The Despot of Broomsedge Cove
IT was only for a short time that the wounded man lay as one dead. His consciousness gradually returned; his eyelids fluttered and opened slowly; he gazed about with a dazed and fluctuating attention, while he still remained, gasping and bleeding, upon the ground. Then by a mighty effort he rallied his faculties ; with the recognition of his own lapsed identity, his normal expression returned to the quivering features, in lieu of the pallid, absent, alien look they had worn. This was Eli Strobe again ; badly shaken, but still Eli Strobe. He struggled to his feet, and, tremulous and silent, he took his way down the path toward his home. A few officious friends strove to assist him as he went, and they kept pace with his tottering gait. Others lingered at the forge, looking vaguely after him, and then at Teck Jepson, who was on the crest of the hill, under the broad spread of the oak boughs, still mounted, and gazing back upon the scene. The mare, so suddenly checked in the race, was restive, and impatiently pawed and tossed her head, then reared and plunged as the rider turned back. More than once she bolted and tried to run, the recollection of the race so abruptly cut short still rousing her spirit and vibrating in her strong muscles. The curb held her to a slow gait, but her ears were laid back, giving her a vixenish look, and her full eye rolled as she came mincing sideways down the hill, ready to jump at any moment, her whole aspect oddly incongruous with the pale, anxious face of the rider.
It was he, doubtless, that first of all the crowd saw a light figure, swift and lithe, running at full speed, albeit the hill was rugged and steep, to meet the wounded man, who was half supported by his friends, — now disappearing amongst the laurel, and again flying along a level stretch; her curling hair floating in the wind, her eyes dilated, her face pallid, her breath coming in quick gasps. She had seen it all from the porch, Jepson thought. She must know that he was not to blame. He drew a long breath of relief, and urged the mare down the hill toward the men. He was near enough to hear her words, as she dashed in amongst them.
“ Leave him be,” she said, with didactic composure. “ I be goin’ ter lead him home. I ’ll keer fur him.”
She offered to take the arm that the blacksmith held.
“ Don’t ye know, Marcelly, ez I be a heap stronger ’n ye ? ” remonstrated Clem Sanders.
“ Naw ; Marcelly ’ll take keer o’ me. Whar’s Marcelly ? ” piped out Eli Strobe in a weak voice. “ Whar’s Marcelly? Marcelly ?” he reiterated, as if he clung to the familiar name like a landmark amidst some strangely wrought chaos, — “ Marcelly ? ”
He leaned upon her arm, and he turned toward her now and then with an uncertain look in his eye. “ Marcelly ? ” he said, in the voice of one suddenly awakened.
“ Hyar me,” her soft tones responded.
The blank stare in his face gave way to an evident satisfaction. He nodded once or twice, and trudged on.
Presently — once more an abrupt pause. “ Marcelly ? ” again with a poignant uncertainty and interrogation. And again “ Hyar me,” in dulcet, reassuring tones.
She could even conjure a smile into her pale face and a glancing lustre to her distended eyes, while he looked unsteadily and doubtfully at her. But when he began to plod on once more, the blood dripping from the cut in his head down upon his dust-grimed clothes, muttering now and again “ Marcelly?” as if this were some cabalistic phrase, hard to grasp, and when once lost never to be found again, a vague terror overspread her features and shone in her excited and wild eyes. Once or twice she turned, and looked an appealing, piteous inquiry at the men who walked beside her, a blank, dull surprise on their faces.
When Isabel, who had followed her sister more slowly because of the obstacles the sharp stones and briers furnished her bare, sunburned feet, joined them, he stretched out his hand gropingly, and laid it on her head. “ Ye air — Is’bel! ” he declared, with an evident effort of recognition.
“ Laws-a-massy, yes,” retorted the pert maiden. “ I would n’t be nobody else fur nuthin’.”
He kept his hand on her head as she walked beside him, albeit she remonstrated that he pulled her scalp backward; and as he went he muttered, “ Marcelly — Is’bel,” and again, “ Marcelly — Is’bel.”
It seemed a long time before they reached the bars of the fence, and went down the broad turn-row of the field, through the green and glistening Indian corn, to the dooryard of the little cabin.
One might feel in these unshaded and loamy slopes the full richness of the expending spirit of the summer sun, the responsive climaxing ripeness of the herbage of the earth. So broad, so glossy, were the great leaves; so full of vigor and grace, so definite and erect, the tall and stalwart stalks ! And how somnolently melodious, how charged with languorous post-meridian sentiment, was the song of the cicada that issued forth! A lizard, swift and noiseless, slipped across the path, his fine yet dull colors showing in the light. The shadows of the chestnut-tree at the gate seemed black with all this yellow glare. A cat slept on the rickety gate-post, despite the enmity of the dog of the “ frequent visitor,” who had spent his limited energies in barking and bounding about it, and now sat and besieged it in silent patience and with a lolling tongue. The hop-vines were fluttering about the porch; the passage between the two rooms was dark and cool. Teck Jepson, following, watched the group disappear within the door. Then he dismounted, and hitched the mare to the gate-post; the dog of the “frequent visitor ” relaxed his vigilance to greet the new-comer with an amity that expressed all the compliments of the season. Jepson gave him no notice ; but the mare shied violently and backed her ears as he leaped about her, and the cat on the gate-post took advantage of the opportunity, and ran up the chestnut-tree.
Jepson hesitated; he started slowly along the path amongst the luxuriant grass and weeds, where a coterie of turkeys and ducks were pecking about ; then he turned back, and stood leaning with one arm upon the gate-post, his hat drawn down over a moody, anxious brow, now looking meditatively at the little house, as silent and as solemn as the vast dark mountain behind it, and again vaguely glancing toward the forge, where he could see the gossips clustering around the door, the huddled horses at the rack, the slow ruminative oxen unyoked and lying about in the clearing, and here and there a cumbrous whitecovered wagon. Above were the great cliffs, beginning to show a sunset glow ; and now and then might be discerned the pathway of the invisible wind in the fainter tints of the reverse side of the leaves, upturned under even this light step, and marking a narrrow line amongst the dense and dark foliage, as it stole down the slopes.
Suddenly, men silent and with grave faces came out of the house. His heart gave a great throb — their faces were so like those that men bore at the little rural funerals that had hitherto formed, in his experience, the only expression of the majesty of death, and the more terrible irrevocability of opportunity, — their manner so like the cumbrous, awkward show of respect and sympathy for the mourners. It seemed strange to him that he should note at that moment — so vagrant are our thoughts, so little held in leash by the will — how still the mountain stood, how fairly the sun shone, how freshly blew the wind, unmindful, unmindful! The soul is the alien on the earth, and the earth heeds not the in-coming of this strange essence, nor the out-going. A strong trembling fell upon every fibre. He looked suddenly gaunt as he strained forward, whispering with pale lips, “ Dead ? Dead ? ”
Their eyes with one accord rested upon him. Clem Sanders slowly shook his head ; then turned to Bassett, as if doubtful nevertheless, and desiring confirmation. Once more Jepson’s dry lips framed the word “ Dead ? ” but no sound came.
“Naw,” said Bassett, “not ez ye mought say dead — but ” — He paused, and shook his head.
A sudden hand was on his throat. He looked into Jepson’s furious eyes ; he felt his quick, hot gasps on his cheeks.
“ Ef ye don’t say the word, by the Lord, I ’ll choke it out’n ye ! ”
Bassett was speechless for the moment, even after, half throttled, the blacksmith dragged him from Jepson’s clutch. He could only cough and sputter, and look appealingly at Sanders and Dake to answer. Parson Donnard and Jube stood by, gazing on the proceedings with the same face, differing only in years and in expression : the elder in sober and reprehensive dismay, the younger with a keen and eager, almost participative, attention.
“ Naw, he ain’t dead,” said Dake hastily; “he may be like ter die, fur all I know. He be out’n his head, an’ yit he ain’t out’n his head. I never hear sech talk.”
“ I tell ye now, though, Teck,” said Sanders reprovingly, and with a glance at the coughing and choking Bassett, “ ye hev done enough ter-day ’thout killin’ Joe, an’ hevin’ another man’s death ter answer fur. I never thunk of ye hevin’ ter answer fur it, else I’d hev tole ye quicker ’n I done.”
Jepson turned, with a flush and a flash of the eye. “ Ye ’low ez I be a-keerin’ fur that, — the answerin’ fur it! Naw, sir! It’s the doin’ o’ sech ez be a-killin’ me. I would n’t hev done it! I would n’t hev done it! ” He struck his hands despairingly together above his head. Then his consciousness of their entertained eyes, which expressed a sort of sub-acute unrealized pleasure in the painful excitement, asserted itself, and he leaned passively against the post, silent and unresponsive when they spoke ; and presently they all passed through the gate, down the turn-row and up the slope to the forge, to detail the news to the waiting crowd, and hear in turn the speculations elicited.
He stood as still as if he had turned to stone, his elbow on the post, the mare’s graceful head close to the broad brim of his hat, the dog of the “frequent visitor,” an animal of facile allegiance, at his heavily booted and spurred feet; he did not stir even when he saw the door open and shut slowly, and Marcella, still palefaced and large-eyed, emerge upon the porch. She stood, evidently preoccupied, for a moment amidst the luxuriant blossoms, purple and white, that overran the rickety little structure. Then, although her eyes had rested on him some little time, she seemed suddenly to perceive him. For all his super-subtle discernment, he could not interpret the expression on her face. Her light figure was poised for a moment, as if she were uncertain whether she might advance or disappear. Then she came to the verge of the porch, leaning forward and lifting the blossoming tendrils that she might look through at him. She reached forth her hand and beckoned him. His blood gave a great bound in his veins. He felt the hot color in his cheek. His heart was beating so wildly, so heavily, that he could not hear the rustle of the lush grass as his a quick strides bore him across the yard, or the abrupt and frantic outcry of the frightened poultry as they scuttled off. There were unwonted tears in his eyes ; he could have wept in glad humility for the joy of her generosity. He hastily stretched forth his hand to clasp hers which held the vine, but she withdrew it abruptly, and he only clasped the vines, warm from the touch of her hand. As he looked up at her she looked down at him, inscrutably.
“ What be ye a-waitin’ thar fur ? ” she demanded in a low voice, and with an anxious glance toward the window close at hand.
