The Despot of Broomsedge Cove
IT was one of those moments charged with the realization of a weighty emergency. when the mind shrinks from the responsibility of discriminating in the crisis, leaving the event to ensue unchecked. Marcella sat as still as if she were merely a figure painted against the sere mass of clambering vines that clung to the eaves of the porch, forming a pale yellow background, on which the salient coloring of her dark blue dress, the red kerchief about her throat, her brown floating hair, her widely open brown eyes, the fresh flesh tints of her face and hands, stood out with an effect delicate, yet intense. The little old rough gray spinning-wheel at her knee was distinctly marked, too, for its humble neutrality of tone was aided by contrast, as well as the ashen-brownish hue of the old hound’s head. Perhaps it was the expression of her face, instinct with expectation, that arrested her father’s fluctuating attention. He looked at her, bewildered for a moment; then he himself turned slowly in his chair, and with his deliberate sidelong glance sought to follow the direction of her eyes.
He saw the approaching figure ; there could be no doubt of that. The cornstalks, all bleached and partially stripped of the wealth of blades that the summer’s suns had drawn out, like a conjurer’s ribbon flaunting from nothingness, to wave in the summer’s winds, — the residue, tattered and mildewed, glittering here and there with the white rime, — came hardly to Jepson’s breast. The broad shoulders of his blue jeans coat showed above the growth; his wide white hat, set far back from his brow, disclosed bis features, with their distinctive chiseling. The peculiar pose of his head and his erect carriage were so characteristic that he could hardly be mistaken even at a distance. His eyes were fixed upon the group, and he must have noted Eli Strobe holding to the arms of his chair, his bandaged head bent forward, gazing at him, open-mouthed, with quivering jaw and pallid, stricken face. He certainly saw Marcella, and his step slackened as he watched her suddenly rise and stand behind her father, placing one finger on her lip. She lifted the other hand at arm’s-length, and with a frowning, imperative face she waved him back. He stood motionless for a moment, hesitating and at a loss. Then he walked on slowly, still toward the house. There was a dip in the ground just in front of him, — a marshy spot, — and there the corn had grown tall and rank; so tall that the sere and half - stripped stalks, left to stand stark and dead in the field till the spring burnings and ploughings - under should grant them sepulchre, reached higher than Teck Jepson’s head. Eli Strobe, tremulously intent, watched the great white hat disappear behind these relics of the lush crop; he waited motionless, his eyes fixed upon the lower stalks where it should presently emerge. Time went by, — one minute, three, five, — and still Jepson did not reappear. Andy Longwood divined that he had turned aside upon Marcella’s signal, and taken his way along the furrows between the corn, out of sight, and so to the verge of the field. But this was not the impression made upon the distraught brain of the constable, as, his patience wearying at last and his muscles failing, he sank back into his chair. He looked craftily at the two young people, to judge what impression the apparition— for thus he deemed it — had made upon them ; if indeed it had appeared save to his own eyes. In their uncertainty, dealing with the emergency at haphazard and as best they might, they unwittingly fostered his delusion. Marcella was calmly spinning once more, and Andy Longwood, taking his cue at last, idly whittled a stick.
For some time no word was spoken. Strobe fell back, gasping for breath, and ever and again looking fearfully over his shoulder to where the languid autumnal sunshine lay still and vacant upon the expanse of the pallid corn. Pilgrims were abroad in the blue sky, and now and then a wild weird cry floated down from migratory birds, sometimes unseen, and sometimes visible only in the tiny familiar triangle bespeaking the converging files of the wild geese, all a-journeying. When wings not afar off, with a silken rustle and lines of living light, came cleaving the sunshine and dimpling the waters of the shallows of the river, he showed a momentary interest to see the wild ducks settle and rise again, as the crack of a gun told that a death-charged missile had pierced their ranks. He glanced mechanically after their flight as with clamorous cries they took to wing. And then he did not forget to gaze once more upon the curtaining corn where that significant figure had disappeared. A gray squirrel scudded along the rail fence, then across the door-yard, with a large hickory-nut in his mouth, and vanished up the bole of the chestnut-tree, making small account of the old hound, who simply growled in an undertone, his eyes bright and liquid and his ears pricked up. The wounded man’s heavy-lidded eyes followed him with a twinkle. “ Ye ain’t a-goin’ hongry this winter, air ye, hubby ? I ll be bound ye be a reg’lar high liver, ef the truth war knowed.”
Marcella took note of the easy, natural tone. She drew a long sigh of relief. The tense, feverish spark had died out of her eyes ; they were pensively bright, as she fixed them smilingly upon her father. She believed that her quick resource had taken effect. He had seen Teck Jepson, certainly, but she thought that at the distance he could not have recognized him, and that she had averted the calamity which the sudden entrance upon the scene of the man whom he supposed dead would surely have precipitated. He might have been shocked into a relapse of his ravings and his violent mania, from which perhaps he would never have emerged again.
“ An’ the doctor say, ‘ Keep him quiet,’ ” she muttered.
The sun, and the air, and the wonderful balsamic freshness and buoyancy that seemed to pervade it, all had a tonic effect on Eli Strobe. His color became more natural, his eye was calmer, his blood in his veins seemed charged with his own bold identity. He began to feel his courage.
