The Despot of Broomsedge Cove
IT was indeed before the dawn that Teck Jepson set forth on his journey. Upon the ultimate heights of the zenith midnight had poised, and had thence flitted away into those unrealized spaces whither all that has been goes at last. Constellations that he lately knew as familiars of the meridian hung low, in this unaccustomed hour, about the western horizon. Unwonted influences were astir in the brain. A sense of spiritual freshness, of bodily renewal, of aloofness from the world, possessed the hour, — a freedom from the dominant mundane spirit that had swayed the day before. The dark earth lay, as it were, uncreated in the immense voids of the night. The soul seemed nearer its nativity, fresh from the hands of the Creator. In this isolation of identity, this perfect poise, this reverent cognizance of high solemnities, it seemed that one’s lips might be opened, that one might prophesy or sing some psalmodic inspiration, so replete with the sense of fine bestowals was the time.
The day was still afar off. The cattle slept as he went out to the pinfold by the light of the stars, but the patient creatures roused themselves, and came forth with quiescent obedience ; a calf bleated, running to overtake its dam, the dominant sound in the stillness, and the sheep huddled together in chilly guise as they went. There was a light presently in the windows of the house, yellow and lucent, but Jepson did not go back when once he had quitted the cabin ; the farewell to the children would be rather pain than pleasure ; there was even a pang in parting with the old dog, who persisted in following him for a time, driven back at last with harsh words and a purposely ill-aimed stone. Jepson could not see, but he knew how the creature crouched in the darkness, with its reproachful and surprised eyes ; then turning, and coweringly running back to the doorstep. The half-grown puppy watched the departure with the intense interest elicited by so unusual a proceeding, then affecting to misconstrue the whole incident, and with an elaborate ignoring of old acquaintance, he barked furiously into the darkness, not desisting when a shrill yelp betokened a reproving kick from Bowles, but continuing his clamors of threatening distrust after he had sought a refuge under the house, where no interference could reach him. Far down the mountain his callow tones could be heard, as Jepson rode at the rear of the little group of cattle and sheep.
The wind was awake, inconceivably fresh, albeit hardly a leaf stirred, so light of foot it was. A fragrance like some fine elixir was distilled from the wayside flower hidden in the gloom. The morning star, so luminously still, so splendid, looked over the mountains as he journeyed with his flocks. A vague illumination was about it ; one might see that this sky wore an ineffably poetic tint, did it but care to doff its sombre cloak. How massive the mountains, — how glooming and austere their summit lines, against the dark instarred skies ! And suddenly a bird is moved to sing, — a note of supreme gladness, of joy-
ous augury ? For what does the night signify but that the morning is on the way ? So close was Jepson to the tree whence this herald proclaimed the day that he could hear the rustle of the wings as the creature plumed them, and anon a low twittering as it settled down upon the bough for a little waiting, — a little waiting yet. And lo ! the light comes, gray with vapor, and pale, and pensive, only to be won to flushes and to smiles when the great sun, riding hard upon the first glimmer, — for the September dawns are short, — showed its vermilion splendid disk, hung about with amber and violet vapors, in the gap of the mountains, urgent to look upon the world before their utmost heights were scaled. How purple the slopes ; how the pearly mists slipped down ; and what long, burnished, yellow slanting rays shot athwart the world to touch Chilhowee, — nay, the far-away dim summit of Walden’s Ridge, — while the vast stretches of country beneath, in a still amethystine shadow, lay motionless and waited ! And here, alack, was his own old identity, full of perplexed thoughts, and troublous forecasting, and vain regrets. Here, too, as if the sun had brought it with the sight of the familiar world, was the sense of vicinage, close, imperative, not to be evaded, with the events of yesterday the one coercive factor of to-day. Mrs. Bowles might have wondered to know the direction he took, — not, in fulfillment of her disparaging prophecy, across the line into North Carolina. Straight down the mountain he was going, — straight into Broomsedge Cove. How fast those coursers of the sun did speed, already there, betimes ! Albeit so far away as the miles counted, Jepson could see from the great heights of the slopes the red gold flare in the deep gulf of the purple range, where the lucent fresh light struck upon the long-abandoned spaces usurped by the tawny-tinted growths of Broomsedge Cove. His face wore no longer that wide-eyed, uplifted, meditative look it had in the earlier plastic poetic hours. It was introspective, pondering ; it bore anew the inscrutable script of experience, of emotion. Once or twice only the cattle called for his attention ; with a turn of his horse on the flank of the column, and the loud remonstrant barking of his dog harassing the stragglers, they were back once more, and jogging along the accustomed way. At length, however, the foremost of the company came almost to a stand with a suppressed low of surprise, and then, insistently burly, the animals occupied the whole, path, leaving a man they had met to stand and wait by the wayside. He held one palm over his eyes, for the sun came directly into his face, and gazed unrecognizing at the equestrian figure at the rear of the column. But Jepson had noted him, and the recognition became mutual as he drew rein beneath the great ledge of the rocks where Baintree stood. As he looked up at the horseman, there was so shocked a disappointment on his face that it seemed wonderful that an emotion could be so definitely expressed without words.
Jepson waited a moment for him to speak. But Baintree, still silent, gazed at him. “ Ye ‘lowed, up yunder ter Bowles’s yistiddy,” said Jepson, “ ez ye be powerful glad I war arrested, — I ain’t been yit, — an’ ez ye ’d like ter see how I ’d look in a cage like Dan’l.”
Baintree made a feint of denial. “ Did Mis’ Bowles ‘low I said sech ? ” he demanded. “ Waal, I jes’ tole her the fust thing ez kem ter the tip o’ my tongue. She ’peared so sharp set fur the news.”
Jepson looked casually down at him, then away at the far blue horizon. “ I’m goin’ ter Brumsaidge now, an’ ef they wanter arrest me they kin an’ welcome ; an’ though I ain’t yit got the Lord so ez he sets ez much store by me ez he done by Dan’l, I ain’t no mo’ ’feard o’ nuthin’ ’n him. I be ekal ter answerin’ fur all I done, an’ I be more ’n willin’.”
There was something splendid and imposing in his boldness, and in his stalwart pride in his courage. He turned his unflinching gaze down to meet the intelligent and crafty albeit vacillating eyes of Jake Baintree, in which there was a sort of reluctant envy, despite the rancorous enmity they intimated.
“ Ye hev got ter try it fust,” he said significantly, remembering the stress of his own ordeals, and that this was but the valor of prognostication. The facts would probably soon alter the outlook. He nodded his head convincingly.
“ Sech ez I do,” said the valorous saint, “ air done afore the Lord ! An’ I ain’t keerin’ what men say ahint my back, so long ez they take powerful keerful heed o’ thar words afore my face ; ef they don’t, I know how ter make ’em wish they hed.”
Jake Baintree failed, apparently, to comprehend the spirit of this challenge. He looked absently at the red cow cropping the grass in the niches at the base of the cliff that towered above their heads, and then his restless eye followed the silver-tipped wings of a bird, flying in the sunshine, upward, upward, with open beak and a joyous matutinal cry, cleaving the mists with a glancing line of light, and seeming bound for some haven in the splendid placidity of the blue sky, so serene and so high. The dew exhaled incense. Far away a fawn bleated, where doubtless it lay with its dam in the thick coverts of the laurel. The balsam firs, all a-glitter, gave out a sense of strength and infinite freshness, and of all the finer values of respiration ; in such air it was a definite joy to be endowed with the sheer capacity to breathe. As his wandering glance came back he caught Jepson’s eyes upon him, and he was vaguely embarrassed for the moment. He put one foot on the blade of the spade that he had in his hand, and leaning upon the handle he looked up, his inscrutable eyes narrowing and full of close and guarded thought.
“ What war ye a-layin’ off ter say ter me ? Jes’ that?” he demanded.
“ I never laid off ter say nuthin’ ter you-uns,” said Jepson loftily. “ Ye happen ter be in my road. I ain’t keerin’ ef ye onderstan’ or no sech ez I am mindin’ ter say an’ act. I render an account ter the Lord, an’ I walk afore him ! I be goin’ down ter Brumsaidge ter meet the days ter come. I feel ekal ter ’em, — ter what the Lord mought send.”