“ Ter know ef thar be ennything I kin do fur ye,” he said.
She looked away at the refulgent golden-red glow of sunset-tide, that filled all the air over the wooded valley and the mountain above, till it touched the serene and colorless east.
Then she said slowly, “ Yes, — ye kin do suthin’ fur me.” Her eyes met his. " Go up ter the mounting — an’ kem back no mo’! ” Her voice was intense and low. Her straight, defiant brows were knitted; her eyes, once so soft, had a fierce glitter, “ I never want ter see yer face agin whilst I live.”
“ Marcelly ! ” he faltered, amazed.
“ Go up ter the mounting! ” she reiterated. An’ when, mebbe, ez the time goes, ye ’low I mought be changin’ my mind, remember I tuk the trouble ter call ye hyar, an’ tell ye thar never war a woman ez hated a man like I hate you-uns. Some o’ ’em hated one another in the Bible, did n’t they ? Study bout’n ’em. Fur none o’ ’em hated like me ! ”
“ Marcelly ! ” he cried again, pleadingly. “ I never done it a-purpose.”
She let her hands fall on either side with a gesture of indifference. “ Ye mought ez well.”
She knew her power. She saw his pain, and she rejoiced in the retributive pangs.
“ I war all day a-tryin’ ter holp him in the lection,” he protested. “ I did everything I could fur him. ’T war his fault, — an’ ef ye seen it ye air ’bleeged ter know it.”
She looked at him with disdainful eyes. “ Mought save yerse’f from the court that-a-way, mought n’t ye ? But ye won’t hanker fur Sol’mon ter try yer case, will ye ? ”
Her face was suddenly smitten with a ghastly look, as the realization of what that possible future for him involved for her father.
“ Marcelly ! ” he cried, in pity for her, divining her thought.
She recovered in a moment. She bore a stanch heart within her.
“ Go up ter the mounting ! ” She lifted her hand, and pointed through the flowers to the stern fastnesses against the sky. “ An’ ef I could hev it so by sayin’ ‘ Go out’n the world,’ I ’d say it! ”
She turned from the vines, — a light step, the flutter of a garment, the cautious closing of a door, and she was gone.
He waited for a time, believing that she would relent; she could but come back with some word of mercy, or pardon, or cheer for him. He still held the vines agape, and looked through into the open passage of the house, fearful that she might come forth and think him gone, not seeing him here. It was strangely still; presently a rooster, bronze and red and yellow, sprang upon the puncheons of the passage, and strutted back and forth, Ids claws ploddingly audible, muttering inarticulately to himself. And now he was gone. Upon the post of the porch, close at hand, a tree-toad began to shrill. Jepson saw the creature after a little, — a dull greenish-brown color against the weathered gray of the unpainted wood. How acute his senses were ! He was conscious of noticing the curious climbing feet of the tiny reptile, as he stood. Women after a time came to the house with baskets on their arms, containing infallible domestic remedies or bundles, hoping to Supply some household deficiency. They looked curiously at him ; one or two made a motion as if they would speak, then desisted, and went their way. He cared nothing for his pale and agitated face, his wild, eager eyes. His pride seemed spent. He was glad they had seen him. They would tell her he waited without. And surely she would then come with some word to salve the wounds she had dealt. He would be grateful for so little. He could wait so long.
Not so long as he fancied. There came through the window the sound of an unfamiliar voice, he thought at first, strangely mouthing, and presently rising into a dolorous cry. He listened, trembling guiltily. It was Eli Strobe’s voice. And when he realized this he could hear no more, — his fortitude was overtaxed. He could wait for no reward, within the sound of those tones.
He turned, strode swiftly to the gate, flung himself upon the restive mare, and the quick thud of her hoofs along the beaten ways of the turn-row announced iris departure to those within. He was going up the mountain, as she had hidden him. He was going — he cared not where — to the mountains as instinctively as a bird might seek the woods.
They called to him, as he passed the forge, for news of Eli Strobe. He shook his head ; he had no news to give. The votes had been counted, and the local politicians, even in this hour of stress, did not fail to communicate the fact, and one or two triumphant souls shouted to him, as he spurred away, that Eli Strobe was reëlected. But he did not slacken his speed, for all the rough road, nor draw rein in fording the plunging torrent. The mare’s neck was vainly downstretched toward the limpid swiftness ; its very breath, the dank perfumes of its banks, indescribably refreshing at the end of the sultry day. The sun was slowly withdrawing its fervid presence. The wind rode abreast up and up the mountain. Jepson seemed to go to meet the night, for the shadows trooped from the east, and only the lengthening miles of valley and steeps behind him were pensively splendid in the rich afterglow of the prodigal day ; to meet the night, heralded in the melancholy gloom under the pines, in the vague, indefinable pain with which we loose our hold on each successive day, in the sense of quiet and silence lacking in the gorgeous, albeit noiseless, pageant of sunset-tide; to meet the night, with its pensive presentiments of sorrow, its prophetic intimations of some longer space of null and dark futurity. The mare climbed the rugged ways now with a freshened will. Home, that even the animals cherish, lay at the end of the road, and she began to recognize her rider’s intention thither. As she threaded the tangles of the laurel, a faint, blood-curdling sound smote her quick senses. A wolf was howling afar off in these primeval fastnesses. She snorted as she went, and trembled. A star was at the zenith. A great fir seemed to touch it with the dark, slender line of its spire. An open, rocky space, and Jepson could see the dark western mountains, all glooming, the sunset faded out save for a lingering red streak along the horizon, — a dull and dusky tint in the closing obscurity. Below, mists were a-stalking down the valley ways, spectral in the vague light that barely made them visible. They claimed that weird and ghostly hour ; and now and then one peered out from amongst the crags hard by, and drew back aghast, it might seem, at the sight of a human being in these preëmptions of solitude, where it should meet only its own disembodied kindred. The mare shied from them with dilated eyes, and chafed at the bit, and plunged and fretted because of the momentary pause.
Jepson marked, far as it was, the lights in the depression where Broomsedge lay, — like a skein of fireflies, — and he gazed down with a pained and throbbing heart, a troublous remorse and a contradictory sense of self-exculpation, a poignant sympathy with Marcella, and, nevertheless, a pulsing, sensitive resentment. “ ’T war a accident, — nothin’ but a accident,” he muttered to himself. And then he bit his lip, remembering her caustic jeer of utilizing this interpretation. Once more the howl of the wolf, strangely nearer than before.
“ How them critters kin travel! ” he said.
Then even his strong hand had much ado to hold the mare, snorting and plunging, and pushing now through the laurel, now amidst the gaunt and sterile cliffs on the toilsome homeward way, whether he would or no. The rocks echoed her hoof-beats; she seemed to the listening ear the first of a file of horse, — a phantom file, for here and there, where the road was open, and the dull light still showed its curves, it was visibly vacant, for all the measured pace that sounded between the crags. How lonely were these great rocks in the wilderness and the vast silences! With what precipitate avidity they caught at a sound, repeating it from one to another, as if it had some strange significance, some prophecy, perchance, that they should hoard against its fulfillment. Of all the forms of inanimate nature, they alone seemed to him sensate in some sort; and appealing from their isolation, they alone sought to communicate, from their stolid and sterile being, with creatures endowed with a motor life, through those mysteries of the elastic air, set vibrating with a word.
“ Marcelly ! ” he cried out, with some wild desire to hear the wilderness voice her name. The whole world seemed to respond with a subdued acclaim.
“ Marcelly! ” the mellow tone rang from the heights above. “ Marcelly ! ” the tender echoes of the valley replied. And now a crystalline fine vibration from the upper atmosphere, “ Marcelly! ” as if the magic word were spoken in the strange scenes of that lucent and glittering star.
He recovered in a moment his normal stolidity. The sounding air brought a burning to his cheek. He would have hushed, if he could, the voices he had summoned. He had a vague regret; a foolish feeling that the word, never losing its pleading intonation, was overheard. He was nearing home. The mare quickened her pace anew. As he emerged from the densities of the wilderness into the high vantage-ground of Bowles’s clearing, the vast splendor of the thickly instarred, moonless sky was before him, — so far and foreign it Avas, so dark the earth lay beneath, so drear. And he hardly cared that the dull orange glow coming from the notch was the light of his hearthstone, although the young mare whickered gleefully at the sight, and Avent up the long, steep hill at a prancing pace, and with sundry plunges that threatened to unseat her practiced rider.
He took the saddle from her back as soon as he dismounted, —none too quickly, for she instantly rolled over upon the ground, her iron-shod feet awkwardly waving in the air. Then, as she gathered herself up with a snort of satisfaction, she set out for the barn and the water-trough with a capable air, evidently used to serving her own supper and making her own bed.
As Jepson entered the firelit room, Ben Bowles, sitting beside the hearth, his elbows on his knees, his pipe in his mouth, roused himself from a sort of lethargy of idleness, and a slow smile began to make more distinctly indented the many wrinkles around his mouth and hay-colored beard. His mild eyes shone with such pleasure as so definite a clod might be presumed to feel, but he glanced dubiously at his wife before he ventured to speak.
“ Air that you-uns, Teck? Powerful glad ter see ye back hyar,” he said cordially.
“ I ain’t company enough fur him, Teck,” said Mrs. Bowles, with an assertive smile, displaying all her fine teeth.
“ Laws a-massy, jes’ listen at M’ria, now ! ” Her husband gallantly scouted the idea, but he looked somewhat deprecatory of having laid himself liable to this interpretation.
Jepson glanced about him, heedless of both.
“ Whar ’s the chil’n ? ” he demanded. “ Gone ter bed ? ”
“ Whar ye reckon ?” retorted Mrs. Bowles, with a flash of her bead-like eyes. “ Ye s’pose I hev made sassingers or minch-meat out’n ’em ? ”
“ Ye air ekal ter it,” her brother-inlaw ruthlessly declared.
The mild Ben Bowles deserved, perhaps, a better fate than the continual futility of his efforts to preserve the peace about him. So much tact, so perfected by practice, disinterestedly exerted seemed wasted here.
“ Ha, ha ! ” He forced a laugh, affecting to interpret facetiously the retort and the counter-retort. “ Nare one o’ em hev got meat enough on thar bones ter be wuth the scrapin’, ’ceptin’ it air Bob. Ha ha ! Bob’s fat enough.”