“ I ain’t afeard o’ nuthin’,” he remarked triumphantly, suddenly pursuing aloud the tenor of his thoughts. His daughter stopped and stared, crest-fallen, since he seemed again incoherent. “ I never war afeard o’ no livin’ man, an’ I ain’t a-goin’ ter set out at my time o’ life ter git skeered at harnts. I war a-tellin’ ye jes’ now ’bout mebbe Teck Jepson’s harnt mought set out ter walk. Ef he tuk ter foolin’ round me, I’d jes’ ax him, ' What kin ye do ? What kin ye do ? ’ ” He put both hands on his knees and wagged his head from side to side, casting up that characteristic sidelong glance, as if thus defying and confronting the supposed spectre. " ' Ye could n’t do nuthin’ ter me whilst live an’ hearty. An’ I ain’t a-goin’ ter be afeard o’ ye now ye air dead. Ef ye kem a-tromplin’ round hyar, I ’ll arrest ye, — I ’ll sarve papers on ye. I’m constable o’ Brumsaidge yit! ”
Once more he turned abruptly, and looked out over the emptiness of the cornfield. Then he leaned back in his chair, and this idea of serving papers on the " harnt ” came over him anew, and seemed to amuse him mightily. Now and again he muttered, " I ’ll sarve papers on ye,” and chuckled slyly to himself. " I ’ll sarve papers on ye, till ye ’ll be glad ter stay in yer grave, writ proof.”
“ This hyar Jepson,” — he spoke aloud, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and assuming that sly, confidential air characteristic of the rustic gossip, as he looked from one to the other of the young people, — “ he tried powerful hard ter make up ter me in his last days, though I know he never used ter like me much, kase I war cousin ter M’ria Price, ez merried Ben Bowles, an’ put her up ter gittin’ a powerful good trade out ’n Teck whenst he went ter live with them, — an’ ginerally kase I war kin ter M’ria. An’ I ’ll ’low myse’f M’ria air a pritty stiff one ter stan’. Some folks uster think mebbe I mought marry M’ria myse’f, me bein’ a widower ; but I say, ' Naw, sir ! I ain’t a-goin’ ter hev my pleasure at the jedgmint day plumb destroyed by hevin’ ter go ter heaven with two wimmin a-clawin’ an’ tearin’ each other’s hair an’ golden harps ’bout which one owned me! Thanky ! One’s enough. Mought be said ter be a plenty.’ ” He laughed in his heavy bass rumble. " But I want ter tell ye ’bout Teck,” he went on, lapsing into his tone of urgent mystery. " Oh, I tell ye, in his las’ days he made up ter me, — Teck kin be ez smooth an’ slick ez a bullet when he wants ter ; an’ what fur, do ye reckon ? Why, fur Marcelly. He war bound ter find favior in her eyes, so, knowin’ she set a heap o’ store by her dad’s opinion, he ondertook ter git mighty friendly with Me! ” He was addressing himself now to Andy Longwood, whose expression had changed from pity and embarrassed anxiety to keen and alert interest. The young fellow’s face was flushed ; he had drawn himself into a tense listening position as he sat on the step ; as he turned his head eagerly upward, his light, curling, tangled hair fell down longer still upon his broad shoulders beneath the wide brim of his hat, set far back. He had the greater interest in what was to come because he began to realize that Eli Strobe was perfectly sane except in regard to the circumstances surrounding the disaster, his delusion concerning Teck Jepson’s death and the manner of it. He simply was the victim of what is known as a fixed idea.” On other topics his mind seemed even more alert and -lucid than formerly, possibly because of that freshened interest in life characteristic of the invalid returning to the world after an interval of seclusion. He was more talkative than was his wont, and in relaxing his reserve he had lost that very glutinous equality, his policy, which usually serves to hold together what men really think, and prevent it from melting into speech, which is often the reverse of what men think.
“ An’ I did n’t know what in the name o’ Aberham ter do ! ” continued Eli Strobe, with uncharacteristic communicativeness. “ Me runnin’ fur election, an’ this hyar man a-courtin’ round Marcelly. An’ he hed hearn mam accidentally ’low ez Marcelly despised him, so I hed ter be powerful keerful, kase I did n’t want him ter vote agin me fur constable. That war the main pint. Young folks kin git married or stay single, whichever seems the foolishest ter ’em ; that’s what they always do, — the foolishest. But ye can’t git ’lected ter office by jes’ wantin’ ter. Ef ye ain’t ’lected constable, ye can’t be constable. But ef ye can’t git one gal, ye mighty apt ter git another; they ain’t all o’ one mind. An’ I did n’t want the young folks’s foolishness ’bout failin’ in love ter oust me out’n my office. Kase Teck Jepson air mighty robustious, an’ ef he hed tuk a notion ter work agin me in the election he 'd hev done it with a will. So when he’d say suthin’ ’bout Marcelly, I’d say, ! Thar’s plenty o’ time fur me ter choose a son-in-law, Teck, an’ I mus’ say candidates fur that office abound in this kentry.’” He stopped to laugh, then went on gravely: “ ‘ The outlook fur sons-in-law is promisin’. I ain’t liable ter be destitute ; but I be goin’ ter take my time ’bout giftin’ a son-in-law.’ So Teck jes’ did n’t know whether I favored him or no, but war n’t made mad; though I knowed all the time ez Marcelly war a-goin’ ter marry Clem Sanders, — ain’t ye, Marcelly ?
Andy Longwood caught his breath, as he looked up at her. There was a touch of coquetry in the glance of her eye and her mounting color, as she nodded a careless acquiescence. She would not contradict the invalid, and perchance she relished the tumult of indignation that flared, upon her gesture of affirmation, in Andy Longwood’s face ; for nothing concerning her old playfellow seemed a serious matter to her. The next moment she was smiling down at him, ready to signal a negative to him, but he had turned his head resolutely away.
“ Sometimes,” pursued the politician, " I’d say ter Teck, whenst he talked ’bout Marcelly, I’d say, ‘ I’m obligated ter hev a mighty smart man fur my sonin-law, kase I hev got a darter ez hev n’t got her ekal fur looks an’ goodness outside o’ the courts o’ heaven. Kin ye read ? ’ An’ he ’d say, mighty oneasy,
‘ Naw ; what do I want ter read fur ? ’ An’ then I’d say, ‘ Kin ye even spell ? Clem Sanders kin.’ An’ he’d say, ‘Naw, powerful glum, I tell ye. Then he’d be perlite fur true fur a while, — a good while. When, Andy, I ’ll tell ye, ’twixt ye an’ me an’ the gate-post, sech spellin’ ez Clem Sanders kin do ougkter be agin the law ! It air agin every law o’ spellin’. Clem oughter be hung a leetle fur each offense. It jes’ fixes him in his criminal conduct agin the alphabet. Oh, ho! But Teck never knowed no better. He ’lowed I wanted a schoollarned son-in-law, an’ Clem war that larned man. Heigh ho ! I reckon I ought n’t ter hev made him so mis’able in his las’ days. But I could n’t abide ter git cut out’n my office kase all the young idjits in the kentry war insane ’bout Marcelly.”
