law onter, nor who ter muzzle it fur. Thar ’s old Jer’miah Miles jes’ drawed a pistol ter sheer some o’ them bad boys out’n his watermillion patch, an’ Eli, passin’ by, druv the boys out’n the patch, an’ then ups an’ 'rests the old man fur kerryin’ concealed weepons. Thar’s fourteen o’ the Miles kinsfolks kem hyar ter vote terday.”
If the officer had done amiss, his punishment seemed likely to be greater than he could bear. Like most people brought into propinquity with the law, Eli Strobe sought to furnish a precedent rather than a justification. “Waal,” he argued, barely lifting his eyelids, “ Sam Blake” — his predecessor in office — “ would hev done the same.”
“ Shucks ! ” exclaimed the other. I kin jes’ hear Sam Blake a-hollerin’ ter them boys, ‘ Git out’n this melon patch, or I '11 be the death o’ ye! I ’ll jail ye 'fore night.’ ” Then dropping his rough voice to dulcet courtesy, “ ‘ Mister Miles, got enny o’ them fine cantaloupes ter spare fur my saddle-bags ? ’ I say, arrest old Miles fur kerryin’ concealed weepons ! Sam Blake would jes’ hev begged a few melons, that’s all, an’ never seen no pistol.”
Teck Jepson could ill adapt his intolerant and domineering disposition to the prospect of defeat, even when the cause was not his own. He had made today perhaps the greatest sacrifice to his affection of which he was capable, bending his pride to beg of the community favor for another which he could never have been brought to ask for himself. He was weary of it all, and dispirited, and the continual collision, in which he must restrain himself rather than constrain others, irked and chafed him. If, among the narratives upon which he loved to brood, he had ever heard of aught so modern as the romance of the Middle Ages, the idea of a knight sallying forth in search of noble adventure and deeds of prowess, whereby he might prove himself worthy of the favor of the fair, would have commended itself as cheap and easy in comparison to his devoirs to earn the gratitude of the candidate’s daughter.
There are times that come to all of us when the trivial incidents of the world pall, when the presence of crowds weighs upon the spirit, when existence seems petty and sordid, and we look back to some period of solitude, rich with quiet thought or chosen and cherished labor, with a suddenly awakened sense that then we were clothed in our true identity ; in that interval we verily lived, rather than merely exercised the respiratory organs, and went about in the outer disguise that wears our name and is recognized of men.
Perhaps in human experience naught might more fitly foster this repulsion of the world than certain stages of a political canvass. Jepson stood with his hat in his hand, feeling foreign among them all, looking now down in the valley, and again up to the great heights; wondering sub-acutely if it were only yesterday that he had heard David sing to the dulcet measure of the lilting harp-strings, and watched the moody Saul listening on his couch, his dexterous hand toying with the stealthy javelin, ready to launch it at the head of the singer, — only yesterday that he had seen the high-priest’s rod blossom in the tabernacle, had heard the waters gush from the rock that Moses smote. Still the solemn clouds, as then, mysteriously communed with peak and cliff ; the radiant sunshine wore a rich effulgence among the lonely and faraway ranges, blue and unreal, like some fine deceit of the senses, ineffably ethereal as they withdrew into the unseen spaces. The valley, mute and peaceful, lay far below, with here and there a harvested field — a tiny yellow square — and a flash of water; and further, a wisp of smoke that came from an invisible chimney, — the only motion in the supreme tranquillity of the scene. Here, higher up, where the massive purple range yawned with the wide deep interval called Broomsedge Cove, which seemed to be in the valley as one looked at the vast steep stretches of the mountains above, and seemed on the range when one looked down at the valley below, the men wrangled loudly, the oxen lowed; there was a great clamor among the horses, and suddenly Teck Jepson heard his name called. He turned slowly, to see his mare’s hoof in the hands of the blacksmith, who from his leaning posture looked up, and nodded to him to approach.
Clem Sanders, ejected from the forge by its conversion to the public uses, was devoting the day to the pursuit of art for art’s sake. He had on his leather apron, and the sleeve of his hammer-arm was well rolled back, showing its swelling cords. He carried a hammer in his hand, and was going about examining the feet of all the horses that had been ridden to the Settlement that day ; he rejoiced in the multiplicity of the rare opportunity. He seemed by some means to recognize his own work, and he would stoop down and take the hoof up, and tell when he had made that shoe and had shod that horse, and boast to the little group of idlers how his work lasted. His face was a study when, in catching up a hoof, he would descry the work of another smith, — his alert joy to discern defects, or dismayed solicitude to perceive craft as good as his own or superior. It was a happy moment with him now, when he had one of the claybank mare’s hoofs upon his leather apron, between his knees, as he stooped.