Jepson’s only reply was a glance of scorn. He strode over to the shadowy corner where the children lay, and looked down at Sim’s pale, unhappy face, with its marks of sullen sorrow all undispelled, even in its absent, far-away expression. Aminty’s had the solemnity of sleep upon it, and her tossed and tangled hair about it. Bob’s wide-open twinkling hazel eyes shut instantly in feigned slumber the moment they encountered Jepson’s. The diplomatist of four snored gently.
Jepson made no comment, but turned back to the broad hearth, slowly divesting himself of his powder-horn and shotpouch. The firelight glanced upon his full blue eyes; the fairness of his brow contrasted sharply with his sun-embrowned cheeks, and had a definite line across it where the brim of his hat had ceased to cast its shade. The spurs on the heels of his long boots, that reached to his knee, gave out a dull metallic glitter. His brown jeans coat was begirt by a broad leather belt, and his massive, well-formed figure seemed taller than usual, since the others, seated, were fain to look up. Mrs. Bowles’s fixed eyes had a certain activity in their bead-like brightness, as she sat silently gazing at him for a time.
Then suddenly, “ Ye need n’t be holdin’ yer jaw, Teck. I know jes’ ez well ez ef I hed seen him ez that thar Bob air a-lyin’ thar broad awake, like a fox, or possum, or suthin’, though he hev been tole forty times ” — she lifted her voice that the youth should hear — “ ez the devil will kem arter him an’ ketch him ef he waits ter go ter sleep till the house be dark. I tell ye now what I’m a-goin’ ter do. I’m a-goin’ ter put him out’n doors, ter keep company with them t’other night rampagers, — bars, ez eat fat boys, an’ painters, an’ sech. An’ Bob ’ll feel powerful lonesome out thar in the dark mountings, a-tryin’ ter git away from ’em, this road an’ that. His legs air short, an’ he can’t run fas’.’ An’ he be so fat he mus’ be toler’ble heavy ter hisself ter tote.”
There was a vague stir under the quilts. Even the small stoic could but writhe a little in prophetic anguish at this prospect.
Jepson turned abruptly, strode again to the bed, caught the child by the collar of his nightgown, and the next moment Bob was sitting in his chair before the fire, looking very rotund in his straight garment, and gazing with wide, apprehensive eyes at his step-mother, expectant of the blow that always came when she was thwarted. She did not deal it now. She was constrained by the eye of the man as he stood once more on the hearth, busying himself with the strap that held his powder-horn.
“ An’ when enny bars, or painters, or devils, or folks take arter ye, Bob, jes’ call on me, sir, an’ I ’ll tend ter ’em.” He glanced down, and nodded convincingly.
Bob looked up at the big man with a grave and plump countenance. He gave a little sigh of relief, but he did not venture upon words. His pink toes were more rosy in the light of the fire, and now and then curled in the enjoyment of the warmth, for the night was chilly on the mountain. His great wakeful eyes dwelt on the flames. He filled his little armchair very comfortably and his hair, standing up straight in front, gave him a quaintly grotesque look.
Ben Bowles skillfully preserved an air of unconsciousness of the clashing in the domestic circle. Mrs. Bowles seemed for a moment likely to acquiesce without demur in the rule of the stronger. Then a flush rose through her clear olive skin, and overspread her blunt features. Her strong white teeth showed in a satiric smile. That added significant glitter in her small dark eyes struck Jepson’s attention. As he held the powder-horn in his hand he paused, and looked down intently at her. She noted his glance. Her desire to harass was strong, but she could not restrain her caustic tongue, or she might have baffled his curiosity.
“ Keep on, Teck,” she said sarcastically, “ keep on the way ye air a-goin’. Set pore leetle Bob up thar ter ketch his death o’ cold, an’ take an axe an’ hack me an’ Ben up, an’ set the house afire, an’ — enny thing ! Ye air ekal ter ennything arter what we hev hearn terday.”
“ Hearn what, ter-day ? ” he asked, marveling how the news of the disaster had reached these untrodden secluded wilds.
“ Oh, nuthin’,” she said, flashing her eyes at him.
“ Laws-a-massy, M’ria,” Ben Bowles ventured to remonstrate, — he would fain have ignored the whole incident, — “let Teck tell us just what did happen. Mought be some mistake.”
She laughed, and sneered too. “ Toler’ble large-sized mistake, sartin, ter kill Eli Strobe jes’ kase his darter would n’t marry ye — turned ye off! Gals air choosers one time in thar lives, ennyhow.” She tossed her head with a lively relish of this limited ascendency.
Jepson was shaken with a wild fear that they had had later news from the Cove than he. Then he remembered that none had entered or left the room since his return.
“ Eli Strobe warn’t dead whenst I left Brumsaidge,” he replied calmly.
“ Thar, now, M’ria, what did I tell ye ? ” expostulated Bowles.
“ Ye tole me,” she perversely retorted, “ez Teck war too sharp an’ smart ter git inter enny sech trouble, even ef he warn’t none too good fur it.”
Jepson recognized the facile temporizing of Bowles in this, and he noted the quick flush on the cheek of the master of the house, attesting the veracity of his wife’s speech.
Jepson did not resent it, for he had a certain scornful indulgence of the cowardly amiability of his half-brother, and a contemptuous pity for the hardship of his position in his own house. He quietly hung the powder-horn and shotpouch upon a prong of the deer antlers that formed the rack for his gun. Then he sat down before the fire, his eyes on the blaze, his legs crossed, bringing one of his heavy boots so near Bob that the fat baby could not refrain from leaning forward, and with both chubby hands making the rowel whirl. His teeth shone, his eyes gleamed, he chuckled with glee, till, catching Mrs. Bowles’s gaze, a sudden gravity settled upon his open mouth, and he leaned back in his armchair, affecting to rub his eyes, but now and then glancing furtively at her. The cat came and purred about him, and rubbed against his dimpled legs ; then, suddenly bethinking herself, sat upon her haunches and put her forepaws on his knees to beg. He was not eating, but she watched for some moments with stern and vigilant eyes every movement of his chubby hands, that they should not undetected convey some unshared delicacy to his lips. Finally even feline patience was exhausted, and with an inaudible motion of mewing once or twice she sprang into the child’s lap, curled up, and composed herself to slumber.
Bowles moved uneasily in his chair. The aggressive silence weighed hardly less heavily upon his spirit than the more active expressions of antagonism which he had sought to avert or annul. Now he glanced at his wife with an urgent insistence in his face, of which he was unaware, or he would have suppressed it in his timorous policy, and now at Teck Jepson with an air of appeal. The look only expressed his secret wish ; he did not hope aught from their interpretation or comprehension.
Presently, in desperation, he broke the pause:—
“ War ye a-axin’ jes’ now, Teck, who fotched the news hyar ? I warn’t payin’ much ’tention.”
Jepson did not take his eyes from the flame. “ Naw, I did n’t ax,” he said.
Bowles subsided into silence, and his wife turned and cast a contemptuous glance upon him, which he comprehended as a rebuke that he should interfere.
The fire burned the freer and the clearer for the draught from the open door ; the circle sat well back from the hearth in the alternate red flare and white fluctuations; the dark night looked in through the black aperture of window and door; the awful solitude of the unpeopled mountain was close without. Sometimes a dallying white presence was visible, and one might know that a mist was skulking close at hand, clearing away again to show the glimmer of a lonely star through a dark pine bough. A tree-toad trilled; the woods sighed, and lapsed again to soundless solitude.
Mrs. Bowles, too, chafed at the silence. Once or twice she visibly restrained herself. Then returning to her first impulse, she observed, “ Teck don’t want ter know, Ben. Them ez he don’t like he jes’ won’t see nor hear, an’ it does him mighty nigh ez well ez ef they war dead. He knows somehow ez’t war Jake Baintree ez hev been hyar this evenin’ ” —
Jepson lifted his head. “ Jake Baintree ! ” he ejaculated, in evident surprise.
Mrs. Bowles rejoiced in her opportunity. “ Yes, sir, ’t war Jake Baintree.” Her black bead-like eyes flashed. She smiled flexibly; her white teeth glittered.
“ What call hed he ter kem hyar ? ” Jepson demanded, puzzled.
“ What call hed n’t he ? ” Mrs. Bowles retorted. “He be a free man! He travels the mountings whar his will leads him, — same ez a fox or a deer. He be ekal ter them dumb sinners, ennywise, I reckon, though he ain’t ’lowed ter git baptized an’ save his soul.”
She relapsed into silence, with an obvious satisfaction to have shot this arrow. She expected him to inquire further. But he only rose, looked on the rude shelf, that served as mantel-piece, for his pipe, filled it, scooped up a coal from the edge of the fire, and smoked thoughtfully, with no show of desire to hear more ; and this stimulated infinitely Mrs. Bowles’s intention to continue the detail of the visit. She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, gazed smilingly into the fire, apparently meditating on these things, and once she broke out “ Waal, waal! ” as if in reminiscent wonder and interest.
Her husband, always alert to take an acceptable part, looked first at her, with her patent bid to be interrogated, and then at Jepson’s impassive and lofty face, with its proud indifference. He reflected that Jake Baintree was in one sense his half-brother’s enemy, and in another the object of his persecution, and he said nothing.
Mrs. Bowles flushed with a dull red glow, but still persistently smiled and gazed into the fire ; then shaking her head slowly and gently, she presently broke forth again : —
“ Waal, waal, I never hearn the beat o’ Jake’s talk ! He ’peared plumb rej’iced over it. An’ I ’lowed ter him — I said, ‘ I ’ll thanky ter remember it be my cousin — yes, sir, own blood relation— ez Teck Jepson liev murdered, so don’t git ter glorifyin’ over it hyar.’ An’ he say, ‘ I can’t holp it, Mis’ Bowles. I’m sorry fur Eli an’ his darters, an’ sech, but ’t ain’t mine ter question the Lord’s devices, nor what He lows what a day shell bring forth. The Lord suffered it,’ he says, ‘ so Eli mus’ submit, an’ his kinfolks too. But,’ he says, ‘the Lord hain’t done nuthin’ so much ter my taste fur the las’ ten year ! We-uns ’ll see how the mate o’ Daniel wall look in a cage hisself,’ Jake say;
‘ no other lion nor other wild cattle thar, but he kin ramp around an’ rage fur twenty. We-uns will see how the friend o’ Moses, the Law-giver, will buck agin them law-givers down ter the criminal court. We-uns will git a chance ter rest our ears ’bout them folks in the Bible fur one while, sure, fur the livin’ will gin Teck all he kin tend ter, ’thout studyin’ on them ez be dead an’ gone so long they oughter be furgot, ef they ain’t.’ An’ I ax Jake, I jes’ riz up an’ axed him, ef he warn’t ’shamed ter talk that-a-way, whenst he portended ter hev religion. An’ he ’lowed he hed got through with wantin’ religion. Whenst the pa’son declared he would n’t baptize him, it jes’ kem on him like a flood o’ light ez he hed rather go ter hell ’n ter heaven along o’ sech Christians ez pa - son an’ Teck. An’ sence that minit his soul hed troubled him no mo .”