He leaned back in his chair once more, desisting at last, for there were unmistakable signs of losing his audienoe. Andy Longwood, who had wished to go earlier, but had found his will not adequate to the emergency, remaining helplessly embarrassed by the awkwardness of the situation which left him an unwelcome witness of Eli Strobe’s mania, now felt the energy of his own grievances imparted to his volition by the disclosures which had chanced to be made. He was once more self-absorbed, selfcentred. He hardly noticed the wounded man, or that he rose to go so precipitately upon the conclusion of the last sentence that it savored of the rudeness of interruption and disrespect to his elders. He could go now, easily enough, — willingly. His face, as he stood, younger far than his muscles, callow of expression considering his height, belying his claim to the authority and respect that he arrogated as a full-grown man, was flushed, and wore that petulant importance of adolescence that falls far short of the dignity for which it strives in vain. Marcella knew well the puerile heroics and reproaches that would have come from him had they been alone; and so much his senior was the girl, four years his junior, that she was wont to slyly laugh at him, maternally humor his view of his own importance, and to feel very kindly toward him, for they had always been together, and he had been a merry and good-tempered playmate in the old days. He had not yet ceased to be amusing, save, poor fellow, to himself.
“I mus’ be a-goin’,” he observed, not lifting his eyes, and articulating indistinctly, for he only superficially moved his lips. She had often seen him in this mood, and ten years ago these manifestations, so familiar to her, would have preceded a wild burst of tears and a stamping of small brogans in rage. She remembered him in this guise of youthful grief. Such seizures had passed from his recollection as if they had never been. He could not have pictured himself at any period so removed from that idea of dignified and important identity which he fancied was himself.
We air goin’ ter dish up dinner, Andy,” she observed, alluringly. “ Some o the late corn ain’t plumb hardened yit, an we air goin’ ter hev corn-puddin’. 1 hem guinea hens ye gin me lays aigs enough far ennything. Ye better stay.”
Few people in this world have the opportunity of beholding a fairer, more gracious face than that which she turned, as she bent over her wheel, and looked at him, her eyes shining and sweet, her lips smiling, showing the glittering line of her teeth.
But he kept his face averted.
“I don’t want no dinner,” he declared.
“ Got above eatin’, hev ye ? ” remarked Eli Strobe, whose affinities were essentially those of maturity, and who had scant sympathy with the callow stage of manhood. He entertained a robust contempt for its assertions and its confidence in some bigger and better future, likely to wait upon its superior capacities, than other men had attained. “ Ye 'll git ter heaven quicker ’n ye think fur, ef ye jes’ hold out an’ foller that fashion ez a constancy.”
Andy lifted his eyes slightly now, with an expression of surly affrontedness, but mindful of his own position he said merely, I ain’t hongry.” He lingered a moment still, because the mountaineers do naught precipitately ; then with a deliberate “ Waal, good-by,” he started away.
“ Andy ! cried Marcella, her voice indeed as sweet as the mocking-bird’s. He turned, gloomily unappeased, stiffly obeying her behest to accord attention. He leaned upon his long rifle, as he stood in the path and looked hack. She had risen, and had come to the verge of the porch ; one hand was on the post, the other was held out to him. She was smiling still, and tears would have touched him as more appropriate, — smiling easily and naturally, with a touch of jesting, ridiculing remonstrance in her manner. “ I furgot. I want ter ax ye ter do me a favior — but — but — ye look so mad I be mos’ afeard. Air ye mad ? ”
So mad ! And this was the way she interpreted his heartbreak.
He looked with stern reproach at her, although he spoke in a gentle tone, but with solemn significance : —
“ Mad ? What hev I got ter be mad ’bout, Marcelly ? ”
“ Nuthin’,” she began.
“ That don’t hender, Andy,” interrupted Eli Strobe, unable to refrain from taking a hand in the little game. “ The maddest folks air always them ez hev got no call ter git mad.”
“ I war ’feard ye mought mebbe be mad with me,” said Marcella, still provokingly smiling, and stepping down from the porch and slowly approaching him.
The sunshine was on her bare head. The rich chestnut-brown of her hair showed such lustre and depth of color in the broad light, such gloss and fineness of texture. And how it waved and curled as it fell down on her shoulders, with an electrical isolation of filaments toward the ends, where they seemed to lose the expression of color, and gave only cloudy, indefinite effects that left no opportunity for strong, crude lines about her head. Her fair skin was fairer still in the radiance. Her eyes were dazzled ; she held one hand above them, and their expression, as she looked at him from the shadow, might have mollified aught less wrapped in self than this very young man. To him it all meant that Marcella knew that she had given cause for offense, and was wishing to make it up by laughing him out of his just indignation ; for a half laugh curved her lips, and brought out a dimple in her cheek, to fluctuate there with her effort to ridicule him. She came silently, looking tall and slight, fit to be swayed even by a gentle wind, and stood beside him in the narrow path; glancing at him for a moment, then turning and gazing casually from under her hand, that shielded her smiling eyes, now at one and then another of the great, ranges, shimmering azure through the sun, save when a white cloud in the sky set a dimly purple image of itself a-scudding as impalpably over the mountains. He was impelled to speak first. He’ did so in a tone of grave and measured constraint, as one who will not resent, though feeling, offense.