A sudden anxiety flickered over Baintree’s face ; for the first time he noted the household gear packed in a tiny wagon that was drawn by an old ox, guided only by his master’s voice as he rode alongside, and the number of cattle and sheep. This was evidently a permanent removal.
“ Whar be ye a-goin’ ter live in the Cove ? ” he demanded suddenly.
“ Whar ye reckon ? ” retorted Jepson, resenting the supposed curiosity impelling the question. “ Ye may be sure in the fear o’ the Lord, an’ in the light o’ his face, ef he will turn it on me.”
He lifted his head with a most mundane pride and called aloud to his cattle, his robust, mellow voice echoing along the savage steeps. Then, with the whole pastoral train once more in motion, he rode on down the rugged mountain ways, sitting his horse with a proud erectness,
— the lingering influence of his arrogations in the conversation, — his broad hat pushed back from his brow, his spirited face full of resolution and confidence again, and with that imaginative, meditative look once more in his deep eyes ; for, urged by his contempt for the man from whom he had just parted, it cost him no effort to discharge his flexible mind, almost his very memory, of the conversation and of the existence, of his late companion. But he could not keep his thoughts upon congenial themes. Over and again, to be sure, he reverted to the trend of his habitual meditations. It was thus, he reflected, that they of old had journeyed with their flocks under the open sky. He saw Jacob’s cattle instead of his own slowly tending down the defiles ; now and again he passed a bubbling spring, full of tinkling tremors of sound stealing out into the silence of this richly luxuriant land, and to him it was a “ well of springing water in a desert place ; " sheep they had of old, and kine, and horses, and he marveled much what a camel might be. Then suddenly, with a deep sigh, he was again striving with the pursuing pack of remorseful, sharp-fanged regrets, falling upon him anew, with a freshened capacity to tear and mangle, recruited in that short respite. With the veiled future before, that no prescient eye might even vaguely discern ; with an urgent sense of justification, that nevertheless could not justify his deed to himself ; with a self-effacing desire to atone for what he felt was no fault of his, as if the sacrifice could restore all as it was at this hour of yesterday, he reviewed the scene, burnt as it was into his brain, and shrank once more in every sensitive fibre from the barbed reproaches of Marcella’s soft voice, and again turned aghast from what might perchance befall Eli Strobe.
And then he vibrated to that other mood, his splendid physique rebounding from the harassments that sought to fix upon his strong nerves. His habit of robustly ignoring aught that did not jump with his humor ; his imperious and independent poise ; his impassivity to argument and the opinion of others ; his arrogant arbitration of all matters according to his own absolute judgment, that recognized no alternative, no higher appeal, save his tyrannical interpretations of the Lord’s will, all renewed their tenure. His dominant individuality and the elastic vigor of his mind were reasserted, and he was anew open to the influences of the present. Here and there his receptive fancy was struck by a great cairn of stones, fragments of rock split from the crags above by the riving frosts of immemorial winters, and he was reminded afresh of the altar that Jacob piled, and of the resting-places — which surely the Lord frequented — of this journeying man of eld.
“ Jacob hed powerful strange ’sperience,” he broke out. “ He did dream s’prisin’. An’ the Lord’s voice mus’ hev sounded in his ears, wakin’ an’ sleepin’, arter he once hearn it. I could n’t holp feelin’ sorry fur Esau, though.”
He mechanically noted how the golden-rod showered its yellow hoard, as his stirrup-irons struck into the thick wayside growth, how the blooming “ mountain snow ” brushed his mare’s fine coat.
“ It never did ’pear ter me so scandalous redic’lous ez Esau war hongry arter he kern from huntin’. This air a powerful rough country, an’ the air is brief, — I fund the diff’ence out whenst I went down yander ter them valley towns, time Jake Baintree war tried. The Bible ’lowed Esau war a powerful cunning hunter, but never said nuthin’ ’bout what sorter dogs he hed, — mought n’t hev been trained to trail, an’ time he hed pulled ’bout’n the mountings with a pack o’ wuthless hounds arter deer or b’ar he war bleeged ter been hongry ; But he ought n’t ter hev sold his birthright fur a pot o’ soup.”
He shook his head reprehensively over this ancient transaction. “ Esau ought n’t ter hev done that,” he said, as if it had happened yesterday.
The mare suddenly shied from a pallid, lightning - scathed tree showing abruptly close at hand as the path curved. He paused for a moment, but the interruption did not divert the current of his reflections. “ Jacob,” he said, “ served seven year fur Rachel, an’ ‘lowed ’t war like one day. He b’lieved in Rachel. The Bible ’lows she war plumb beautiful, — but I ’ll be bound she warn’t nowhar compared ter Marcelly ” — He broke off with a bitter sigh ; his face clouded ; the far-away look in his blue eyes, that was so inconsonant with the force and boldness of his features, was gone with the effect of a sudden metamorphosis, — absolutely unrecognizable. He gathered up the reins that he had suffered to lie loose on the mare’s neck, and lifted his voice in a melancholy hymn, and sang aloud as he rode. Now and again the mingled cry of the flocks rose to Jake Baintree’s ears, and once as they emerged below the wealth of foliage into a rocky space he saw them again ; the animals running at speed down the declivities, the mare cantering after, while the rider sang aloud, the sound vibrating back and forth in swinging vigor of rhythm, and with the multitudinous echoes seeming as if the whole morning were voicing the solemn measure of an anthem.
The man, as he leaned on his spade, his trousers tucked into his boots, his hat pulled low over his uncertain and lowering eyes, had an expression altogether at variance with his humble rustic garb, so crafty, so keen, it was. His face was lined with anxiety for a moment. Once he started impulsively after the horseman, then checked himself abruptly. “ He ’ll git thar ’fore I kin,” he remarked. “ It ’s down hill all the way, an’ they ’ll keep that gait, I reckon.”
Already the song was faint ; already the echoes were fitful. The wind was harping in the pines above his head ; he glanced up to see them gently stirring ; a great buzzard majestically circled in the blue sky ; a mist on the mountain side was caught up in elusive evanescence, as the broad flare of the sun encountered its ethereal pallors, like some belated ghost that in these solitudes had braved the monitory cock-crow.
“ He ’ll be powerful s’prised when he does get there,” he muttered, “ an’ that ’s all ! ” He spoke aloud, his anxious canvassing resulting in reassurance. He laughed a little, his thin lips curving. “He ’s a mos’ survigrous fool ;” he shook his head in contemplating the strength of the folly that Jepson harbored. “ He ain’t goin’ ter sense nuthin’. He ’ll bound round hyar an’ talk ’bout the Lord, when he air so fur from heaven ez the Lord hisself can’t hear him. An’ ennyhow, he ’ll git ’rested so soon that he won’t hev much chance ter wonder an’ talk. An’ I ’ll light out ter let the folks in Brumsaidge know ez he be a-travelin’ round an’ a-purtendin’ ter be a-goin’ thar, fur mebbe he won’t go ter his cabin arter all.”
This cabin of Jepson’s was well out of sight from the Settlement, and was in fact some miles distant. It lay on the slope of the deep trough in the mighty range which was called Broomsedge Cove, but the characteristic topography of the locality had given way, and the torrent that, long and sinuous, was a feature of the broader spaces wound here in the chasm of a valley so narrow that the stream wore the semblance of a lakelet in the abyss below, so completely did jutting spurs of the mountain conceal its further vagrant course. It was a wild spot on the slope, with its rocky bit of pasture, its “ gyarden,” its slanting fields. Above the little log cabin the great, wooded, gray, craggy steeps towered immutably ; below, the abrupt declivity slanted to the clifty banks of the simulated lake in the gorge. In certain states of the atmosphere, one standing in the weed-grown garden might think to put forth a hand and touch that purple-bronze mountain opposite. And again the neighboring heights sought a sophistry of distance, and were blue and vague, and shimmered elusive through a fluctuating haze. The water in the chasm had too its variant guise : at times it was a burnished yellow with the emblazonment of the sun, or under a dull sky it glittered with a steely lustre, like some keen blade that, finely tempered, can be bent and writhen into an unwonted sinuosity ; under a lunar spell it trembled and shoaled with violet tints, and glancing pearly shafts, and anon a silver gleam. On dark nights the stars registered one by one in these lucent currents, sequestered by the forest and the rocks, and held in the deep, deep heart of the mountain.