Jepson slowly blew the smoke from between his lips; the hand that held the corn-cob pipe did not tremble. There was no suggestion of anger in his dark blue eyes, the color of the iris distinct as he gazed meditatively into the fire. The flicker of the flames fluctuated upon his regular definite features, and he showed no consciousness of his surroundings save that he kept his former attitude rigidly, that Bob, leaning forward with the excited eye of achievement and the quick breath of effort, might triumphantly accomplish the feat of unbuckling with his chubby brown hands and taking off the large spur. The child’s posture incommoded the slumbers of Aminty’s yellow cat, that lay in his lap, and she held her green eyes half open that she might guard against the danger of being too much compressed as he bent over. More than once she put up her paw against the breast of his nightgown, with an admonitory claw extended ; but he only peremptorily caught it and put it down, and went on with his enterprise as before.
Mrs. Bowles seemed disposed to despair and desist, as she gazed speculatively at the impassive Jepson. Her husband stirred uneasily, and then remarked non - committally, “ Some say Jake Baintree air a bad aig.”
His wife did not often condescend to a dialogue with him alone. But this was the only prospect of covering her retreat with dignity, as she relinquished her attack on Jepson. She turned her face with a commingling animation and benignity toward her husband, and rejoined in a tone of interest, “ Yes. folks say so ; but what s’prised me war the cur’ous way he behaved hyar this even-, in’. I wisht ye or Teck, one, hed been hyar, jes’ ter see how he ’peared. He sot thar in that cheer, — ’t war gittin’ on toward dark, — an’ his face war sharp an’ clear, somehows, an’ white, an’ his hair so slick an’ shinin’, an’ his looks so keen, like he war studyin’ ’bout a heap he never would tell in this worl’. An’ he say, ‘ I ain’t no mo’ use fur religion, Mis’ Bowles. I hev got no use fur rivers, ’ceptin’ ter go swimmin’ in ’em.’ An’ I say, ‘ Hev ye traded off yer soul, ez ye don’t pear ter ’low ye hev got none ter save ? ’ An’ he say, ‘ Ye look out fur me at the Jedgmint Day, Mis’ Bowles, an’ ye ’ll ’low I stan’ toler’ble high amongst the n’angels.’ He say, ‘ I hev got suthin’ else ter look arter now. Folks in the mountings dunno ez much ez they think they do, Mis’ Bowles. I fund that out whilst I war in jail, an’ lamin’ so much o’ town ways.’ An’ I say, ‘ It’s good ye air pleased with yer smartness, Jake, fur ye air the fust one I ever hearn accuse ye o’ sech.’ An’ I jes’ uped an’ set about gittin’ supper, an’ lef’ him thar ter brag by hisself. An’ whenst I looked at him, arter a minit, he hed tuk a paper out’n his pocket an’ war a-purtendin’ ter read. His eyes war jes’ set sorter cross-eyed onter it, an’ his lips a-movin’ like he war a-talkin’ ter hisself, an’ he looked so plumb foolish ez I jes’ drapped the bowl what I war stirrin’ batter in, an’ hollered an’ laffed. An’ he say, ‘Ye don’t b’lieve I kin read, Mis’ Bowles ; jes’ listen, an’ I ’ll read ye ’bout a man what got tired o’ livin’ in the world, an’ got onter a raft on the ruver.’ An’ shore enough Jake did.”
Jepson suddenly lifted his head. “What did the man do?” His eyes were alert with interest; he held his pipe in his hand ; the feeblest tissue of smoke stole upward from it. He had forgotten her antagonism.
She broke into a discordant laugh. “ Laws-a-massy, ye reckon I kin remember all that thar ! Naw, sir. I did n’t moil half listen, bein’ all tuk up ter see Jake readin’ like a preacher ! An’ Jake say, ‘ I reckon ye won’t see Teck no mo’, Mis’ Bowles, bein’ ez they mus’ hev ’rested him by this time. Else I would n’t hev kem inter this house, it bein’ sorter his’n, ez he lives hyar an’ hev put his stock with yourn. An’ I ’ll say ye air mighty well rid o’ him, in my idee.’ Arter that he went.”
She had unburdened her mind. She had spent her quiver, — not a barbed shaft remained. She was glancing about the room, meditating upon certain arrangements to be providently made over night for the early breakfast; now and again her eyes paused on Bob, still serenely awake in his nightgown, and holding up before eyes that squinted in the eager intensity of their interest the spur which he had taken from the boot.
She was altogether unprepared for aught of moment when Jepson said slowly, “ Ye hed better lay off ter milk the cow-critters sooner ’n common, termorrer, M’ria, kase I be goin’ ter drive my stock off from hyar by daylight. I hev hed in an’ about enough o’ this place.”
Her small eyes dilated ; she changed color ; her jaw dropped. Her lethargic husband was suddenly tense and rigid, looking at Jepson with a dismayed deprecation, aghast at the prospect of this collapse of their partnership. Mild as he was and weak, he was man enough in this emergency to blame his wife.
“ Thar now, M’ria! ” he said, temperately, however.
It was the first rebuke he had ever given her, and he quailed as the words passed his lips. But she took no heed of them ; her sense of loss was so poignant as to dull all resentment. “ Why, Teck ! ” she exclaimed, her voice cordial with persuasive intonations, “ ye goin’ ter leave us — jes’ kase I tole ye what that thar black-hearted Jake Baintree say ’bout our bein’ well rid o’ ye ? I did n’t go ter hurt yer feelin’s. Ye ain’t goin’ ter leave us fur sech ez that!” She smiled at him, her eyes and her teeth glittering in the glow of the fire.
“ Naw, naw,” he disclaimed, still placidly gazing at the blaze, with none of the excitement and instability of an unconsidered resolution in his face. “ ’T ain’t fur nuthin’ Jake Baintree say, nor ye nuther. I jes’ be a-goin’ fur good.” He seemed unpliable enough to daunt persuasion or appeal.
“ Laws-a-massy, Teck ! ” Ben Bowles exclaimed, lantern-jawed, and pallid, and disconsolate. The inflections of his voice had such dreary suggestions that Jepson glanced at him, as he sat pulling at his hay-colored beard, the deeply indented grooves and wrinkles in his face growing more definite and multiplying, his weak blue eye’s appealing and forlorn. He might seem in terror of being left at the mercy of his wife, who sat beside him, the picture of discomfiture, and swift repentance, and anxious forecast.
The survey evidently suggested to Jepson some modification of his plans.
“I ’ll leave old Spot an’ her calf, bein’ ez yer cow air dry, so ez the chill’n kin hev buttermilk an’ M’ria kin churn ; an’,” after a moment’s pause, “ I ’ll leave one o’ my horses, so ye kin git along better puttin’ in craps nex’ spring. Ye kin keep ’em awhile, ef ye ’ll feed ’em.”
“ Why, Teck !” cried Mrs. Bowles, in a pained yet cordially insistent tone ; she forgot what she was about to say, for there surged in upon her the recollection of his “ stock,” for which they had besought him to abide with them, the usefulness of which benefited infinitely the housekeeping and the farming in a thousand ways. He possessed only a few head of the commonest variety, but they seemed much when once within her grasp, and it had been as if she owned them. " Why, Teck ! ” she exclaimed once again, at a loss how to continue.
“Ye need n’t say nare word,” he declared. “ I’m goin’, with all I hev got, by daybreak.”
He knocked the ashes out of his pipe, put it in his pocket, rose, and strode out on the porch. He had not intended one of his long mountain jaunts, — only a turn or two in the solemn stillness of the night, to be alone with his thoughts, to lie free from the presence of his fellows. This was contrary to his usual custom, and he knew that she thought him far away when he saw her through the open door rise up by the hearthstone, and heard her say impressively to the forlorn, stooping, and disquieted Ben Bowles, —
“Ye mark my words,” — she lifted her arm and shook her fore-finger at him, — “ Eli Strobe ain’t dead mebbe, but he will be soon, an’ Teck air aimin’ aforehand ter git out’n the kentry with all he hev got; he ’ll flee the State, an’ that ter-morrer mornin’.”
Bowles listened with plaintive, hopeless, upturned face. The small Bob had become rigid with propriety of demeanor the instant she lifted her arm, and sat with his bright hazel eyes fixed expectantly and deprecatingly upon her. The man outside in the darkness watched the group for a moment, and then turned away into the black night.
The events of the day were peculiarly edifying to Broomsedge Cove. That moralizing tendency rife among rural gossips did not fail to utilize so promising a theme. One might have culled choice apothegms as to the sterility of ambition, failing oft in the very moment of seeming fruition, suggested by the fate of Eli Strobe, lying at the point of death in the flush of success. Others evolved reflections upon the overbearing spirit that would brook not even the control of the law, and certain nice points of ethics arose as to how far a man is warranted in holding his own conscience as monitor, or in subjugating his prerogative to judge of right and wrong.
Nevins still lingered amongst the group about the door of the forge, chewing a straw the while, and seeking to maintain the air of genial acceptance of defeat, and a certain indifference, which all candidates, who have come to grief, more or less successfully attempt to achieve. His face, however, betokened the relaxation of suspense, for the nervous strain that he had undergone was telling upon him now. There were vague blue circles and a flabby fullness under his eyes, which looked hot and were restless, but they held a distinct expression of resentment, and his face was covertly cynical, albeit his replies to the bluff and not altogether goodnatured banter were couched in a conciliatory and still politic spirit.