“ What favior did ye wanter ax me, Marcelly ? ”
Her eyes rested incidentally still longer on the mountains; then she fixed them on his face, altogether unmoved by his grave tone, except, perchance, to laughter. She took hold of the barrel of his rifle with her left hand.
“ I want ye ter loan me this rifle o’ yourn, Andy. I want ter shoot a old hawk ez hev been a-flusterin’ round the hens an’ chickens lately.”
He stood, blankly astonished, for a moment.
“ Why n’t ye borry yer dad’s ? ” he demanded, in surly suspicion of her motives.
Once more she turned her shaded eyes upon the mountains.
“ Oh, kase,” she said, altogether unembarrassed by the expression of stern and serious inquiry in his eyes, " ye gin me mos’ o’ the chickens I hev got, an’ mebbe it mought be good luck ef I war ter shoot the hawk with yer own gun.”
This seemed to him perfectly reasonable, but his distrust of her was so great at the moment that he subjected the possibility of occult motives to a searching mental scrutiny. He failed to evolve anything more plausible, or indeed anything beyond what she had said. He looked at her hard for a moment, still bitterly resenting her undimmed brightness under his displeasure, and he secretly thought she had ill chosen her time to ask of him a favor. Still maintaining his gravely offended aspect, he said, “Ye kin hev it, Marcelly, ez long ez ye want it.” He released his hold upon it, leaving it in her hand, and went his way without another word. At the gate he did not look back, but pursued the turnrow until he was half through the field. Under some impulse then which he did not seek to discriminate, he glanced over his shoulder.
Marcella was standing in the path where he had left her, still gazing after him. She held the long rifle in one hand, leaning her soft cheek against its surly ramrod at one side of the barrel, her hair floating about. She smiled radiantly at him through the sunshine, and called out with joyous sweetness, " Goodby, Andy.”
If he said aught in response, she did not hear it. Her charming smile, intent on mollification, failed of effect; it was too much, however, to expect even of feminine tact that she should have divined that frowns might have served better, or null seriousness, inexpressive and impenetrable. The flash of light from her eyes set a-flaring his intelligence, — a sufficiently good endowment, but lacking those traits of divination and imagination characteristic of more finely furnished brains. Without its impetus he could never have experienced an abrupt illumination and certainty concerning Marcella’s motive, which opened before him by the time he had ponderingly approached the verge of the corn-field. Its contemplation almost took his breath away. He stood motionless, staring vaguely before him, realizing why she had wanted his rifle, — how strange that he had not instantly known! Had he so soon forgotten his idle threats ? He had a vivid mental picture of himself as he must have looked as he stood on the porch this morning, significantly tapping the trigger of the loaded rifle. She had not thought those threats idle ! His foolish courage flared up to match the estimation in which he thought she held him. She knew him for a dangerous man ! and the blood pulsed fast through his veins as this flattering idea impelled it. She was afraid he would indeed wreak woe upon the man whom she was to marry. Her father had said that she was to marry Clem Sanders, and she had not denied it. He had unconsciously disbelieved this at the time, as one cannot at first realize a misfortune, which stuns the finer sensibilities by the weight of its fall. Only now he was beginning to appreciate what her loss meant to him ; it almost unmanned him for a moment, thinking as he did that it was her solicitude for the safety of her lover that devised the clever ruse to win his rival’s rifle.
“ ’Feard I’d hurt Clem,” he said with a sneer, despite his quivering lip. Perhaps it was the idea that violence was expected of him, which her precautions first suggested to him, — for the bravado and bloody-mindedness of his conversation had been utterly without intention, — that determined him upon his course.
“ Naw, naw, Marcelly,” he said, half aloud and mournfully shaking his head, “ ef not me — nobody.” He leaned down as he spoke, and drew from his boot-leg a glittering steely flash; he looked around with a quick, apprehensive glance ; but the sere stalks of the corn, which were straggling here, so near the end of the field, would nevertheless serve to shield him from the observation of any one in the yard or the porch of the cabin. He examined the knife with fierce eyes, his teeth set hard together : the handle was strong, the metal excellently well tempered. He passed his fingers gingerly along the edge, — keen, how keen ! Clem Sanders himself had sharpened it! He thrust it back into his long boot-leg, and went on taking his way down the road toward the forge, nerved by the fact that bloodshed was expected of him.
A drought had succeeded the wet weather and the deep ruts formed by the wagon wheels in the red clay mire of the road were still stiff and hard, mementos of their slow, creaking progress ; and although here and there the thin crust crumbled under his heel, his steps left no other trace. He heard a thrush whistle from the weeds as he went. He looked up at the spaces of the broad blue sky, infinite elsewhere, but here with bounds and barriers, for the mountains limited it and made it local. He was vaguely conscious that his dog, with an affectation of fidelity to his true owner, as one might seek to cultivate a fine trait to wear as a graceful accomplishment, knowing it to be exotic to the soil, trotted, with his long, lithe stride and sinuous body, at his heels, with a wagging tail and a nose that pretended to snuff the ground, as if solicitous for some trail of fox, or rabbit, or other gentry. His master was presently made aware of his defection by seeing the canine shadow, cast a little in advance, suddenly swerve aside, and with a deft pace and a drooping tail the hound set out swiftly for his adopted home.