Jepson felt a sudden poignant pang when first he caught sight of the crystal depths, of the little gray cabin, of the weed-grown wastes above, and of the mountains opposite and those that clustered round. All, what does an old home house ! Such troops of memories, gay and grave ; such palpable fancies arrayed in the guise of those that once it knew ; the sound of voices that speak no more, scenes reænacted at will, — morning, noon, and night, these tenants flit in and out of its portals and busy themselves as of yore, despite whomsoever it shelters now, and find no lack of space. Hospitable roof-tree ! He could not enter at first ; he did not even have the heart to meditate on the policy of its desertion and of his return. He unsaddled his mare, and watched the cattle take their way into the old pasture and to the tumbling shanty of a barn, noting indications of their dumb recognition of the locality. He wondered if they were aware of the change, and how in their dull and half-developed reasoning processes they accounted for it. Old griefs, seared over by time and distance, began to ache again in conscious bereavement. It smote him like a blow in the face to note the weed-grown spaces of the garden, — how bravely the prince’s-feathers flaunted, how the tiger-lilies flared ! All of the utilitarian growths had succumbed ; there might be “ volunteer potatoes,” perchance, under the fennel, and the broad-leafed mullein, and the long tangled crab-grass, but naught showed of the old-time grace and plenty but the flowers that his mother had planted, still keeping tryst with the seasons as of yore.
“ How she did love ennything ez hed a strong color onto it ! ” he thought wistfully, remembering this primitive halfrealized relish of beauty of contour and of tint, and watching a row of tall hollyhocks, all their straight, shaft - like stalks studded with blossoms as they waved back and forth in the wind, by the doorstep, where she used to sit and watch them, while she listened to the deep, musical flow of the stream in the abyss below, or the blare of the wind in the pines, or the heart-felt lay of a bird singing from the orchard bough. “ Waal, waal,” he sighed as he lay at length amongst the clover, his hat upon the ground and his hands clasped under his head, gazing at the little gray cabin, “ she hev got a better house ’n that one now, — a house not made with hands.”
For all his imagination he could not see it, and so he sighed again.
It was nearing noonday : the scent of the clover was dry and warm ; a bee went droning by ; the shadows of a few scrubby fruit trees, by courtesy an orchard, had almost collapsed about the roots, far different from their long, slanting matutinal habit. Autumn was abroad in the land, although its signs were scant. On the great slope behind the house a single sour-wood tree on a bold crag flaunted, a deep, rich crimson color ; it contrasted sharply with its own white tassels, and with the gray of the rugged rock, with the green of the pines hard by, with the delicate, indefinable blue of that slow up-wreathing smoke.
Smoke ? Whence should it come ? He lifted himself upon his elbow and stared, his eyes startled and intent, as if he scarcely believed their testimony. For this vague and vagrant tissue was curling up from the old stick-and-clay chimney of the deserted house.
He did not move. He lay watching this illusion, as it were, this guise of former days, wondering that the little cabin, gray and aged and trembling on the verge of dissolution, should lend itself to this fraud of vision, spuriously advertising itself a habitation, when he knew how gaunt and bare it was within ; how dark were the corners, where the spiders wove their time-thickened webs ; how dilapidated a rift was in the flooring, where a puncheon had rotted and fallen through. Ah, looking at the graves in the little forlorn burying-plot among the crags, high on the slope in a square inclosure of gray palings, and remembering those who had quitted the cabin and the humble home ways forever, to lie out there in the silence of the mountains, — with the rain, and the mist, and the wind, and the snow to come and to go unheeded, while they waited the sound of the promised trump, which even the dull ear of death shall heed,— one might realize how well it behooved that hearth-stone to be dark, and silent, and solitary ; how strange a freak it was that this vaporous attestation of warmth and glow should deceive his senses.
The smoke bent before the wind ; it wafted toward him.
He rose suddenly, with a changed face.
“ Somebody air in thar,” he said, with mustering indignation ; “ they hev got a fire, an’ they air a-burnin’ of green wood.”
The smell of the smoke from the green wood, with the pungent, aromatic suggestions of its sap, was still stronger as he stood by the door. He hesitated for a moment ; then with a muttered “ I hev got manners, ef ye ain’t,” the owner of the house knocked, rousing such a sound in the cavernous stillness that his heart gave a great throb as he heard. Precipitate feet seemed to hastily plod to the door, failing somehow when reaching it, and waiting in silence, while fainter footfalls followed and paused also. It was only when he knocked once more that he realized that this was but the echo of his summons on the frail battens. There seemed no one inside, but as he tried the latch he discovered, to his infinite surprise, that the door was secured by a padlock and chain, the fastenings within.
“ A body would ‘low fur sartain ez thar war folks inside,” he said in doubt.
His eyes, with a certain freedom characteristic of the proprietary glance, turned with a canvassing attention now to the walls and chimney, and again to the closed batten shutter. The hollyhocks that his mother had planted — how they had grown ! — rapped against it with peremptory iteration, as if insistently summoning her forth to see how they throve and rewarded her early care.
“ Jes’ ez ye say ! ” he remarked loudly, for the benefit of the supposed occupants. “ Ef ye don’t let me in, I ’ll let myself in.”
Still there was no response save the hesitant striking back of the tones of his voice from the walls, seeming intrusive and strident in the utter silence.
He began to feel as if he were dreaming. He looked over his shoulder to see the scattered kine in the clover ; his claybank mare standing unsaddled by the old rail fence, her bronze flanks glistening in the sun, her black mane tossing as she thrust her head over the high topmost rail, gazing with full, lustrous eyes down the slope, and snuffing with satisfaction the fresh breeze. He was awake, — very wide awake indeed, one might have thought, to see him take his pistol from the holster of the saddle on the ground and slip it into the long leg of his boot ; for his faith in the efficacy of a " shootin’-iron ” was hardly less pronounced than his faith in the efficacy of prayer. He walked in gingerly amongst the tall, slim rods of the hollyhocks. “ I hev ter be powerful partic’lar ’bout tromplin’ these hyar high weeds ez mam sets sech store by,” he said, his tongue repeating an old formula, familiar to it of yore, and only his mind distinguishing in the words, after they were spoken, the sarcasm of the present and the past. Even in that urgent moment of action and of caution he
sought to reflect that for her flowered the unfading splendors of the gardens of heaven, and he had a sudden close realization of the solace she must have found in that bloomful Paradise. A vague vision of vast multiplied fields of the Chilhowee lily was before his eyes ; of these white ethereal glories were the heavenly borders, he knew. He paused as he stood ; the white hollyhocks, with their garnet centres, touched his cheek. He laid his hand on the shutter, breast-high from the ground. It too was fastened on the inside. One sudden violent wrench, and it was torn from its hinges. The next instant, with the supple agility of a mountain panther, he sprang through the narrow aperture, and landed on his feet in the middle of the square, low-ceiled room. Empty, — quite empty. He stood amidst the clustering shadows, and gazed about with a dilated, excited eye. A square of yellow sunlight lay on the dusky floor beneath the window, and in the slanting rays the motes were dancing. A new puncheon had replaced the rift in the floor ; in the chimney-place were heaps of ashes, and amidst them red coals smouldered. The fire had been providently covered to last, but the task had not been well done, or the draught was stronger than usual, the wind being favorable ; for a remnant of the green-wood log had begun to burn afresh, although only a timorous blaze now and then showed itself, flickering out in the steady column of smoke slowly tending up the chimney. There were pipes on the shelf that served as mantel, a rough pallet in the corner, and a few rude utensils on a bench. As he looked about in increasing surprise, he noted a variety of fragments of rock, systematically ranged on the floor beside the walls. A strong spade and a pickaxe with one point broken off stood in the corner. With a mind void of even a speculation, he investigated the shedroom ; then ascended to the roof-room, where the window by the chimney was open to the air. It looked out above the low branches of the orchard, where the sunshine and the shadows still alternated in the old vogue known amongst the leaves since light first dawned upon the world. It showed, too, the great dark mountains hard by, with the deeper shades amongst them that betokened ravine and chasm below the level of his eye ; and there was a range afar off, appearing above their massive summits, faintly blue, known by sight only, as it were, for its name was unfamiliar, and its relative position to the other steeps was such that it could be seen only from the window of his old room. A dead tree close at hand, denuded of leaves and bark, tall and blanched to a silver tint, showed its dendritic symmetry in pallid glistening lines against the soft blue of those far slopes, and the sense of distance between the two, the leagues of sunshine, was immeasurable. The sight of the mountain, so long unseen, with the overpowering recollection of the past, had its indescribable effect upon him. His face was wistful, his nerves grew tense, his hand trembled as he leaned upon its palm on the window-sill. Another man, feeling thus, would have wished that he had not come, and would have upbraided himself, perchance, that he had been so ill content, placed as he was of late. Jepson rarely, indeed, questioned the wisdom and the policy of his own decrees. He turned himself about with a long-drawn sigh, quivering, it seemed, through the very flesh of his heart that ached physically, tramped heavily down the stairs, and without a moment’s hesitation addressed himself to removing the stranger’s effects ; piling them all in a heap outside of the boundary fence, where the owner might come and take them or leave them, as he saw fit.