“ Plenty o’ comp’ny, Nevins,” suggested one. “ Candidates fur jedge, ’torney-gineral, shcr’ff, an’ mo’ besides mus’ hev got the go-by, too, this day.”
For to-day was held the general midsummer election of civil officers throughout the judicial circuit.
Another strolled up, and observed, “ Hain’t seen ye, Nevins, sence the woods war burnt.”
“ It mus’ seem powerful hard,” commented a Job’s comforter, “ ez ye could n’t hev the office, sence Eli can’t hold it now he hev got it.”
“ Leastwise, Josh,” said another, with a grin, “ yer hide be whole yit.”
“ Josh would n’t keer how his hide war chipped or tore, ef it hed a constable inside o’ it,” chimed in an adverse elector.
The defeated candidate, thus rallied, made shift to smile, although somewhat grimly. He was evidently bent on keeping up his reputation for pluck, but he might have found it far more difficult if Eli Strobe, robust, and florid, and hilarious, had been lingering too at the voting-place, shaking hands with his supporters, receiving the congratulations of his friends, and crowing over his enemies. The aspects of defeat were sufficiently abashing and depressing, and he knew that much was spared him in that the Gorgon face of his competitor’s success was withheld. Although the physician, who resided some fourteen miles distant, had not yet arrived, and no professional opinion had been pronounced, there was no doubt expressed that Eli Strobe would not live to enjoy the honors and discharge the duties of the office he had so hardly won, for by reason of the rigors of his previous incumbency the race had been extremely close. More than one of the gossips, full of gloomy forebodings, animadverted upon the lack of “ spunk ” in the Settlement that it bad permitted Teck Jepson to ride by unmolested, and take his way up to the impenetrable fastnesses of the mountain, to issue thence when it should suit his pleasure.
“ He oughter been arrested, — yes, sir ! ” said Jethro Peake, who, having concluded his duties as judge of the election, now entered upon the larger field of censor of the community in general. His round face was red with the influence of a certain beverage innocently believed to be neither sold nor given away on election day; his fat cheeks shook with the energy of his discourse. “ An’ ef I hed n’t hev been in thar a-countin’ out the votes, I’d hev done it ez he rid by! Laws a-massy ! ter ride by a blacksmith shop, whar the three jedges appinted by the county court air a-countin’ out the ballots ’cordin’ ter law, — ride by in the open light o’ day, an’ nobody arrest him! Ef I hed been hyar! ” He shook his head threateningly, thrust his hands into his pockets, and walked a few short steps hither and thither ; manifesting now a prideful elation in his authority that had not been apparent throughout the day, and was probably “ set free,” chemically speaking, by the action of the whiskey.
“ Then we d hev hed another cracked head ’round hyar,” observed Bassett, gloomily. “ T war tryin’ ter arrest Teck fur racin’ ez got Eli hurt. I don’t reckon nobody air goin’ ter meddle with Teck ez ain’t ’bleeged ter.”
He had a blue bruise on his throat that made his views doubly impressive, and there was no need for Dake, who officiated as a sort of echo of his sentiments, to say,—
“ Teck liked ter hev choked Joe ter death, jes’ kase he did n’t talk fas’ enough, an’ tell him the news from Eli. He war feared then ez Eli war dead, an’ he ’d hev ter answer ter the law. An’ I reckon he war skeered ter go inside ’count o Marcelly. Laws-a-massy! that gal looked like she hed two live coals fur eyes, whenst somebody spoke up his name, tollin’ Eli’s mother how it happened. Marcelly looked plumb like a painter I seen up ter the mounting wunst. I hed got the critter’s kittens out’n a hollow tree, an’ ’lowed I’d take ’em home an’ see ef they’d tame an pet. An I looked round whilst kemin’ down the mounting, an’ thar war that painter crouchin’ on a high rock over my head, sleek, an’ strong, an’ light, an’ supple, sir, ready ter spring. I hed no gun, an’ I jes’ tuk one look at her eyes, an’ I knowed that thar beastis hed grit enough ter foller me ter hell. I jes’ sot them two leetle painters on a flat rock, an’ I fund out what the Lord gin me feet fur. I put ’em ter right smart use fur ’bout a mile.” He paused for a moment, in silent reminiscence of this speedy descent from the great steeps above. Then he resumed, “ I ain’t thunk ’bout that thar painter in I dunno when, till Marcelly’s eyes reminded me o’ hern.”
“ Waal, now, I reckon that ’ll put an e-end ter Teck Jepson a-settin’ up ter Marcelly,” said Clem Sanders, hopefully. He was within the forge, leaning against the elevated hearth, feeling a certain inhospitable relief that the shop had been restored to its normal uses, and the judges and the ballot-box, the clerk and the table, and all the paraphernalia of suffrage, animate and inanimate, had been removed. He was not ill-natured nor malicious, but the disaster argued demolition of his rival’s hopes, and his own sprang up revivified by the prospect. His heart had not been so light for many a day, — not since he had played cards gayly and victoriously with Mose Hull, all unconscious that Satan perched on the anvil behind him to overlook his hand, while the window-shutter was drawn ajar, and an uncomprehended entity looked in, solemn, dismayed, aghast. Since then the forge had been deserted after nightfall. No longer the mountain youth congregated here. No longer the cliffs echoed the hilarious songs and outbursts of rotund and rollicking laughter. No longer athwart the solemn obscurity of the darkling and brooding night were flung bizarre and fluctuating shafts of red and yellow light, summoning out a trembling glimpse of the gigantic trees, or broad, lucent stretches of the river, and making the grim, immovable old crags seem to advance and retreat at the whimseys of the breathing bellows. Parson Donnard himself could not have desired the shop to be more solitary and silent than it was now since its admonished frequenters were fain to be dull and quiet about the domestic hearth.
“ From all I hev hearn, she war jes’ a-foolin’ Jepson, ter git him ter work fur her dad in the ’lection,” Nevins observed ; he cast the merest suggestion of a glance at Clem Sanders as he lifted his eyes, adding, “ I reckon thar war a good many in the same boat with Teck, too. IX never hearn afore of a gal behavin’ like she done, takin’ the ’lection ter heart same ez men folks. Ginerally gals dunno what thar kinfolks air runnin’ fur, an’ pays mo’ ’tention ef the hen-house war blowed over in a high wind, or a mink hed throttled the fowels, ’n ef thar dad air ’lected or beat. Wimmin ginerally dunno ef jedge air higher ’n sher’ff, or sher’ff ’n constable. I never hearn tell o’ sech a gal ez this hyar Marcelly Strobe.”
He spoke with acerbity, recognizing her as a potent and perhaps decisive adverse influence, the majority being so small.
“ Marcelly dunno nuthin’,” Clem Sanders remarked, loyally, defending her against that imputation of a knowledge of politics. “ She jes’ ’lows ez her dad air the biggest man in the Newnited States. Laws-a-massy, I don’t wonder Teck Jepson war afeard o’ her.” He strove to adjust his countenance to a proper sense of calamity, but he was a simple fellow, and frank with himself, and albeit he deplored the misfortunes and distresses of his friends, he saw his own gain, and its prospect of cheer was in his square face and his bright and narrow eyes. “ I hed no sheer in it,” he observed half aloud, recognizing his own state of mind, “ an’ I know I hope an’ pray to God ez Eli won’t die.”
No ; matters should remain as they were now, — adapted to the best interests of those most worthily concerned. Eli Strobe should recover, but with this breach between the handsome Jepson and Marcella, Clem Sanders felt that no grass should grow beneath his feet while he put his fate to the test.
“ I useter be sorter ’feared o’ Marcelly, but ef I war gin jes’ one mo’ chance I ’d do some sech all-fired quick courtin’ ’t would ’stonish the kentry.”
It was not often that Parson Donnard figured as an apologist. But in common with all the country-side, as well as Teck Jepson himself, he had mistaken the biblical enthusiasm of the young man for religion, and had often felt moved to publicly rejoice in the gracious outpourings of the spirit so strikingly manifested here. As he and his son stood amongst the group, he was accosted by Nevins, whose uncharacteristic causticity was sharpening with his sense of loss ; for the shock of the first realization of the result had resolved itself into a continuous ache, that would always stir and thrill again so long as his memory might rouse his pride.
“ This hev been a toler’ble hard day fur the saints, pa’son,” he ventured. His once pleasant smile was a politician’s sneer, that did not match the obvious meaning of the words he spoke. “ Seems sorter ’stonishin’ fur one o’ the Lord’s elect ter git ter bettin’, an’ horseracin’, an’ resistin’ arrest, an’ run down an’ crack the skull o’ the off’cer o’ the law, ez kem a-bulgin’ an’ a-runnin’ out in the road afore the horses’ huffs, mad ez a hull o’ Bashan, though he war a shinin’ light hisself.”
The thin ascetic face flushed slightly, thus attesting that the parson’s blood was red and warm. But he proved equal to the emergency.
“ Thar’s a lesson in it, brother,” he returned, fervently. “ The best ’mongst us kin only lean on the Strong Arm. An’ when we loose our hold, brother, ef it’s only fur a minit, ah ! then, brother, we fall, — saint or sinner, brother, we fall! Lean on the Strong Arm, brother, an’ be upheld ! ”
There was a reverential attention accorded him while he spoke, his rotund voice rising into the elocutionary effects of rural exhortation, and ringing out into the quiet evening ah’. Silence succeeded in the group, and when presently one of the men coughed and cleared his throat, and a slight motion made itself apparent amongst them, it was like that gradual recall to mundane sentiments and stir which follows with a jarring impression after praise or united prayer.
Parson Donnard, not unmindful of effect, was not slow to take advantage of this opportunity of retiring from the scene with all his colors flying. And indeed there were evidences of disintegration in the crowd momently becoming more marked. Gaps in the row of horses intimated how many had already gone; continually the tramp of fresh departures rose on the air, and the hoofbeats sounded hollow and with cavernous echoes from the little bridge beyond the forge. Here and there in the valley, or when the winding road up the mountain-side became visible amongst the dense leafage, a great canvas-covered wagon lumbered along, catching the roseate glow of the sunset. Certain lively souls, not to be subdued by any contemplation of tragedy, spiritual, political, Or material, although out of sight, could be heard a long way, whooping and hilariously shouting to one another, while all the solemn gray crags assumed a spurious note of jocose and boisterous flippancy, and called back and forth across the valley with a weird mockery. Jube, the parson’s son, shambling home in his parent’s steps a half hour later, perhaps, his hands in his pockets, his hat askew, paused ever and anon to listen to this mingled fantastic outcry; discerning familiar tones sometimes in the voices of his friends themselves, sometimes in the frenzied mimicry of the crags. He would stand motionless till the sound died away for the nonce, judging from its bizarre fluctuations how far the process of inebriation had gone; then shake his head reprehensively, — for Jube was a man of sober theory, — and pursue his way, brought to a halt again only when all the peaceful valley and all the staid and rigid rocks were again declaiming in drunken mirth.