“ One more sech shoein’ ez this, Teck,” he remarked oracularly, “an’ yer mare won’t have nare frawg ter her huff.”
He dropped the foot, and snatched up another so suddenly that he nearly pulled the creature down; and Teck caught the bridle and stroked her head, for she was restive, and then stood reassuringly beside her as he looked at the groups about.
The polls were almost deserted. The crowd around the horses had grown denser. The general conversation had a wider range than the blacksmith’s remarks on the hoof, and the frog, and the shoe, and the nail. Dake and a man from North Carolina, a visitor and a cousin of a neighboring farmer, were turning the interval to account in the way of a horse-trade, and about them stood a breathlessly interested coterie, all eager to witness how the negotiation should fall out; all ready to advise, to dissuade, to instill suspicion ; all marking with thrills of excitement that invariable phenomenon of bargain and sale, — when the buyer is willing, the vendor is reluctant and haggles, swinging back to eager entreaties and persuasive logic when the trade seems likely to fall through. Other wrangles now and then drowned their voices, and usurped the popular interest in the horse-trade.
“ Listen at Teck, now! ” cried Jube Donnard, the parson’s son. “ Teck ’lows that thar leetle mare o’ his’n, ez be sca’cely bridle-wise, kin go all the gaits. Naw, sir ! Naw, sir ! That mare can’t pace. I know all about that mare. She don’t kem of pacing stock. Daddy trot, mammy trot, colt can’t pace ! ”
Jube was in his own person the most pointed contradiction of his assertion. Piety as it was expressed in Broomsedge Cove proved itself there as elsewhere no hereditary quality, nor possessed of any traits of consanguinity. In Jube, the parson’s son, was filially repeated the long, lank paternal frame, the lantern jaw, the narrow head, the small excited gray eye, and the thin straight lips, one compressed upon the other. But the spirit that animated the youth was devoid of any similarity with that of the solemn ascetic religionist; and as Jube went at large in Broomsedge, it seemed a disrespect in some sort for him to look so like his father. A jovial caricature : the parson’s image with a jocose swagger; the enthusiast’s eye, lighted with a dancing leer or eclipsed by a flexible wink ; a mouth grotesquely solemn and frequented by all the well-worn jests and songs of Broomsedge Cove. Even the old man himself sometimes paused to look gravely at this junketing blade, so like, yet so unlike, his recognition of himself.
Jube stood now with his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his head and all askew, his feet planted wide apart, his solemn face intent, watching the action of the mare as Teck led her out into the open space and stood holding her bridle, while she snorted and pawed impatiently, and bowed down her head, and tossed her black mane. She was a very ordinary specimen, good-looking only because she was young, and fat, and strong, and frisky. She had had the best of care, and perhaps made a finer show than the facts warranted. Some of the gall-backed, grass-fed old cattle near her turned their heads to mark her airs, with a sort of slow and surprised disapproval in their meek and jaded eyes.
“ I hev hearn that sayin’ all my days, — daddy trot, mammy trot, colt ca-a-n’t pace,” the parson’s son reiterated, with a long lingering twang upon the negative declaration.
“ This filly kin,” stoutly asseverated Teck. “ She kin go all the gaits. She kin pace. She kin singlefoot, too, and rack. An’ she kin trot like a fox, an’ run like a deer, an’ walk like a cat on a pallet.”
“ I 'll bet ye a dollar an’ a half,” said the parson’s son, “ ez this hyar hosscritter o’ mine kin beat her enny gait she’s a mind ter travel. I dare ye put her out now, an’ try her along the road ter the sulphur spring — toler’ble level all the way.”
The hoss-critter was a bay, furnished with the usual complement of ribs evidently, and with a tail and mane that seemed sunburned a dull yellow, so unnatural was the color ; but he picked up his feet well, he was about sixteen hands high, and according to the mountain estimate of speed he had a speedy look.