“ Ef he hed kem an’ axed me, whoever he be, he ’d hev been welcome ter bide ez long ez he wanted ter,” he observed, the sentiment of the proprietor strong within him and affronted by this lack of formality. “ I hain’t been outer reach noways, ez I knows on. An’ ef my kin be dead, I ain’t.”
As he proceeded to put his own household effects into that perfunctory and curious disarray which the masculine mind accounts order, he glanced out of the window now and again, thinking to see the evicted tenant returning to find his household gods thus upset, and heaped together, and cast out.
So bent was he upon this that after his expeditious settlement of his household affairs he seated himself on the step of the little porch, and smoked, as he leaned, with his hands behind his head, against the post, and watched the meagre treasure with intent eyes. He did not recognize his resolution in any sense as softening, but when the unknown intruder should come back, and thus learn this pointed lesson of the absolute rights of ownership, he held in contemplation the return of the cast-out gear to the house, and an invitation to abide for a time.
As he sat there the river sang, — sang aloud to the listening, silent mountains, an archaic lay, so full of a sentiment of a vital individuality, an undying spirit, that it must have been voiced by some finer essences than are known to our dull modern density. He could hear the woods declaiming in vibrant periods, although he could translate none of these dryadic tones that came from the trees. The bees droned about his mother’s flowers ; a butterfly, more splendidly caparisoned than any blossom, dandered about the old neglected garden and took to wing. And as he watched, naught came down the path but the reddening sunlight, loitering along to its home in the west.
It was soon bruited abroad throughout Broomsedge that Jepson had come back to the Cove to live, and to those who declined to give credence to this now instance of his arrogant boldness — having entertained the opinion that he would skulk indefinitely amongst the hidden nooks of the mountains, continuing a reproach to the denizens of the Settlement for their failure to detain him — further evidence was promptly furnished by his reappearance in his old haunts. No one sought to compensate now for the previous dereliction of the community, and he was proof against the cold shoulder and the look askance, so completely did the influence of his own individuality dwarf the opinion of the disaffected. A new view of the accident began to be entertained, and there were not a few disparaging comments, especially among the adverse political faction, on Eli Strobe’s methods in office, and his own responsibility for the disaster which had befallen him. Had Jepson been a philosopher or a student of human nature, he might have found material for interesting analysis in the conduct of his ancient cronies as set forth in sundry confidences that came to his ears of what had been said in his absence, and thought, and threatened, and thus have sown the seeds of permanent misanthropy. He evidently gave the gossip little heed ; he flouted its infinitesimal consequence. He was so validly indifferent, so serenely strong in the courage of his convictions, so arrogant in his self-esteem, that he belittled the others without even an intention of reducing their pride. Only once did the barbed shaft fail to glance off futile. “ War them Pa’son Donnard’s words ? ” he asked, a lowering frown upon his face, as he stood in the door of the forge and leaned against the frame, while a coterie of the gossips sat half within and half without. His eyes were dark and full of smouldering fire ; his broad hat was pushed back from his brow, which had flushed to the roots of his hair. “ Did he ’low ez how I hed c’mitted murder ? War them his words ? ”
“ Jube say so,” replied Clem Sanders. He was not consciously treacherous to his friend, but he possessed an unguarded tongue, and perhaps it was the hidden workings of justice that he should betray Jube’s confidences, as Jube had failed to keep his secret.
Jepson remained silent a moment after the reiteration of the assertion. Then his whole aspect suddenly cleared.
“ The Lord ‘ll jedge ’twixt him an’ me. I ain’t a-keerin’ so long ez the Lord be on my side. I fear no man, an’ the word o’ none ! ”
It was doubtless because of his mental breadth and freshness, his physical vigor and the elasticity appertaining to this perfection of strength and health, that his hope was so strong, and his courage so sound, and his nerves so accurately poised. But he believed it was piety, and he was not often gainsaid.
“ Oh, shet up,” Bassett urged, being a prosaic man of this world, with a discerning eye for the foibles of others, and appreciating in some sort vast rifts between these spiritual arrogations and actual possessions. “ Ye talk like ez ef ye an’ the Lord war partners ! ”
“ Ef I hed it all ter do over agin, I reckon I would n’t ride that race,” pursued the moralist speculatively, “ knowin’ what I know now, an’ how it all turned out, kase I never wanted ter hurt nobody, much less Eli Strobe. But ef I knowed no more ’n I done then, I ’d ride it agin. Tell me it ’s agin the law fur me an’ Jube ter race our critters ‘long the road, an’ yit it ain’t agin the law ter race yer critters on a reg’lar race-track, kase it puts suthin’ inter the State’s pocket ! Thar ain’t no jestice in that law, an’ I won’t abide by it. Naw, folkses, wrong is wrong everywhar, an’ money can’t make it right. No use payin’ the State fur a license ter do wrong.”
There were few vaticinations now concerning the result of the disaster ; the doctor had come and had shaken his head, the precise significance of which was variously interpreted, the majesty and solemnity of the gesture alone being open to no sort of question. The prophets imitated his caution, and reserved their opinion. Eli mought die, they said, and then agin he mought n’t. And thus they were prepared for whatever might betide. The doctor had added to the ostensible purpose of his existence the fact of furnishing a new theme to the idle gossips who sat upon the fences, and hung about the store and the forge ; he, and his big spectacles, and his bald head, and his old-fashioned buggy — a new and a wonderful vehicle in the estimation of Broomsedge — were canvassed anew, and those who were fortunate enough to have had some necessity for his services in past times, then considered unfortunate enough, renewed their experiences in the account of the methods of his practice, hoarded bits of his conversation, and the comparison of views as to his professional capacity. By the majority he was held to be " ekal ter raisin’ the dead,” but Mrs. Strobe did not coincide in that flattering opinion.
“ Marcelly,” said the sharp little dame, “ that thar old bald-headed buzzard, — an’ he looks percisely like one in them slick black store-clothes, — he knows jes’ ez much ’bout doctorin’ ez Watch thar, ef that.”
The " frequent visitor’s ” dog acknowledged the mention of his name by two or three taps with his tail on the floor, as he sat in the uninclosed passage between the two rooms, beside Marcella, who had dropped down on a rickety bench that stood against the wall. The girl turned upward her pale, anxious face, with a dumb despair in her eyes. She had hung on the physician’s words, as if there were healing in the very sound. Mrs. Strobe held her tiny figure very erect ; there was color in her cheeks, and her eyes flashed. In fact, the professional call had been in some sort distinguished as a collision between two eminent medical authorities.