The very dog hev gin me up,” his master muttered bitterly. Sorrow at his age is not all bitterness ; it had an element of satisfaction to be so very adequate to his sufferings and his wrongs. He mechanically turned his head to look after the creature, who had paused, looking back too with regret, rent with inward dissension, his poor dog-conscience struggling between his sense of duty and preference. He looked a trifle handsomer than his wont, with the animation of his emotion expressed in his slender, alert head and his bright eyes. Then, with a sudden sharp yelp that seemed to cadence the pang of decision, he betook himself swiftly away from temptation, resolved to persevere in desertion, and was soon lost to view as the turn-row swallowed him amongst the corn. The next moment Andy had forgotten that he existed. The music of the forge was on the air, the clinking of the handhammer and the clanking of the sledge. How the distant sound assimilated with the mountain voices, as the echoes came lilting forth to meet it! The ear might hardly discern the repetitions of the rock from the vibrations of the metal. Presently he could hear the anvil sing, and then the strokes seemed only marking the rhythm of this fine, tremulous, highpitched monody. Clem Sanders was there at his work, all unsuspicious of the fate coming with long strides down the road. What strange, untimely thought was this ! The muscles below Longwood’s knee were suddenly sensitive to the pressure of the knife-blade in his boot, and he was reminded of a grisly old story of a cruel man whose hand was palsied on his weapon in the moment when he would have taken a fellow-man’s life. An old woman’s story this, told in the dusk at the fireside, to sap away with mystery and weird lights and artful words a man’s courage when he should resent his wrongs like a man ; for were they not all afraid of bloodshed, these women, and cowards to their heart’s core ? He was dragging his left leg, for all his logic and his scorn of a pusillanimous peace. How the anvil sang, — how it sang! And why need he wonder would it be silent to - morrow, — would it ever give forth that sonorous melody again under the hand of the man who now wielded the hammer ? Who talks of to-morrow ? Poor fool, let him mind to-day. Was the blade turning around in his boot ? Every fibre of the limb was oppressed with its significant presence. His courage, however, did not wait upon his nerves ; he saw altogether unmoved that there were half a dozen idle men standing about the door of the forge, or loitering within. His pace had grown slower since that fancy about the knife had taken hold of him, but as he made his way up the slight ascent to the door of the forge he stooped down and boldly drew out the weapon; the man in the doorway fixed a meditative eye upon him, thinking, doubtless, he had brought the blade to have an edge put on it. Longwood could see through the dusky little place, for the window at the rear was open, and he marveled to find his senses so alert. In such a moment he thought it strange to recognize Teck Jepson, leaning against the wall, his face white since the summer sunburn had worn away, and thoughtful, and with imperative lines even in silent reverie; his hands were thrust in his leather belt, his eyes were fixed on the leafless autumn woods. Nay, Longwood took note even of the bare brambles of the wild rose outside of the window, its profuse pods glowing scarlet amongst the gray rocks and the brown moss, and the fine-webbed witchery of the hoarfrost lying on the sere leaves.
Clem Sanders’s massive figure was the focus of the group, with his leather apron girded about his waist, his sleeves rolled back from his muscular arms, the light of the fire — a steady red glow, for the bellows was idle — upon his square, goodhumored face, that was refined by that look of earnest attention and grave content characteristic of the good workman at his chosen task. One hand held with the tongs the metal upon the anvil; the other wielded the hand-hammer with deft precision, and the sledge came crashing down, as Jube, the parson’s son, grasped it with both hands. The brown shadows clustered about them, and the figure of the striker with the sledge was only dimly suggested in the rich depths of the picture. Each detail grew more distinct as the young man advanced toward the shanty under the shelving crag and the waving pine ; the apartment gradually seemed lighter than it did at a distance, seen through the brilliant crisp air, and with the contrast of the sunshine and the high color of the autumnal world without. As the charcoal, which was mingled with the earth, at the door, began to grate beneath his feet, he wondered that none of those within took note of his deadly intention ; that the smith should stand undefended, unwarned, for Clem’s unnoting head was bent over his work, and the yellow sparks flew from the red-hot iron as the hammer and the sledge alternately fell. Longwood did not realize how much the habitual imperturbable aspect characteristic of the mountaineer cloaked his agitation and his design. Even when he strode into the place, his drawn knife in his hand, calling out, “ Clem Sanders, stand up ter fight! I be a-goin’ ter kill ye ! ” the ruminant idler in the doorway, slowly chewing his quid of tobacco, merely shifted his eyes upon the new-comer, and an elongation in the stiff wrinkles about his mouth betokened preparation to smile. Teck Jepson withdrew slowly his attention from the bleak wilds without, and the smith responded cheerily, his head still bent over the anvil, “ Kill away ! ” while the painstaking blows of the forging alternated with the precision of machinery and the sparks flew.
Longwood hesitated for a moment ; then, with a swift fear that his resolution might fail him, he rushed impetuously forward. The sharp blade in Lis hand struck the blacksmith beneath the shoulder blade ; it was long and keen enough to have pierced his heart. There was no fault in the weapon, — a good strong knife ; the hand had faltered, — no sincere hatred had nerved it. The blade fell clanking to the ground, as the blacksmith tapped the face of the anvil as a signal that the blows of the sledge should cease. He turned around slowly, his straight eyebrows lifted. “ What air ye doin’ of, Andy ? ” he demanded.
“ I stabbed ye. I wanter kill ye,” Longwood muttered, doubtful of himself and bereft of his weapon, for Clem Sanders had casually stooped and picked up the knife.
The movement had possibly caused the slight wound to gape.
“ Look-a-yander how Clem’s a-bleedin’ ! ” exclaimed Jube Donnard, in the excited falsetto of a born sensationalist.
“ Great Molly Har ! ” cried the smith, showing emotion for the first time, " did he cut a hole in this hyar brand-new shirt ? Mam hev jes’ done wove it, an’ she ’lowed ef these hyar shirts did n’t las’ me no longer ’n common, I ’d hev ter git the trash cloth at the store, ready wove, or else marry a wife ter do the weavin’. Kase she ’lows it’s through gamesomeness, an’ not work, I git my clothes so tore up. Look-a-hyar, Andy,” — he fixed a severe, threatening eye on his assailant, — " ye boys air gittin’ too rough in yer playin’, kemin’ an’ a-cuttin’ other folkses clothes. Mighty pore fun.”