This dual possibility of standpoint enabled Jube to dwell in great amity and unity of spirit with his solemn and ascetic parents, and yet continue the cherished soul of mirth amongst the wild young mountaineers whose society was so dear to him. In one sense he devoutly believed and had formally accepted all those wise saws condemnatory of levity and promissory of retribution. He could listen with an impersonal conviction to prophecies of impending wrath for those who were merry without cause now, and who should presently gnash their teeth with ample cause.
“ Yes, sir! ” he would often cry out, with animated confirmation, and in a voice rendered even more emphatic by a sort of chronic hoarse wheeze, when his father sat by the fire, and shook his head, and foretold vengeance already poised to alight on those who cared not to hear, and who would not repent while yet there was time.
“ Dander on, sing, sir, do they, play kyerds, an’ da-ance ! An’ Satan have gyirded him up, an’ air kernin’ up the valley, sir, — kernin’ up the valley like a black cloud in which thar be no promise o’ peace ; like a whurlwind ez holds no pity; like the yearthquake, when men may turn this-a-way an’ that-a-way, an’ find no escape ! ”
“ Yes, sir,”Jube would filially echo, his eyes distended with some mental vision of Satan expressed in these natural terrors.
The trouble with Jube was a singular lack of pliability in application. It never occurred to him to look upon himself as one of the hopeless and the possibly damned. On the contrary, there are few people in this world who take so much pleasure in it and in themselves as did Jube Donnard, despite all the restrictions of his narrow circumstances. Few people can walk on their heads and hands with such joy in sheer inversion. Few people can sing so hilariously false, old songs, so oft sung, antedating, perhaps, Broomsedge Cove itself, and still find them fresh and full of delight. Few people can lose their little all at play with such cheerful equanimity. “ I never see sech a comical run o’ kyerds, noways,” he would console himself, with a laugh at some ludicrous sequences. Few people can on occasion drink so deeply, and yet be consciously so little drunk.
If the parson suspected his son’s occupations and amusements to be vain and frivolous, and unbeseeming mortality endowed with that, large contract of preparing for immortality, and, desiring to include him among those spiritually threatened, spoke with a secret admonitory intent, his finesse was poorly rewarded by the adaptable Jube, who would straightway respond with plastic, earnest sincerity, “ Yes, sir ! Yes, sir ! ”
In one sense they were a family set apart. For Mrs. Donnard, too, unconsciously held herself in some sort as one exempt. She had come to consider religion only as it affected the congregation. The promises of the Bible were for those members who heeded the parson’s righteous words. Its threats and monitions were for those who yielded him not the due meed of reverence, spiritual and secular. Somehow, the unpropitious aspects of religion were predominant in Mrs. Donnard’s contemplation of the congregation. Like the wives of many preachers of larger pastorates and ampler opportunities, she thought the flock got more out of the parson in many ways than they paid for. The battle of life represented for her the congregation on one side and the parson on the other, and she proved a stanch partisan, a host in herself. “ They say so,” she would sometimes observe sarcastically, when he would detail an improvement in morals or manners resolved upon amongst them, or some great awakening within his bailiwick. “ Now let’s see the doin’ of it.”
The parson was far more enthusiastic, eloquent, and able than his helpmeet, but it may be doubted if he were endowed with so accurate a gauge of the efficacy of the good intentions of poor human nature.
Sometimes she would merely remark, “ I been bearin’ sech ez that thar from old Squair Bynum fur fifty year. Mebbe ef the Lord grants him Methus’lah’s age he may make out ter mend his ways, — leastwise some few o’ ’em.” Then she would burst out singing as she went about her household avocations, “ The day o’ jedgmint’s on the way ! ”
In this certain acrimony between herself and her husband’s charge, she must have experienced a great satisfaction to be so sure that all their misdeeds and shortcomings would be so severely visited upon them, and so actively rued in fire and brimstone, — for Mrs. Donnard’s faith was very complete. Somehow it had strangely discharged itself of personality. She thought no more of her own soul than if she had none to be saved. Salvation was not on her lips. Religion was an engine chiefly valuable in keeping the congregation strung up to beseemingly perform its duties toward the parson. And yet her eye was single to what she conceived to be her duty. She zealously devoted herself to his interests, merging her identity in his; resenting his griefs, rejoicing in his pleasures, and entertaining his views. Jube was the only surviving child of a goodly number, and the unanimity of opinion which subsisted between the old couple suffered no lapse in their mutual persuasion of his perfection. The capacity for believing what one desires to believe is in itself a source of perennial pleasure, and the two took unimpeached joy and comfort in their colt, who nimbly demonstrated his capacity to pace despite the sober trot of his parents, who had never given themselves over to any such erratic gait.
As Jube came up the path to the log cabin, they were sitting together on the porch, and welcomed him with sparse words, indeed, but with a solemn pleasure in him which their eyes betokened.
“ Enny mo’ news from the Settlemint, Jubal ? ” asked his mother. They lived some considerable distance higher on the mountain, and a bulging slope hid from them the little hamlet, the torrent tossing down the mountain, and the beetling crags above. So Mrs. Donnard felt at times afar off, and exhibited that avidity for the news of the day natural to a woman in the country, oppressed by the sense that, without extreme vigilance, she is in a position to be debarred a choice bit of gossip some day.
Jube had that reluctance to detail often exhibited by the favored mortal who has been “ to town,” what he has heard having ceased to be a novelty. To be sure, Mrs. Donnard might seem to have been feasted with news to-day, and Jube had naught to add to the narrative of the proceedings already given by his father; but she took a long time to fairly assure herself of this, and the revived reference to the subject impaired the parson’s cheerfulness.
“ I hev labored an’ I hev labored in this field,” he remarked, “ an’ it ’pears ter do no good.”
He had both his knotted hands clasped on his stick, and rested his long chin on them.
“ A set o’ hard-hearted, stiff-necked half-livers ! ” said the parson’s wife uncompromisingly.
“ Fightin’ an’ quar’lin’ whar thar ought ter be peace, — peace in the fold.”
“ Ginerally less peace in the fold ’n ennywhar else,” affirmed his helpmeet.
“ Eli Strobe, — an’ old-time member, an’ a settled, married man.”
“ Wife been dead ten year or more,” said Mrs. Donnard, domestically accurate.
“ An’ Teck Jepson, what actially ’peared ter be gifted with visions ! Kin tell ’bout folks in the Bible till ye kin mos’ see ’em a-walkin’ out afore ye.”
“But Teck Jepson hev a prideful walk hisself, —’pears ter know all the folks air a-starin’ at him, specially wiminin. I dunno ez X b’lieve in the savin’ grace o’ enny men folks ez sets up ter be better lookin’ ’n the angel Gabriel, ef the truth war knowed,” objected the discerning Mrs. Donnard.
“ Teck Jepson gone an’ c’mitted murder, — laws-a-massy! I jes’ feel how the members o’ that church in Piomingo Cove ez be always a-laffin’ an’ gibin’ at we-uns, will crack thar heels tergether an’ shout whenst they hear ’bout’n it.”
“ That thar smooth-faced, fat, jokified Brother ’Zekiel Johns always tuk every chance ter gin a dab at the ‘ Brumsaidge brethren,’ ez he say it.” Mrs. Donnard drawled her mimicry in good clerical fashion.
Even the placid Jube was touched by this prophecy of the rejoicing of the opposite religious faction. He shifted his position as he sat on the step, and frowned in perplexed discomfiture, looking even more like his father with these solemn corrugations. It seemed to him at the moment worth while saving one’s soul to spite the folks in Piomingo Cove.
“ I’d hev ’lowed,” he observed, “ ez arter Satan hisself kem hyar an’ sot hisself up thar in public in the forge, squattin’ on the anvil, ez them fellers, Eli Strobe an’ Teck Jepson, mought hev knowed ez bad luck would hev got inter thar fightin’. Eli jes’ a-boundin’ out in the road under the mare’s huffs, an’ Teck ridin’ the off’cer o’ the law down ; they knowed the devil hev been viewed in Brumsaidge wunst, ennyways, ef they did n’t know ’bout his workin’s sence.”
The old man lifted his chin from the hands clasped upon his stick. The nostrils of his long, thin, bony nose dilated like those of a frightened horse; his eyes widened and brightened, showing a lighter tint than their usual gray.
“ What workin’s, son ? ” he demanded.
Jube looked at him in the closing dusk, and mysteriously shook his head.
Mrs. Donnard had not observed the allusion nor the look.
“ Racin’ an’ bettin’ air sinful,” she declared, “an’ that thar tearin’-down, good-lookin’ Teek Jepson hev got mighty little religion ef he don’t know it.”
The old man had a sudden monition of the discipline seemly in his own family. “Warn’t ye one o’ them a-racin’, son ? ” he asked, although he had had the evidence of his own eyes to the fact. There was a momentary pause.
“ Yes, sir. Jes’ sorter runnin’ the hoss-critter along the road,” said the parson’s son, as if defining a material difference.
The old man in a manner accepted the distinction.
“Waal, sonny, ye mus’n’t do sech. ’T ain’t right, an’ it air agin the law.”
“Yes, sir,” said the dutiful Jube.
“ Though ye would n’t hev run nobody down,” said the mother.
“ Naw ’m.” Jube found it very easy to coincide.
Mrs. Donnard, convinced that there was no more news from the Settlement to be gleaned, rose presently, and went in-doors to dish up supper. The two men, left alone upon the porch, grew more confidential.
“ Jube,” said the old man eagerly, lowering his voice, “ what d’ ye mean ’bout the devil’s workin’s in Brumsaidge sence ?”