“ I hev been considered ekal to doctorin’ Eli an’ ye chil’n, an’ all my neighbors ez I could lay my hands on,” declared Mrs. Strobe, with a manner as attestive as if she were reading a diploma, “ an’ he tells me I need n’t continue the yerb teas ez I hev been brewin’ ; they air ‘ useless,’ an’ whatever air ‘useless ’ air mo’ or less ‘ injurious.’ How does he know ? ” she demanded, with sphinxine triumph ; " he dunno what I put inter ’em. Me ! ez hev fetched whole passels o’ folks through all sort’n mis’ries an’ measles with my yerb-bag ! An’ he gimme these hyar leetle papers with powders in ’em, — nuthin’ in the world but sand, I ’ll be bound, — an’ this hyar bottle, — ‘ lotium,’ he called it ; smells loud enough ter knock a calf down ! An’ that ’s all it ’s good fur, ter derange yer nose teetotally, till ye can’t smell no mo’ till kingdom come. An’ ‘ stop them yerb teas, — no good ; ‘ an’ he don’t know what ’s in ’em ! An’ let Eli sleep, when the mo’ he sleeps the foolisher he talks whenst he wakes up. Shucks ! I be goin’ ter doctor Eli Strobe myself ! I hev tuk him along through a many a tight fix.”
The girl sighed with relief and renewing hope, and pushed back the tangled heavy curling hair from her brow.
“ Don’t ye be oneasy. chile,” said the sturdy little dame. “I ’lowed ter Teck Jepson jes’ yestiddy. I say, ‘ Eli Strobe ’s my son. But what through his bein’ the dad o’ Marcelly an’ Is’bel, an’ the constable o’ Brumsaidge, an’ the patient o’ the doctor, a body mought see they did n’t ’low me ter hev much sheer in him. But I be his mother, an’ ef I hev got enny rights I reckon it air ter dose him ter my own taste.’ An’ Teck say, ‘ Ef I war sick, Mis’ Strobe, I ’d a sight ruther hev you-uns ter look arter me ’n enny doctor-man I ever see.’ Teck spoke right up.”
“ Teck Jepson ! ” cried the girl, knitting her straight black eyebrows, " hev he hed the insurance ter kem hyar agin ? ”
“ Ye air a idjit, Marcelly ; ’course he kem ter inquire arter Eli. He ain’t studyin’ ’bout you-uns ; but that’s jes’ like a gal, — vainglorious till she ’lows the man air a-contrivin’ an’ thinkin’ ’bout’n her all the time. Shucks, chile ; wait till ye git ez old ez I be, an’ ye ’ll find out it air the wimmin ez hev ter do the thinkin’ an’ contrivin’ ter please the men, an’ then can’t keep up with ’em more ’n half the time.”
“ I don’t want ter please ’em,” said Marcella, with a curve of her delicate lips, and lifting her head to its habitual airy pose.
“ Kase ye feel so mighty sure ye air gain’ ter ’thout tryin’,” retorted the discerning grandmother. “ Let somebody tell ye now ez ye air up an’ down ugly, an’ ef they could make ye b’lieve it, ye ’d a sight ruther hear ye bed los’ yer soul’s salvation ! ”
She began to turn anew the papers in her hand. “ ‘ Quit them yerb teas,’ ” she quoted with a cantankerous accent, as she fumbled with the tiny wrappers, mimicking the physician’s ill-judged scorn. She was letting the powders fly out in the wind. “ ‘ Gin these powders, one every hour.’ He lef’ his watch, sir, so ez ter tell the time o’ day ; an’ it air in yander now, a-goin’ on like suthin’ live, ez ef it hed chitlin’s in it. ‘ Gin him these powders,’ — I ’ll gin him some yerb tea, an’ tell the doctor the powders done him a power o’ good, when he kems agin. Ye Watch,” she called out to the dog, who when a few flakes of the medicine fell upon the floor sprang up with an expectant hunger and a glistening greedy eye, as if he had not had a morsel of food for a week, “ ef ye lap that up, it ’ll tangle yer liver an’ gizzard up so ye ’ll never git ’em straight agin.” Completing the destruction of the powders, she shook the bottle, looking at it intently. “ Mought be some use.” The seeming admission was as to the value of the glass vial, by no means the “ lotium.”
That afternoon she demonstrated her incontestable claim, however, to some knowledge of hygiene by a mandate that Marcella, and not Isabel, should go after the cows ; and as the girl reluctantly left the invalid’s bedside, Mrs. Strobe followed her out with axioms and boasts, for she had grown exceedingly prideful and exalted anew in her own opinion since she had seen the methods of the regular practitioner. " Ye oughter git some air an’ light, Marcelly ; ye look like the las’ o’ pea-time, — an’ old ! some similar ter Noah’s grandmother, ef the good ’oman hed lasted this long. Ef ye keep on lookin’ like that, even Clem Sanders won’t admire ye ; an’ I think he air the kind o’ boy ez hev got mighty little ’scrimination in gal-folks, — all of ’em pritty ter Clem, I ‘ll be bound. Ye go out an’ git them cows hyar. I don’t want Is’bel ter grow no taller till she makes out ter git a little wider. She looks now like she war a-travelin’ on stilts, bein’ so longlegged. Naw, Is’bel hed better set still, an’ try ter fatten. Our folks war always knowed ter be a set o’ well-favored wimmin, an’ I don’t want ye an’ Is’bel ter gin the lie ter that report. Ez ter the men o’ the fambly, they war ugly enough ter skeer the bars in the woods ; but, honey, they never knowed it, an’ ez they war so powerful pleased with thar own beauty, sech ez they hed, it holped ter keep ’em satisfied, — leastwise ez satisfied ez they war able ter be. Ye go ’long, an’ see ef ye can’t find yer own looks somewhar out yander in the wind an’ ’mongst the rocks. I ’ll be bound ye ’ll kem up with ’em tangled in the briers.”
If it were the radiance of the splendid and perfect day that was Marcella’s inalienable possession, the tint of the wild rose for her lips and her infrequent flush, the lucent shining of deep pure waters reproduced in her eyes, she seemed to have regained all these invaluable gifts when she chanced to cross the little foot-bridge over the torrent that ran through Broomsedge Cove. The cows that she drove were fording the stream, standing flank-deep in the swirling current ; the waters were a dark brownish-green tint, of a crystalline clearness, and swift and songful ; the dense laurel leaned over the banks ; shadowy pines rose high above ; here and there a cliff towered, and a great fir stood, with wide-spreading glooms in its branches, at one end of the frail little bridge. Above, one could see but a mere strip of the blue sky ; farther up the stream, as the banks curved, the tumultuous rapids caught a sunbeam on their flashing foam, and a barren old crag on the opposite bank wore a tender roseate flush to see the sun set. But here in these shady precincts was neither beam nor pink radiance ; the red cardinal flower blooming by the water’s edge had but a sombre splendor, the ripples and the wide circles that the movement of the kine sent to the margin were dark lustrous lines, and the fret of foam dashing over the half-submerged brown rocks wore a more absolute and pallid white for the dark green and neutral tints of its vicinage.
The girl had been leaning her crossed arms upon the hand-rail of the bridge, and looking absently down at the turmoils of the current. She could see her own image in the clearer space, her sunbonnet hanging upon the shoulders of her blue dress, her curling brown hair floating free ; her fair face, with its brilliant eyes and definite dark brows and grave lips, seemed all the more distinct, somehow, for the red flare of a kerchief knotted about her throat, the ends hanging down almost to her slender waist. The chant of the river filled the air ; the wind was sonorously astir in the trees ; now and again one of the cows, drinking no longer, but standing still, enjoying the freshness of the dusky place, lowed, and the echoes responded. Thus Marcella did not hear an approach ; she saw the reflection as Teck Jepson came along the little bridge where she stood, and the timbers elastically vibrated with each consecutive step. She scarcely credited the testimony of the image in the water. She lifted her head with a sudden startled look, putting back with one hand her heavy hair, and staring frowningly at him. She did not speak ; she still leaned one arm upon the handrail.