He shook his head reprehensively, and turned excitedly toward Jube as he again cried out, " Look how Clem’s a-bleedin’! ”
“ I ain’t a-keerin’ fur that! ” exclaimed the doughty blacksmith. “ It will stop bleedin’ d’rectly. An’ my skin will do its own repairin’ ’thout mam ter talk a bushel medjure ’bout the sadness o’ hevin’ ter patch. What I’m tormented ’bout air this hyar tear in this new shirt. Air it sizable much ? ”
He crooked his neck dexterously and sought to look over his shoulder to see the rent, but for all his muscle he could not accomplish the feat.
“ What air ye ondertakin’ ter stab folks fur, Andy Longwood ? ” Teck Jepson had ceased to lean against the window, and his tone was stern and inquisitorial. " What do ye want ter kill Clem fur ? Do ye s’pose I’d hev stood by an’ seen ye done sech ? ”
The young fellow, aghast at what he had done, and still more aghast at what he had sought to do, experienced a sudden revulsion of feeling upon hearing Jepson’s words ; his fluctuating anger, that had failed to bear him through his enterprise, flared up anew. His pride, too, was touched that Clem had held his rage and the wound he had dealt as so slight a thing, — offering not even a blow in return; he was nettled that in no way could he impress a commensurate idea of the intention and the spirit that had animated him, and he resented infinitely Jepson’s tone, upbraiding him as if he were a boy. The wish for adequate reprisal, to deal him a blow that he would surely feel to the quick, broke down what slight reserves his boyish nature had.
“ Ye hev got the same reason ter want him dead ez me! ” he cried out. " Marcelly Strobe air a-goin’ ter marry him. Her dad said so, — an’ she did, too.”
He had the satisfaction of seeing Teck Jepson palpably recoil. He was all at once very pale. He did not look at Clem Sanders, nor seem to see anything very definitely. He gazed blankly into space, or perhaps into the vistas of memory for corollary data to confirm this thing. His hand was on the windowsill, and it trembled slightly.
Andy Longwood watched these symptoms of pain, each pang of which he could well divine, with a sort of gloating relish, and once or twice his quick breathing was so pronounced as to seem a snort of victory.
“ Now ! Now ! ” he said, nodding his head triumphantly.
Clem Sanders had stood as one petrified, turning over these significant words in his mind, with a rampant doubt on his face. Suddenly he regained his faculty of motion and his easy credulity. He tore off his leather apron, leaving the iron cooling on the anvil. As he plunged his dark red head into the barrel of cold water, his intention began to be manifest to the idlers about the place. Their rallying laughter and gibes gave Andy Longwood food for meditation anew. Evidently this was news to Clem, and the others seemed to readily appreciate it.
“ Take another souse, Clem, ef ye air goin’ a-visitin’,” observed the grinning Bassett; “ then she can’t tell how red yer head be.”
Clem stared at him credulously, and obediently thrust his red head into the water, in the midst of renewed merriment.
Andy Longwood experienced a sudden terror, which showed that his hope was not dead, as he had accounted it, but merely comatose.
“ Don’t tell her’t war me ez stabbed ye, Clem,” he pleaded, every vestige of the desperado gone. “ Don’t tell on me.”
“ G’long, Andy ! ” replied the goodnatured fellow. “ I hev got suthin’ better ’n you-uns ter talk about.”
He put on his coat, and strode briskly out of the forge and up the hill. They could hear him whistling a long way. Before he had reached Eli Strobe’s cabin, however, the blithe tones were checked. He in his turn heard music, — a vague, fitful lilting ; now striking out with some full, rich tone, then trailing away to a meditative murmur, as if the lips whence it issued were closed save for this dream of a sound. He looked about for a moment, uncertain in the silence; and then the song came again, clear and serene, and mellow as the day itself, seeming a part of the fine and full culminations that the yellow sunshine, and the violet haze, and the deeply blue sky, and the calm of the season expressed. It was Marcella, singing like a dryad in the woods, fragments and fitful impulses stirring the sylvan solitudes with sweet and vagrant accords, and making the echo timorous to try so elusive a strain.
Clem Sanders turned aside into the woods, following the sound. The sere leaves rustled under his feet; the vistas seemed to be clarified by their pure, fine brown color ; now and then a dash of the bolder red or the yellow of the foliage, still hanging on the trees, served at once to accent it and as a contrast. The boles were dark, and stood out distinctly, apparently innumerable. He did not see her ; he waited, listening, but she sang no more, and he pressed forward without even this variant and uncertain guide. There was much fallen timber here and there, victims of the late storm, the leaves still clinging to their limbs; sometimes a sturdy neighbor had caught the smitten tree, and still stood, upbearing the dead bulk, its own doom certain but slow in the weight of its lifeless burden ; and here was one whose fall had wrought at once complete devastation,—the giant of the forest hurled to the ground in a single blast, the roots torn from the earth; the topmost fibres of these clayembedded roots were higher than the saplings hard by; a deep excavation showed where they had once been buried. Suddenly a hound clambered out of this cavity, and ran briskly, nosing about with occasional wheezes, evidently bent on small game. “ I ’ll be bound Andy Longwood did n’t let ye run rabbits whenst he owned ye,” even the lenient blacksmith was moved to observe, marking this lapse from the accepted traditions of the etiquette of deerhounds. He welcomed the sight of him, however, as the herald of Marcella, and presently he saw her sitting quite still on the bole of a fallen tree, her head bare, flecked with the sunshine as the wind stirred the leaves of the oaks above her, one hand listlessly clasping the bough near by, and the other holding a bunch of herbs which Mrs. Strobe had charged her to seek ; a basket of eggs was at her feet. As she looked up and saw Clem coming toward her, his heart sank, so serene, and casual, and unmoved was her glance. He had not doubted his good fortune since the first stupendous moment of its revelation, but now he recognized the incongruity of her expression, and its utter irreconcilability with his conclusion. He had been prepared to be embarrassed, being — to use his own phrase — “ bashfuller ’n ennybody.” But in all his experience he had never known so awkward and unhappy an interval as when he stood beside her. after the succinct exchange of salutation, “ Howdy.”