Jube looked, cogitating and silent, down the slope, where the great dark trees rose, dense, and heavy, and glooming, The sky was far lighter than the earth, and here only was color distinguishable, — the pallid blue tint that barely permitted to be seen the fluctuating glitter of a timorous star. Above Chilhowee, far away, the sickle of the moon was reaping the shadowy mists, gray and crimson, touched with an afterglow of the sun; a vague swath of light was left behind her keen and glistening blade. The voice of a nighthawk sounded raucous and sudden, and once more the heavy silence brooded.
“Waal, dad, I dunno ef I hev enny call ter say nuthin’ ’bout it; I promised I would n’t tell.”
“ Laws-a-massy, Jube, who tole ye ? ” demanded the parson, agitated.
Jube stirred uneasily. His unlucky allusion to the matter had escaped him unwittingly. He was beginning to understand that he should be urged to explain, and his tact and invention were deplorably inadequate to the emergency.
“ I promised Clem Sanders I would n’t tell,” he said desperately.
“ Waal, Jubal, I ’ll gin ye ter onderstand ez this ain’t no matter fur ye an’ Clem Sanders ter keep ter yerse’fs,” said the old man severely. “ I war gin ter view the Enemy in that thar forge, an’ ef ennythin’ hev kem o’ sech I hev got the right ter know it.”
This logic freed Jube’s conscience, and absolved him, as it were, from his broken promise.
“ He hev been thar agin ! ”
The stick fell from Parson Donnard’s grasp, and rolled noisily along the puncheon floor.
“ Who ? ” he gasped, with trembling lips and starting eyes, expectant of the answer that came suppressed —
“ Satan ! ”
Parson Donnard sat as one petrified.
“ He kem thar,” said Jube, with lowered voice and many furtive glances toward those glooming woods, “ one night whenst Clem did n’t know nuthin’ ’bout’n it, bein’ in bed an’ asleep; but Dake, he see the forge alight an’ hearn the hammers a-strikin’, an’ he ’lowed ’t war Clem. He tole Clem arterward, an’ it like ter skeered Clem ter death, kase he ’lowed mebbe’t war that thar dead ClemSanders, what ye seen lookin’ through the window at him whenst he played kyerds, a-hammerin’, with the devil a-strikin’ fur him ! ”
“ My stars! ” exclaimed the trembling parson.
“ Yes, sir!” said Jube, flattered by the extreme interest with which his narrative was received, its intensity being altogether unexpected. “ Yes, sir, Clem ’lowed ez ’t war Satan ez mus’ do the strikin’, an’ not the smith work; kase Clem ’lows ez sech takes a heap o’ ’speriunce, an’ dealin’ in metals air a mighty partic’lar business, an’ Satan air a heap too smart ez ter ’low he kin do reg’lar smith work ’thout he hed a power o’ teachin’. Strikin’ air all Satan would be ekal ter round a forge, Clem ’lows. Waal, sir, two or three nights arterward Clem hears suthin’, an’ looks out’n the roof-room winder; an’ thar he see the forge lit up an’ hearn the hand-hammer an’ the sledge, clink-clank, clink-clank, jes’ ez nat’ral! Clem ’lowed it made him feel powerful bad ter hev his harnt a-walkin’ ’bout his own forge ’fore he air dead ; he tuk it for a sign, an’ it went so ter his heart ez he got off’n his feed fur a few days. But that night, ez he got closer an’ closer ter the forge ” —
“ Did — did Clem go thar ? ” demanded the old man breathlessly.
“ Yes, sir ! ” said Jube. He paused to look at the dark sky, fully instarred now, as all its scintillating splendors were suddenly quenched into neutral monotony, while a ghastly quiver of sheet lightning broadly fluctuated over the infinite spaces of the firmament, and over the long, dark, lonely stretches of wood and mountain. Then it died away, leaving the constellations supreme in the night, and the dark stillness brooding in the woods.
“ He got plumb up ter the winder, sir, ’cordin’ ter Clem,” Jube continued cautiously.
“ An’ — an’ — what did he see ? ” interrupted the parson.
“ He stumbled an’ fell right at the winder, an’ they hearn the noise inside, an’ in a minit it war all dark an’ still in the forge, ’ceptin’ that the doors they shut with a bang. Clem went in ; he fund nuthin’ an’ nobody. A leetle fire smouldered on the h’ath, but the anvil war a-ringin’ like all possessed.”
Parson Donnard sat with a rigid face, but half revealed by the dull light that came from the fire within, and all unnoted by his careless son. He had possessed himself anew of his stick, and had resumed his accustomed attitude, his hands clasped upon the head of the stout cane, and his chin resting upon them. But these hands were unsteady, and now and again his lips trembled. He was secretly aware, as he gazed out into the blank darkness, that the vision he had seen was revealed in a manner merely to his spiritual sight. It was rather suggested to his own insulted moral perceptions by the future possibilities to the jocund group. In fact, he had not intended his description of it literally ; he had given it in some sort as a parable, the version of the actual scene translated by an acute and discerning moral sense. He had never gauged the limits of his own credulity in the visions of others, and he did not at the time realize that he overstepped the bounds of verity when he construed the tableau according to the moral needs of his hearers. It was salutary that Satan should sit upon the anvil amidst that merry crew, and visibly rejoice in their wicked sports. And who knows but that he did ! The parson claimed the benefit of the doubt, and the vision of his spiritual eye was thereby improved. It was eminently restrictive and calculated to impress Clem Sanders that he himself, in some future reflective mood, should gaze back through the windows of memory, solemn and regretful, upon the futile wasted hours of a riotous youth. The parson’s figurative language had unforeseen possibilities, and had set the “ harnt ” of a living man a-walking before its time. He had not concerned himself greatly with the misapprehension when it first came to his notice. He had not dreamed of strange consequences astir. Despite the natural strength of his mind, his uncultivated instinctive knowledge of human nature, his gift of rude eloquence, he was densely ignorant, saturated in superstition, and even his religion held alternating elements of terror and of bliss. He began to fear that thus unguardedly speaking a judgment was to be sent upon him. His hasty figurative words, unjustifiably used, were forthwith made true. He thought, poor soul, that he had conjured up the devil, to stalk abroad in Broomsedge Cove, where, as well he knew, the denizens were ill prepared to meet him ! Not in the guise of a ravening wolf, nor a black dog, but “ bat-wise,” gigantic and weird, a creature of the night, accompanied by that familiar, yet horribly unfamiliar, presentment of the blacksmith. “ I hev gin Clem over. I hev los’ my sheep.” He groaned aloud in the misery of his reflections.
Perhaps it was the courage of desperation, the unrecognized hope that never dies till every vital spark be extinct, perhaps only the stanch and adventurous spirit of the old mountaineer, — woodsman and hunter as well as parson, — that nerved him to say, ‘‘It air some human critter, mebbe, bent on no good.” Then he presently observed, “Jube, I be goin’ ter watch that thar forge this night, an’ every night till I see who it air ez kerns.”
Jube recoiled. “ Lord A’mighty, dad, I would n’t fur nuthin’. ’Pears like ye ought n’t ter resk it.” Then gathering reassurance with the reflection, “ Main won’t let ye, nohow.”
“ Thar ain’t no need for her to know it.” And after a pause, “ I ain’t a-goin’ ter tell her,” added the parson.
Perhaps to the cynical it might seem a caustic commentary upon conjugal life that, after thirty years of it, Parson Donnard found it necessary to sedulously hold his tongue in order to be able to keep his own resolution, and that Mrs. Donnard’s devotion, making his cause her own, cherishing enmities for his sake, tolerating more difficult friendships, sharing alike haps and mishaps — at last resulted in exclusion from his confidence ! It was a lesson of doubtful expediency for Jube to observe the disingenuousness of the parson, as like unto other men as if he had felt no outpouring of the spirit, while he ate the good supper that she had cooked, and wore a placid and incidental countenance, and lighted his pipe after the meal was concluded, and established himself upon the porch in a definite and settled manner as of a fixture for the evening. And how, with his own practice to the contrary, should he preach to Jube, and young people generally, upon the beauty of confidence in the family relations, of the dangers of secrecy, of the necessity of setting good examples, and of amply and quickly returning the blessings that one enjoys of fine traits in others by double measure to them, pressed down and running over!
But the parson did — and most parsons do.
The unconscious Mrs. Donnard, almost pathetic in her unconsciousness, scoured the skillet with ashes, and now and again lifted her voice and sang a fragmentary measure, broken by leaning down and rising up, and mounting upon chairs to place plates and sundry other table ware upon the high shelf, otherwise beyond her reach. Once the hiatus was occasioned by the parson, who put his head into the door to say he was “ obligated ” to go down to the Settlement to see how Eli Strobe was, when she placidly assented, and went on singing as before. It was Jube who, lookingin at her cheerful industry, felt the pang of remorse, — he the good-for-naught; not the worthy parson, plodding off, feeling that she knew as much as was good for her, after the manner of the best of husbands.
Jube went too, having volunteered in an unguarded moment — repenting of it immediately afterward, but unable to extricate himself — to show his father a certain choice coigne of vantage on the mountain above, where one could easily overlook the road and the forge, and yet be at a considerable distance. “ It’s so steep a body in mought slip spang down onto the roof, ef ye did n’t scotch yerse’f with a bowlder. Git ahint one o’ them bowlders, — that’s the dinctum.”
The moon had sunk in the unknown world behind Chilhowee. The blackness on the earth was dense and unbroken, save that here and there the flare from some cabin that they passed revealed the vague outline of the building, the dully illuminated oblong space of the open doorway, a few zigzag lines of the rail fence close at hand thus suggesting the features of then’ familiar scenes which the night had annulled. Above, the stars blazed in great glory and a scintillating multiplicity, but gave little appreciable light, and the parson was glad that Jube, with his younger eyes and his active step, was with him, when they began to toil up a rugged and brambly pathless ascent. The old man struggled valiantly along, — they had passed through the Settlement, the father observing to the son, by way of keeping his word to Mrs. Donnard, that they would stop and inquire for Eli Strobe upon their homeward way, if it were not then too late, — and he was beset by the terror of meeting some one of his flock here and now, where his errand would be inexplicable. He plunged boldly among the briers ; he toiled through steep stony passes; he puffed, and tugged, and made every hearty effort to swiftly betake himself out of the way of any accidental encounter. Once a sudden stir in the bushes hard by caused his heart to spring into his throat, and his quick mind to anxiously canvass some hobbling methods of explaining his position, — the next moment the mellow clangor of a cow-bell ; the creature was lying belated, perhaps, on the slope, and had moved her head, hearing their steps, and no more.