“ Howdy,” Jepson observed calmly. “ How ’s Eli ? ”
If she could have escaped him she would not have deigned him a word, but she could not pass him upon the narrow space of the two hewn logs that served as bridge ; below was the deep water, and she would not retreat. “ I won’t take the back track fur nobody,” she said to herself, with her head high.
He had evidently been hunting ; his mare, with a newly killed deer laid athwart the saddle, awaited him on the bank ; he had thrown the reins over a bough of a cucumber-tree. As Marcella glanced thither, she noted that the cones on the green branches were glowing red, and that the coat of the deer, whose antlers and ghastly cut throat were visible as the creature lay on its side, had already changed from the fulvous tints of summer to the duller gray of autumn ; the season was surely waning. Her eyes came back reluctantly to Jepson. He was booted and spurred ; he carried his rifle ; his hunting-knife was in his broad leather belt ; he wore his shot-pouch and powder-horn strapped over the shoulder of his brown jeans coat ; his broad wool hat was pushed far back from his face, and once more she noticed how calm and reposeful his expression was. Somehow it added rancor to her anger, for she felt it hard that he should be at ease while she was so racked with care.
“ I dunno ez I hev enny call ter tell ye how he be. Ef it hed n’t been fur you-uns, he ’d be powerful hearty an’ well. Mighty few folks in the Cove ez survigrous ez he ’d be, ef ’t warn’t fur you-uns.”
He looked reproachfully at her. Then with an effort to mollify her, “ Ye air mighty hard on me, Marcelly.”
She held her head up, relishing her cruelty. “ Not half ez hard ez ye desarve,” she declared.
He sighed heavily as he looked at her, and she smiled, with satire glancing in her eyes.
“ I ain’t half ez hard ez ye desarve, or ez I would like ter be,” she reiterated. “ I dunno how ter be no harder, or I would.”
“ Marcelly ! ” he remonstrated. “ ’T warn’t my fault. Ye ’low I would hev done sech a purpose ? Even s’pose I war jes’ mean, look how it hev turned out fur me. I hed ’lowed, ef it hed n’t happened, ez ye an’ me mought marry some day. An’ now ye can’t abide me.”
“ I never could ! ” she retorted.
He flushed with a sudden sense of mortification, but his store of patience was very great in this emergency, — he, who could usually command so little. “ Ye did n’t useter show it so plain,” he argued.
“ Why,” she protested with a cavalier air, “ I ain’t ondertakin’ ter drive off all the men folks ez kem constant round the cabin. I ’d spen’ the rest o’ my days a-wieldin’ a hickory. How ’d I know ye warn’t komin’ ter see Is’bel, or — granny ? ”
This mocking fleer wounded him, — so sensitive he was where she was concerned, — and he was reminded afresh of the number of sturdy worshipers at that shrine, and his jealousy sprang up anew. He stood staring silently at her, noting again how beautiful she was, canvassing secretly the claims of the others ; but however his hope might belittle their chances, they all were more fortunate than he in having at least the toleration of the fair prize. She resented that long, reflective gaze, and broke forth suddenly.
“ Air ye obligated ennywise ter stan’ in the middle o’ this narrer bredge all evenin’ ? ” she demanded, with a flushing cheek and a flashing eye. “ An’ why n’t ye stay up in the mounting an’ kem down no mo’, ez I bid ye ? ”
There was something passing all bounds of endurance in her patent scorn and the intensity of her anger. He realized the extent of her affliction, and his love, albeit quickly grown, was great. But his pride was an indomitable essence, and it showed in his manner as he drew himself tensely erect. “ I don’t hold myself bound ter mind yer bid,” he said slowly. “ I hev been in love with ye ever sence I fust set eyes on ye, but I ain’t sech ez Samson or some o’ the t’others, ez war fairly owned, body an’ soul, by some woman or other. I foller my own will, an’ it hev led me down ter my own house in Brumsaidge Cove, an’ I go up ter the mounting no mo’. I foller my own will, an’ it leads me whar the voice o’ the Sperit summons.”
His eyes dilated and his color flared ; his serious, half-frowning gaze was fixed upon her, but he hardly saw her as he made this valiant declaration of independence. There was dignity as well as strength in his pose and his manner, and the temerity of his resolution to be no slave to his love.
His revolt, if so it might be interpreted, against the supreme power which she wielded overwhelmed her in some sort. She had lost her bearings, and this was chaos. She looked at him with a selfforgetfulness, a sort of impersonal interest, for a, moment.
“ Yes, sir ; thar I mean ter live an’ die, — in Brumsaidge,” he pursued. “ An’ enny woman ez tells me ter go thar or kem hyar — ’thout it air ter do some favior — mought ez well save her breath.
I be man enough, I reckon, ter know my mind an’ do it, — leastwise I ’ll try.”
Once more he paused. The mare was straining at the reins that hampered her freedom, and he heard the rustling of the bough to which she was hitched. He gave a hasty, mechanical glance over his shoulder to make sure that she and the burden, the killed buck, were where they should be. The stirrups, swinging back and forth, touched the antlers once and again with a sharp sound ; a frog was croaking on an oozy green log by the bank ; his old deerhound, an animal whose capacity for speed showed in every line of its supple body, had followed him deftly along the bridge and stood beside him, looking up with intelligent eyes, and once or twice furtively licking his boot. As Jepson turned back, he saw Marcella’s face without that expression of special reference to himself, of anger and reproach ; she was for the moment absolved from her intention of hatred. He noted the lurking sadness, the haunting fear, the wistfulness that is always the sequence and attestation of some predominant emotion. She looked so tender, so young, so grievously wounded.
“ Oh, Marcelly,” he cried, “ I never meant ter harm Eli ! I would n’t hev hurt him fur nuthin’. I would n’t keer what the law would do ter me fur it, ef only ye ’d b’lieve I never done it a purpose. Ef only ye ’d say that, I ’d go ter jail fur the rest o’ my life rejoicin’.”
The moment he recurred to the suppliant tone her sense of power returned. The implacable, imperative look was again in her face, coming with a rush of color, as if the blood-red glow were the inherent tint of pride.
“ Ye air about ez fur from jail ez enny man on this yearth, an’ ye air goin’ ter stay so, ef ye kin hev yer way. I don’t keer what ye meant or did n’t mean ter do. I keer fur what ye done ! An’ ef ye foller yer will an’ the voice o’ the Sperit, ez ye ’lows leads ye, ye ’ll be mighty clar from gittin’ punished, whether ye live in Brumsaidge or the mounting. I don’t keer whar ye live ’n what ye do now.” She had ceased to lean on the hand-rail, and her image had vanished from the glad water ; she stood erect and slender before him, the red kerchief carelessly knotted about her throat, her bonnet hanging on her shoulders, her long, half-curling, and thickly waving hair almost hiding it. “ I ’d be obleeged ter ye ef ye ’d git out’n my road. I don’t wanter drown myself in that water, an’ it seems I ’ll hev ter ef I try ter pass ye.”
He said no more and slowly withdrew, busying himself about his mare’s girth. He glanced, wounded and reproachful, at Marcella as she went by, following the cows, but she gave him no word, and was presently lost in the woods.
After she had reached home, she saw him going down the road to the Settlement. “ Bold ez brass,” she commented, looking at him from the porch. “ I wisht he ’d git arrested, somehows.”
She marveled as to his mission, but it excited scant attention in the Cove, where his frequent presence since his return from the mountains had become familiar. He took his way toward the store, which combined commercial and postal functions, — a little frame building without a porch, and with only one room. In some seizure of unprecedented energy, the storekeeper had undertaken to whitewash it ; his industry had compassed the surface of its front, and then collapsed finally, and thus it had subsequently stood, its dark, weather-stained sides and back in sharp contrast with the white front of the building. His proceedings had been characteristically considered by the mountaineers to be in fault in the first instance, for the effort to furbish up the appearance of the store was esteemed a reprehensible aping of town ways and views. No one animadverted upon his indolence in failing to carry out his design. A mountaineer, whose name is lost to tradition, one day observed that the white-fronted building, as it sat on the slope of the hill, always looked to him like a white-faced bull ; and thereafter the owner went by the name of “ White-Face Hobbs.” He was upon the doorstep now, — a long, lank fellow, whose lowly posture accented the extreme length of his legs ; and as he sat with his knees as high as his chin, the attitude was vaguely suggestive of a grasshopper. He had a cadaverous face, the color of parchment, and he entertained pessimistic views of the intentions, morals, and manners of all the young men in the Cove.