She looked calmly forward, and as he stood beside the tree, with one hand upon a branch that seemed to come out in a neighborly way and give him something to lean upon, at all events, he gazed searchingly down at her, then blankly at the sun-flecked woods, then once more bent his earnest eyes upon her.
“ Been a-huntin’ aigs ? ” was the scanty result of all this cogitation, as he indicated the basket of eggs.
Marcella nodded assent. Then, after a silence, she demanded, “ Enny objection ? ”
Even Clem could not fail to observe the flash of laughter in her eyes, but it did not serve to render him more comfortable.
“ Naw’m, — naw’m,” he said, with propitiating precipitation.
A long pause ensued. Marcella, despite her own deliberate methods of conversation, found these intervals of irksome duration, and was moved to make a remark.
“ I hev been huntin’ guinea-hens’ aigs. They hide ’em so fur off, in sech out’n - the - way places, but I fund a right smart chance of ’em.” She looked down with satisfaction into her basket at the dull cream-colored trophies, wrested from the fowls, whose old vagrant instinct so long survives domestication. “ I fund twelve in one nest. I hev got a whole passel o’ guineas.”
“ Yes-sum! ” said Clem, eagerly awaiting a pause that he might interject this earnestly acquiescent formula. For all his bashfulness, he scarcely withdrew his eyes from her face. His manner, too, was sufficiently assured. It was only in words that he manifested his reverent humility, and his timidity, and his earnest repudiation of any sentiment or opinion, however dear, that might not coincide with hers. He had no words to commend himself. He would have found it hard, so beset was he by doubt and fear, to put his fate to the test at any time. But to go through all the decorous preliminaries of asking her hand and heart, without betraying that he had been prompted by the encouragement which he had had from Andy Longwood’s report, was beginning to seem inconceivably hazardous to a transparent soul, who had never hidden an emotion in his life, or known a secret that he did not tell. He was wrestling with the anxiety of the consciousness of her preference, and the necessity to make her suppose he knew nothing of it, when she suddenly spoke again. The mention of the guinea-hens reminded her of their donor, and of her ruse to take his weapon away that he might do no harm. “ Hev ye seen Andy Longwood ter-day ? ” she asked casually, seeking to know how far she had been successful.
It seemed to him in the moment that she had opened a way for him. “ Yessum. That’s why I kem hyar, — straight, straight ez I hearn it. I felt so happy, — an’ yit I war ’feard ’twar n’t true. ’T war true, Marcelly ? ’T war true, though ? ”
She looked up at him, startled and amazed at his vehemence ; her eyes dilated. wonder in every eloquent trait. “ What’s kem over ye, Clem Sanders ? Air what true ? ” she asked bluntly.
“ Marcelly,” he replied, his voice trembling, “don’t git mad at me, no matter what happens ; ye know I ain’t school-larned, like yer dad.” This was merely a fortuitous stroke of policy, for his simple nature was not capable of attempting genuine strategy. “ I dunno ef ye hev furgot, but Andy Longwood said ez ye ’lowed ter him ye war goin’ ter marry me ; an’ the Lord knows I hev lived an’ breathed jes’ in that hope, pears ter me, ever sence I war alive, but ” — He stopped precipitately.
Her face was scarlet; her eyes flashed with a fire that seemed to scorch him.
“ Did ye b’lieve that ? ” she cried contemptuously. “ Did ye b’lieve I ’d ’low sech ez that ? — an’ I never did, ’ceptin ter nod my head when dad said ez much, kase the doctor’lowed we mustn’t argufy an’ cross dad, an’ git him sot catawampus in his temper. Did ye ’low I ’d say in earnest I ’d marry a man ez never axed me ? ”
For once in his life Clem spoke to her with eager and decisive contradiction. But even then it was prefaced with his suave “Yes-sum.” “ But, shucks, Marcelly ! Talk about axin’! Ye know I’d hev axed enny day in the year ez I warn’t afeard ter. Ye air obleeged ter know t war jes’ kase I war afeard ye ’d say no. I kep’ a-puttin’ it off, lowin’ mebbe suthin’ mought happen ter make ye think mo’ of me.”
She was not appeased. “ Waal,” she observed calmly, “ I warn’t in earnest. I never thunk about marryin’ ye. An’ I won’t.”
“ Yes-sum,” said Clem, crestfallen. “ But ye ’ll never git nobody, Marcelly, ez would try harder ter do jes’ like ye wanted ’em ter. I would n’t cross yer notions no way ye could fix ’em. These other boys in the Cove, ef ye air thinkin’ ’bout choosin’ one out’n Brumsaidge ” —
“ I don’t choose folks. I ’lowed I hed tole ye that,” she responded, holding her head very high on her fine and delicate neck, and looking at him with her definite straight eyebrows frowningly meeting above her dark eyes, that seemed to him unnaturally clear and brilliant.
“ Yes-sum. But howsomdever these other boys air powerful set in thar way, an’ some o’ thar ways ain’t pritty ones.” This as closely approached slander as the good Clem Sanders could compass. “ They air toler’ble good boys,” he felt constrained to qualify, “but they would n’t be good fur ye ter marry. I tell ye, now, Marcelly, ye mought find a smarter man mos’ ennywhar, — though not a better blacksmith, — but ye ’ll never find nobody ez loves ye like I do, an’ would take the pains ter please ye like I would, ef ye war ter marry me.”
“ I hev got no sort’n notion o’ doin’ it, — never hed,” she declared bluntly.
“ Yes-sum.” said Clem, infinitely cast down.
“ I dunno ez I hev got ter marry enny o’ the boys in the Cove. I dunno ez I hev got ter marry ennybody,” she said loftily. “ Some folks don’t.”
“ Yes-sum ; but did n’t they always ’pear ter you-uns ter be powerful lonesome ? he suggested humbly.