He was indefinably perplexed and embarrassed by an odd, unrecognizable change in Jube. A sort of half-subdued hilarity grated on him, sundry smothered guffaws, gleeful allusions to previous capers, of which the parson had never heard and vaguely understood. Only now and then did Jube subside, with a returning realization of the identity of his companion. For the night air, the mountain wind, the secrecy, the excitement, the quivering expectancy of their errand, had begun to make themselves felt in Jube’s blood, — a rapid current, and susceptible of considerable elation and exhilaration. The spirit of adventure was astir within him, and only at times was dashed by the remembrance that the parson was — the parson.
When they reached their objective point, Parson Donnard sank down upon a large rock that his son indicated to him, his knees against a bowlder lying hard by, that he might not slide down the steep incline upon the very roof of the forge. He noted how he seemed to face the great concave of the sky, how definite the western mountains stood against the starry expanse, and how distinct certain objects had become even in the pitchy blackness, now that his eyes were in some sort accustomed to it.
“ Thar’s the forge, right down yander under this laidge,” observed Jube, with that wild gayety in his tone which bewildered the old man, who deprecated it. “ Ef ye war ter lean over, dad, an’ stretch out yer arm, yer hand would be plumb over the chimbly. Laws-a-massy ” — Jube rocked himself in the joy of his reminiscence — “ don’t I ’member how me an’ some o’ them t’other boys got up hyar one night, an’ drapped a leetle gunpowder down into the chimbly. An’ Clem say, ‘ Lord A’mighty, what ’s that ? ’ An’ then I drapped a leetle mo’ yit, an’ Clem hollered, sheered, till suddint he smelt it, an’ out he kem with a bar o’ red-hot iron in his hand, a-dustin’ up the mounting. ’T war a dark night, an’ he jes’ looked plumb like the devil hisself.”
“ Hesh, Jube, hesh! ye talkin’ mighty loud.” The old man shrank from the sound of his voice.
“ An’ I seen him,” continued Jube, “ an’ durned ef I warn’t so full o’ laff that I los’ my balance, an’ fell right down thar plumb outer the roof. Clem clomb up an’ got me, he did ! But the t’others hed runned off through the woods.”
“ Jube, jes’ see ef ye can’t shet up fur awhile,” said the poor parson.
“Waal,” remonstrated Jube, “I jes’ want ter tell ye how I kep’ Clem from bastin’ me ’count o’ that trick. Oh, ho ! ’t war the funniest joke on Clem ; liked ter never hearn the e-end o’ it, an’ ” —
“ I don’t want ter hear no joke,” said Parson Donnard sternly and ill at ease ; perhaps he felt a personified joke himself, perched on the beetling ledges of the mountain in the middle of the night, in imminent danger of rheumatism, and in the more than questionable society of his own son. It would be a gay day for the flock of Brother Ezekiel Johns, in Piomingo Cove, if his enterprise and position should be discovered, and, failing, should become ridiculous. Draw as he might on his large resources of explanation, his license of metaphor and spiritual phrasing, he could not justify the facts with Jube in company.
“This air a solemn ’casion, an’ we hev kem out, it may be, ter meet the enemy. 'Pears ter me ye air a mighty junketin’ an’ jiggetty sort o’ boy fur a pa’son’s son, gigglin’ an’ jokin’ all the time.”
The parson spoke with acrimony ; perhaps at that moment he himself would have administered with right good will the bastin’ that Clem had spared.
“No use ter take arter me kase the devil Items a-lopin’ ’round in Brumsaidge,” retorted Jube, surlily. “ I hain’t hed no dealin’s with the devil.” He spoke of the enemy familiarly ; he was accustomed to hear so much of him. “ Ef I war a talkin’, ’t would n’t bender him none from kernin’ ; he ain’t afeard o’ me, I reckon.”
He relapsed, however, into silence, preserving a wounded manner which was of great avail generally with his parents, and which advertised that some one had been “ tromplin’ on his feelin’s,” as he was wont to phrase it.
The night was wearing on: once the glittering dart of a falling star shot swiftly athwart the dark expanse ; not even a dog barked in the Cove. They could hear the pensive night sigh in its brooding reverie. Jube now and again shifted his position, a few loose stones rolling beneath his feet. The tedium of the delay wore heavily upon him. Once as the clarion note of a cock rang out, with its response from the echoing crags, he ventured to say in a low voice, “ Thar now! ” as a reproach for the lateness of the hour. And more than once afterward he yawned with ostentatious fatigue. Differently, indeed, had the time been beguiled when he and his cronies awaited the propitious moment to throw gunpowder into the smith’s forge fire. But then the bellows was at work, with its noisy respirations, and the anvil clamored, and the behests of secrecy were not inconsistent with sound. Now the foige in the black abyss below was as silent as the grave, — as dark. No stir save that of the torrent in the deep obscurity of its channel, its current throbbing like the pulse of the night. No light in all the world, — not even at Eli Strobe’s cabin, where the watchers’ candle by the bedside had burned late; no light save the glister of the great stars.
Suddenly — the parson’s hand falls with a light touch on Jube’s; a step along the road, was it? The wind—a vagrant blast — comes a-rustling down and stirs the dust; the dry, arid scent of it rises to their perch ; and again a step. Distinct now, a regular advancing footfall along the road, so dark, so dark under that glittering array of all the hosts of heaven. An approach, a sound — no more ! But was the echo so strong, so keen, or was the step followed closely by another ?
The parson’s breath came in quick gasps through his half-parted dry lips. He trembled throughout all his gaunt frame. For the footfalls had followed the road at the base of the mountain, and had paused at the door of the forge.
All at once the old man, quivering on the ledge, started violently, and came near falling into the depths below, rescuing himself only by the strong clutch of his sinewy hands at the jagged rock on which he sat. For a sound had issued into the null silence, — a long, terrible, jarring sound. A wild, fantastic mimicry of a crowing cock, ending in a sonorous wail, profaned the solemn stillness, and was strident in all the echoes. The next moment his angry blood was throbbing in his temples. Jube’s arms were still flapping in his grotesque mockery, and his gay, inadvertent laugh rang out, forgetful of all in the ecstatic opportunity, — of his father, their solemn mission, the purpose of the invaders of the forge, all consideration of the spiritual enemy; — boisterously joying in the sudden exclamation of fear below and the quick retreating footfalls.
“ Stop ! Stop ! Who be that down thar ? ” exclaimed the parson’s authoritative voice. “ War ye a-wantin’ ter git in the forge ? ”
A momentary silence below, — seemingly a whisper ; then, “ Whar’s that thar rooster ? Naw ; I war jes’ a-goin’ ter turn roun’. I kem down hyar ter ’quire arter Eli Strobe, ’lowin’ they’d watch all night, an’ I would n’t hev time ter-morrer; but I see the house air dark.”
“ Who be ye ? What yer name ? ” asked the parson.
Again a momentary hesitation. Then, “ Ain’t that Pa’son Donnard ? ”
The old man writhed under the cumbrous dignity of his identity. How much easier and happier just now to be Jube, burdened with no reverence and veneration of the community to live up to ! He had never tasted the bitterness of such humility as he experienced now.
“ I be Pa’son Donnard,” he said as sonorously as he might, “ a humble sarvent of the Lord.”
Another vague whisper. Then, aloud, " Laws -amassy, pa’son, what be ye a-doin’ of up in the mounting in the middle of the night ? — nigh day, ef the truth war knowed.”
“ I kem out,” said the parson slowly, " ter wrastle with the sperit.” He did not think it needful to say in what sense.
“ Yes, sir,” said the voice below, with an intonation of deep respect. “ I never would hev ’lowed ’t war you-uns, though. I never war so skeered! ”
The parson stuttered in his haste. Whatever construction might be placed upon his intentions and the hour, he would repudiate that wild vocalization of the crowing Jube’s.
“ I hev brung my son along; I hev got Jube up hyar.”
“ Edzac’ly,” said Jube, with a facetiously accurate hiccough.
“ Air Jube a-wrastlin’ with the sperit, too ? ” demanded the unknown from below ; the intention of the scoffer was in his tone.
“ Ye shet up,” said Jube, promptly. " I know ye. I know yer voice. Ye be Jake Baintree. I ’ll kem down an’ wrastle with you-uns, fust thing ye know.”
In the interval a sudden faint flicker of sheet lightning wavered across the dark world. Jube’s eyes were young and very keen.
“ Who be that thar with ye ? ” he cried out in a changed tone.
An interval — was it cogitation ? was it consultation ?
“ Nobody,” said Jake Baintree sturdily, — “ nobody be with me.”
“ I ’lowed I seen somebody jes’ now,” urged Jube.
“ Shadder, I reckon,” said the voice unconcernedly. “ Good-night.”
He moved off into the obscurity, and Jube sank down beside his father, laying an excited clutch on his arm. “ Thar war another man with him, a strange man, dressed diff’ent, ez I never see afore.” He listened to the retreating footfalls, tightening his grip. “ Thar air two of ’em, — two of ’em, keeping step, keerful and walking like one man ! ”
The parson rose, his stiff joints creaking.
“ I. don’t keer ef thar be forty, or a hunderd. An’ ef Satan hev got a mind, he kin set on the anvil down yander or work at the forge ez a constancy ’fore I ’ll be fool enough agin ter kem out in the dark an’ roost up on a laidge on the mounting ter spy him out, alongside o’ sech a tumble, tumble, disobejient, miser’ble critter ez ye hev kem ter be. They ’lowed’t war me a-crowin’, — me, the pa’son ! ”
“ I plumb forgot, dad,” said the contrite Jube.
“ An’ Jake Baintree, what I refused ter baptize ! This tale will go the rounds o’ the kentry ! An’,” said the parson, dropping his voice to a still more dolorous key as he toiled down the mountain side on the stanch arm of his son, " I dunno what in the world yer mam will say ef she finds out ez I hain’t been ter Eli Strobe’s at all, an’ yit kem back home at this time o’ the day.”
Charles Egbert Craddock.