“ A pack o’ fresky cusses kem in hyar an’ play thar jokes off, an’ dust one ‘nother with flour, an’ turn over the sorghum or the sugar, an’ folks tell me they war funnin’. I ’ll git ter funnin’, fust thing they know ! I don’t think nuthin’ in this world air ez funny ez a big hickory stick, an’ I kin use it so ez ter make me laugh mightily, though some folks mought be too sober-sided, time I war done with it.”
On a rickety chair, tilted against the white-faced wall, sat a young man, wearing a suit of exceedingly cheap and shabby store-clothes. He had a broad, freckled face and sandy hair, and a big plated watch-chain which supported no watch. He was a visitor here, WhiteFace Hobbs being his uncle, and Jepson’s intention to address him was so evident, as he came up the slope leading his mare, who looked reluctant and long-necked, still burdened with the deer, that the storekeeper, fearing a commercial opportunity might elude him while the young men talked, struck in, forestalling Jepson’s remark.
“ Wanter sell yer meat ? ” he demanded.
“ Take it, or leave it ; I don’t keer,” said Jepson. He handed the reins to the storekeeper, who had risen, and he walked toward the young man, and paused before him.
“Neal,” he said, looking down and putting one hand into his belt, “ I want ye ter arrest me.”
The storekeeper dropped the reins, and stood staring speechlessly, while the mare moved off a few steps and began to crop the grass.
Neal Wright, who was the deputy sheriff of the county, and whose acquaintance Jepson had made while a witness for the State in Baintree’s trial, dropped the forelegs of his chair to the ground, and asked, dismayed, “ What ye done ? ”
“ That thar racin’ an’ runnin’ down Eli Strobe.”
“ Eli Strobe ain’t dead.”
“ Naw,” said Jepson in a melancholy tone, “ but I wanter be arrested now.”
The deputy meditated for a moment.
“ Oh, g’long, Teck,” he said, in official perplexity, “ I dunno what ter arrest ye fur. ’T warn’t nuthin’ but a accident.”
“ Racin’ air unlawful,” said Jepson, moodily, — “ a unlawful act.”
“ Shucks ! ” retorted the officer. “ Las’ week I raced a gray horse o’ mine — a good un — with a horse o’ Jedge Grimm’s, o’ the Circuit Court. Both of us happened ter be goin’ out o’ town same time. He hearn me a-clippin’ behind him, an’ he whipped up an’ spurred, an’ I whipped up an’ spurred. Don’t he know hoss-flesh, though, an’ don’t he love it ! He hed the dead-wood on me, — oughter jes’ see that bay git down ter his work ! An’ when he war a-gittin’ away from me, Jedge Grimm jes’ turned his big red face round wunst, an’ it war all one wink an’ grin. Me an’ the jedge air out o’ jail yit.”
“ Waal, I gin myself up,” persisted Jepson.
“ Oh, g’long, Teck.” The officer was standing now, and he gave his friend’s shoulder an admonitory push. “ I don’t want ye. I don’t wanter kerry ye all the way ter Colb’ry an’ cut my visit off. An’ I don’t b’lieve I could git ye c’mitted ter stan’ yer trial noways. The old man ” — it was the high sheriff thus antiquated — “air powerful partic’lar ’bout makin’ false an’ foolish arrests, an’ he ’s responsible fur me.” He shook his head in a manner that intimated his sense of the weight of this. “ Folks can’t git arrested fur fun. Naw, sir, I don’t want ye. I ’ll kem arter ye mighty quick ef ennything happens ter Eli. Don’t ye be ’fear’d.”
“ I want ter be arrested now,” reiterated Jepson. “ His fambly want me arrested.”
The deputy looked puzzled. “ I don’t b’lieve ye, Teck. Ef they did, they ’d make a complaint agin ye, an’ git out a warrant.”
“ They air all wimmin ; they dunno how.” Then, urgently, “ When ye go back ter town, tell the ‘ old man ’ ez the crim’nal wanted ter be arrested, and the fambly wanted him ter be jailed, too, an’ ye would n’t.”
“ Teck, ye air out’n yer head ! ” exclaimed Wright.
“ Go up ter the house an’ ax ’em,” said the would-be prisoner.
The deputy, thus summoned from the unofficial ease and pleasure of his visit to the perplexity and caution requisite in handling a case new to his short experience, hesitated for a moment, and then, putting his hands in his pockets, set forth, silent, saturnine, circumspect, a very different person from the smart young idler before the white-faced store. He carried the wonder of it with him all adown the turn-row between the ranks of corn and to the doorstep of the house itself. “ A body would ’low ez a smart, strong, rampagious feller like Teck would be jes’ the one ter gin the sher’ff a turrible race through them mountings.” He nodded toward the wooded heights, with a realizing sense of their value to the ill-doer as an impenetrable covert. Then he lifted his voice in a stentorian “ Hello ! ” for knocking on the door is here little in vogue. The sound summoned little Mrs. Strobe, valiant as a far larger woman might be, and trim, light, and dapper, with a reproachful lifted forefinger, and a gibe upon her lips, although her curiosity as to his mission quivered through every fibre.
“ Waal, stranger, ye could n’t holler louder ef ye war a peeg an’ ’t war killin’-time. Ye ’ll never go off in a lung complaint. Don’t ye know we hev got a sick man in the house ? ”
Isabel had boldly followed her grandmother, and stood ready to participate in the conversation, should it prove of interest. Marcella came only to the door, but lingered there, leaning against the frame.
“ That ’s jes’ what I kem ter speak ter ye ’bout, ma’am,” said the officer. “ I’m the dep’ty sher’ff o’ the county.”
“ Laws-a-massy ! ” exclaimed the old woman, by way of compliment and obeisance to the dignity of his authority.
“ An’ it hev been tole ter me ez the fambly want Teck Jepson arrested fur unlawfully ridin’ a race, an’ ridin’ down an’ injurin’ Eli Strobe whilst doin’ this unlawful act.”
They were all silent, revolving this succinct statement, and adjusting the circumstances thus set forth to their own consciousness of the facts.
“ Now,” continued Wright, “ ef ye ’ll complain agin him, I ’ll arrest Jepson an’ git him c’mitted, an’ land him in jail ter await the event.”
“ Me want ter jail Teck Jepson fur runnin’ a horse along a plain road ? ” cried the old woman. “ Ef ye warn’t a stranger, sir, I ’d tell ye ez ye air a crazy buzzard.”
“ Yes ’m,” said the deputy, sanely agreeing in her view.
“ Eli got hurt by accident, through bein’ too sharp-set ter arrest folks fur nothin’, an’ Teck war his bes’ friend in the ’lection. He could n’t pull up his horse. Naw, sir ; wait till Eli gits better or wuss.”
“ That ’s yer conclusion, ma’am ? ” said the officer, visibly relieved. Then he glanced at Marcella. She stood silent, intent, pondering. The young man’s eyes lingered, “ Do his darter want Jepson arrested ? ” he asked, seeking an added respect in using the third person.
Marcella did not answer. That brooding dubitation was on her face, and her eyes were full of untranslated meanings.
“ Speak, chile,” urged her grandmother, tartly.
The man’s inquiring eyes still lingered ; she suddenly raised her own. She looked at him for a moment, and slowly shook her head. A deep flush overspread her face, and she turned hastily within.