Teck had put his foot into the stirrup; there was a stir of excitement in the crowd. Half a dozen were backing the little mare, but the sunburned nag had his friends too, and a spirited clamor arose. Upon it Eli Strobe’s bass voice boomed suddenly: —
“ I warn ye now, hoss-racin’ an’ a-bettin’ on it air agin the law ; an’ ef ye boys ondertake ter bet yer money an’ race yer hosses, I ’ll ondertake ter arrest ye. I be constable yit.” He had his hands in his pockets, and he strode a few paces to and fro in the crowd, his hat pulled down over his lowering eyes, from which shot now and then a watchful surly side-glance. The young men were arranging to start together from an oak-tree at the further end of the clearing. They gave no heed to the threat of the constable. An elderly farmer assumed the negative in the discussion : —
“ Shucks, Eli, ain’t I seen a dozen million o’ races run yander ter the County Fair, an’ ain’t they got a reg’lar racetrack thar ? ”
“ That’s ’cordin’ ter law,” said the officer. “ The law’s mighty partic’lar in the diff’unces it makes. Racin’ at a reg’lar race-track ain’t no harm, an’ bettin’ ain’t nuther, kase it’s puttin’ suthin’ in the State’s pocket, bein’ ez the racetrack folks hev ter pay fur a license. But racin’ on a common road an’ a-bettin’ demau’lizes the young men an’ air agin the dignity o’ the State.” He still stood with his hands in his pockets, balancing himself alternately on the heels and the toes of his boots and compressing his lips. “ The State’s mighty partic’lar.”
The singular logic of this utterance occasioned no surprise. Unsophisticated as his auditors were, they were far too wise to reason with the law. They stood meditating on this view, chewing hard, and looking vaguely about them, hardly wondering whether the young men would balk them of their sport in deference to the constable’s threat, or whether they would persist and ride a race on the common road, thus doing a damage to the dignity of the State.
“What war I a-tellin’ ye jes’ now, Eli,” remonstrated the old farmer. “ Ye jes’ let ’em alone ; they ’ll git indicted ef they do ennything agin the law. Ye air sech a stirrer up o’ strife, an’ hev ter be sech a stickler fur the law an’ shoulder all the malefactors. ’T ain’t yer business ter be so tarrifyin’ ter the kentry.”
The horse-trade was complete, the exchange made, the boot paid, and the stranger from North Carolina had left the Settlement. Gideon Dake, satisfied with his acquisition, mounted the roan steed and trotted about for a time, showing its paces to the crowd. Presently he dismounted, and looked the animal over. Some of his friends came up, and, with the unerring perspicacity of that genus exerted upon the new purchase, their comments roused his anxiety. He turned from them in alarm, after a few minutes. “Eli,” he said, in confused haste, “ do ye know ennything 'bout’n a horse’s eyes ? I be sort’n ’feared he’s moon-eyed, or suthin’. Don’t his eyes look cur’ous ter youuns ? ”
Strobe took hold of the headstall, and the horse, uneasy at being stared out of countenance, tossed his head hastily backward.
“ I can’t see the critter,” said Strobe, once more pulling the animal’s head down to his own shorter stature.
“ He could n’t be blind, or lacking eyesight, could he, Eli ? Hey ! Hey ! Hello thar ! Hev that thar North Ca’liny fox gone?" Dake called out to a man near the blacksmith shop. “ He hev gone ! He hev gone,” in frenzied accents, “ He hev gone ter — I dunno whar ! —with my sound mare an’ five dollars boot! ” He made a pass with his hand before the eyes of the animal, who winked violently and tossed up his head. But that might have been only because he felt the wind of the motion. His unwilling owner moved back a pace, and taking his hat from his head — a large dark object — passed it quickly up and down, too far for the animal to feel the stir in the air, yet near enough to alarm or surprise him if he could see it. The constable stood looking on with interest, awaiting the result of the experiment, when a sudden thunder of galloping hoofs smote the air.
He turned to see in full progress the race he had interdicted. Along the sandy slope Jepson’s little mare led five others, bounding under whip and spur, her head stretched out long and straight, her tail and mane flying, her body close to the ground, the dust rising in clouds beneath her hoofs.
It was a rash thing to do, and Eli Strobe, one of the most reasonable of men. would perchance never have risked it save for the applause that greeted her ; one quavering voice arose, then the rotund swelling of cheers. He could hardly endure to see the race run and applauded in open defiance of the law. He rushed out to meet the animal, lowering his head like a bull about to charge, and springing at her neck he caught the bridle, throwing his full weight upon it. The mare, frightened, reared, despite the heavy burden at her head. She pawed the air with her forefeet. Then, as she broke loose, the man fell with a terrible wrench, and away she went, with a cloud of dust skurrying after her like a witches’ dance.
Jepson reined up on the opposite rise, for he reached it the next moment; the other riders had not followed. He saw their horses shy away, one by one, from the prostrate figure that seemed a lifeless heap in the road. Did it stir ? Or did the bystanders, rushing to it, move it in some way, seeking to aid ? A bloody face was upturned ; the crowd interposed, and he saw no more.
At one side of the road, under a tree, stood the man — unheeding the tragedy — who doubted his horse’s sight, still waving his hat up and down before the creature’s eyes, to discover if he would flinch.
Charles Egbert Craddock.