That night a wind arose ; a great, sonorous, declamatory voice it had. Some rude iconoclastic spirit was rife in its midst, and threatened alike roof-tree and hearth-stone. The shutters were closed ; the door was barred ; but its heavy touch was on the walls, and every timber shook. The sense of it pervaded the deep unconsciousness that had hitherto enwrapped Eli Strobe. The knowledge of the continuity of cause and effect was broken ; he did not realize why he was awake, what turmoil affected his perceptions ; he only knew again himself for himself, and talked and raged incoherently. Fever was in his blood, and the strength of delirium was in his muscles. The little dame and the two frightened girls were alone to experience these undreamed-of terrors ; for since the invalid had been so quiescent, and all had been done that was needful, the helping neighbors had felt their services superfluous, and had betaken themselves home. His mind had gone back to the scene of the disaster. As the thunder rolled he would lift himself in bed, ghastly with his bloody, bandaged head, his wild, unreasoning eye, his strong right hand upheld warningly as he listened. “ Hear ! hear ! ” he would cry. “ Hear ’em gallopin’ thar horses !
Down the very throat o’ the law ! ” And when a new peal sounded louder and deeper than before, he would spring up, catching at an imaginary bridle, declaring that he had unhorsed Teck Jepson and had broken his neck. And there was Teck now, in hell ! — so surprised to be there, and so taken aback to see the devil, that Eli Strobe, who had sent him thither, could not refrain from laughing. He held his sides while his wild shrieks of frenzied mirth filled the small precincts of the cabin, shriller than the wind, more turbulent than the thunder, as persistent as the rain that came down in torrents upon the roof. The three women clung together in terror, and with trembling lips devised futile expedients to quiet him. But the vaunted “ yerb tea ” failed ; and although at first some vague recognition of Marcella, or Isabel, or his mother would prevail, and after a wild sidelong stare and a doubtful mutter he would consent to lie back upon the pillow and have the quilts drawn close about his shoulders again, he would soon forget them, and would spring up anew ; and presently he recognized them no more. Marcella could scarcely unclinch his grip as he declared that this was Teck Jepson, and he should be arrested on the spot. And as a ghastly flash of lightning made a mockery of the gleam of the little tallow dip and the smouldering fire, and filled the room with a quivering blue flame of a blinding intensity, he began to cry out that he was dead, — he was a dead man ; that Teck Jepson had killed him, and nobody cared to avenge him. But he would walk, he protested with a terrible fury ; as a ghost he would walk this earth. He would make the gallows seem a kind fate to the man who had cheated it, and who had torn him from life that was so fair and full, and had cast him into some outer darkness where there was gnashing of teeth ; and he ground his own, with a frightful look on his face. He would meet the man who had slain him, in lonely places, and reveal hideous spiritual terrors to him, and some day would fall upon him and throttle him ; and those who might find him would never know why Teck Jepson had died. He would walk, — he would walk ! And he began to gather the sheet about him.
“ Oh, Marcelly ! ” cried the cowering Mrs. Strobe, “ I hev done wrong. The yerb tea ain’t no good, sure enough, this time, an’ mebbe thar war some healin’ in the old doctor’s powders. He ‘lowed they ‘d keep Eli quiet. Oh, I wish I hed n’t flung ’em away ! He said the lotium air ter go on the outside, else I ’d gin Eli a mouthful o’ that. Oh, Marcelly, ef the doctor war jes’ hyar agin ! ”
“ I ’ll go arter him ! ” cried the girl, springing up with renewed hope.
“ Ye sha’n’t ! Ye sha’n’t ! ” The old woman clutched her arm. “ In this storm ez seems ter kem from perdition itself, an’ he livin’ miles an’ miles off ! Ye dunno the way. Ye ’ll git los’.”
“Waal,” said Marcella, full of courage again, since there was something to do and to risk, “ I ’ll rouse up the nighest neighbors, an’ git some o’ them ter go.”
“ I dunno whether they will ! ” cried Mrs. Strobe, wringing her hands. “ I could n’t blame ’em ef they would n’t. Listen at that wind ’mongst the trees ; it sounds ez ef the very mountings war groanin’ in mis’ry. An’ the thunder, an’ the lightnin’, an’ the rain ! ”
“ I ’ll try ‘em,” said Marcella, sturdily.
Her grandmother still clung to her, first remonstrating, then urging and charging her as she prepared to slip through the door. Marcella only stopped to put a red shawl over her head, and then she was out in the blackness of the night and the terrors of the storm. The wind caught the door with so violent a wrench that her grandmother and Isabel had much ado to close it again, and ere they did they called wildly to her to come back ; she would be blown away, or a limb of a tree might fall upon her and kill her. There was no response from the darkness without, and as they barred up the door they knew that she was gone, and felt as forlorn as if many had been withdrawn instead of one.
Despite her familiarity with every step of the way, Marcella thought herself inconceivably long in reaching the gate, so buffeted and beaten she was by the wind, so thong-like was the lashing rain, so turbulent was the elemental commotion. A vivid flash of lightning seemed to meet her there, followed so closely by others, less brilliant, that the effect for a few moments was unintermittent, while the simultaneous thunder rolled. The sinister glare revealed the sky with its myriads of lines of rain ; the tormented mountains with their groaning, swaying forests ; and close at hand the broad cornfield, the stalks tossed and bent and writhen, here and there flinging up their long blades in a gesture that suggested an appreciated agony. And then all was dark again, and her progress down the turn-row was beset with unexpected difficulty, since the stalks, broken and bent across it, furnished continually recurring barriers. She was glad to emerge into the open road at last, and she paused, breathless for a moment. The difficulties of the way had so absorbed her that she was now canvassing for the first time whom she might best rouse. The storm, since she was in its midst, seemed a more valid obstacle than when her grandmother had suggested it. One neighbor she dismissed from consideration as too old to grant so onerous a favor. Another had a wife and child very ill. A third was afflicted with “ lung complaint.” As she stood doubtful a certain sound caught her ears in a lull in the wind, — the sound of a hammer and a sledge upon an anvil. How strange, she thought, that Clem Sanders should be at the forge at this hour of the night, — how providential ! She had heard none of the rumors subsequent to the parson’s vision, and it was out of her mind for the nonce. She only reflected, as she turned her swift steps thither, that Clem Sanders would gladly ride thrice as many miles on an errand for her, indifferent to the fury of any mountain storm. “ He be powerful skeered o’ gal-folks, an’ say ‘ Yes ‘m ‘ an’ ‘ Naw ’m ’ even ter Is’bel, perliter ’n a pig in a poke, an’ he ain’t got no conversation ’mongst gals, but he ain’t ’feard o’ nuthin’ else. I ‘ll be bound he ain’t ’feard o’ the weather.”
Her heart was once more light and warm again ; she gathered the wet red shawl closer about her head. What did she care how the rain beat in her face, how the thunder roared ! She welcomed the fierce recurrent flare of the lightning ; kind it was to show her the rocky ways, that the red clay mire might not cling to her feet and impede her flying steps. The short cut she made took her up the slope of the hill, and she presently found herself nearing the forge on the reverse side from the door. She had hardly heard again the sound of hammer and sledge in the clamors without, but more than once she saw the gleam of the light through the ill-chinked walls, as the fire flared. As she came close she heard the bellows sighing, and the light from the walls hard by flickered out anew. She was close to the little shutter, and she laid her hand upon it. It opened readily under her touch, and she stood looking in.
The interior was flooded with white light, as the bellows fostered the flaring fire. She saw the anvil glitter. A man — Jake Baintree it was — with lifted arm worked at the bellows, while another, whose face was averted, held with the smith’s tongs a piece of metal in the hottest of the flames : it was red-hot now ; it glowed a lighter tint ; it glistened at a white heat, and he turned suddenly and whisked it on the anvil. He lifted his eyes as he moved, and saw before him the square of the open window, the girl’s fair, ethereal face framed within it upon the black background of the stormy night, and with the red shawl falling about her head, from the folds of which her curling hair half escaped. He started back, with the hammer in his hand, calling aloud in startled accents, “ Look ! Look ! ”
Jake Baintree turned abruptly, and his eyes met hers.
Charles Egbert Craddock.