This did not altogether fail to take effect. She pondered silently for a time on this phase of a single life. Presently she remarked : —
“ I would n’t be no lonesomer single ’n I’d be married ter some folks.”
He interpreted this as a thrust at his own lack of certain congenial and companionable qualities which she esteemed essential.
“Yes-sum,” he replied, more cut down still.
Perhaps she felt some pang of pity for his disappointment; perhaps she was not now so angry as at first, because of his very natural mistake, and thought, it the least brutal method of disposing of his superfluous heart to argue his unfitness for the position to which he aspired.
“ An’ air yer ways so powerful pritty, Clem ? ” she demanded. “ Cornsiderin’ how close we neighbor the forge, an’ hear the dancin’, an’ the fiddlin’, an’ the wrastlin’, an’ laffin’ ez goes on thar of a evenin’, I never expected ter live ter hear yer ways called pritty ones.”
“ Yes-sum,” said Clem. “ But ef ye’d marry me I ’d stay home of a evenin’. an’ that thar forge would be dark an’ still enough I ’ll be bound.”
“ Waal, yer wife, whoever she ’ll be, won’t want sech fiddlin’, an’ dancin’, an’ singin’ round her in her house of a evenin’ ez ye hev been useter, Clem. I can’t think o’ ye no ways but ez cavortin’, — though ye air mighty peaceable an’ quiet, an’ kin behave some similar ter a mouse whenst ye kem visitin’ the gals.”
“ Yes-sum,” said poor Clem. “ But I don’t visit no gals but you-uns.”
“ Laws-a-massy! An’ jes’ think how Is’bel an’ granny hev been gin over ter pride, bein’ ez they ’lowed ye kem a-visitin’ them ! ” There was a wicked gleam in her eye as she sped this dart. “ Naw, naw ! everybody knows the name that thar forge hev got! ”
“Yes-sum.” He hesitated for a moment ; then he said, looking at her, his jaw growing square and determined, his expression changing with this infusion of more mundane matters into his thoughts, “Tharain’t a-goin’ter be enny mo’ o’ them queer midnight goin’s-on at the forge, Marcelly, arter this, — ye mark my words.” Then, as if he fancied he had spoken too roughly, he hastened to say, apropos of nothing, “Yes-sum,” and cleared his throat.
Marcella sat feeling stunned for a moment. In what inexplicable way could he have known of the discovery that she had made at the forge in the wild, stormy midnight ? Was he indeed aware of the intrusion of Jake Baintree and the stranger, who worked the bellows, and wielded the hammer and sledge, and were frightened when interrupted, and who came forth only to give aid for humanity’s sake ? She would not forget that, whatever might happen, she said to herself.
He did not interpret her expression aright; he only saw that she was at a loss.
“ Hain’t ye never hearn what happened at the forge arter Pa’son Donnard ’lowed he seen the devil thar ? ”
“ Naw,” she said, fixing her eyes gravely on him.
Her interest in the subject emboldened him to sit beside her on the log, but as he bent forward, leaning his elbows on his knees and looking at her, he only saw her profile ; for she listened silently, flattering him with her air of attention, but did not turn her head.
“ Waal, arter the pa’son seen the devil thar I felt toler’ble tormented, an’ sorter kep’ a lookout on the forge ; an’ one night, ’bout midnight” (Marcella’s foot stirred uneasily amongst the pine cones ; her face was a trifle paler than its wont; her lips were slightly compressed), “ I hearn the hammer an’ the sledge a-poundin’ an’ the bellows a-roarin’, an’ fur all ’t war a moonlight night ” —
“ Oh, moonlight! ” exclaimed Marcella with a note of relief.
“Yes-sum, bright moonlight — but I could see the forge fire a-flarin’ through the chinkin’. Waal, I dunno what got inter me, but I felt obligated ter know ef that thar dead Clem Sanders — Ye hearn ’bout him, did n’t ye, what pa’son purtended ter see ? ” He spoke with acerbity and a curling lip.
“ I wanted ter see ef he war thar agin, with the devil mebbe a-strikin’ fur him. Waal, I war so darned clumsy an’ awk’ard I fell flop down agin the window-shutter ; an’ I hev got party fur ter fall, an’ thar’s a heap o’ me ter topple, an’ I like ter hev busted the side o’ the house down. An’ when I got up thar war no light, nor sound, nor nuthin’; jes’ a leetle mite o’ a live-coal on the ha’th, an’ the anvil a-singin’. Waal, I ’lowed ’t war Satan, till Jube Donnard — ye know, the pa’son’s son, a denied tattler ! — he went an’ tole it all ter his dad. An’ ef ye b’lieve me, that thar godly old man did go an’ prop hisself on the side o’ the mounting ter git a view o’ Satan, — wanted ter see him !
“ The pa’son ! ” exclaimed Marcella, vaguely scandalized.
“ Yes-sum, the pa’son ! An’ I tole Jube I -would never listen ter him preach no mo’ — enny godly man ez hankered ter view the devil agin, arter hevin’ viewed him wunst! An’ a-skitterin’ out in the middle o’ the night, like he war one o’ the boys, along with that thar caper-y Jube ! Always s’prised me ez the pa’son war willin’ ter claim kin with Jube, let alone jinin’ him at sech cavortin’s! Sometimes I feel like I be too pious myself ter ’sociate with the pa’son’s son. An’ Jube up-ed an’ 'lowed ez he didn’t keer whether I went ter hell through neglectin’ means o’ grace an’ the pa’son’s sermons or jes’ from active wickedness, an’ ez his fambly hed no contrac’, ez he knowed on, ter land me on the golden shore ! Jube say him an’ his mam ain’t the pa’son, an’ nothin’ like it, an’ the congregation hain’t got a mortgage on nare hair o’ thar heads, though the pa’son ‘lows ez his flock owns him.”
Clem repeated the sharp retort of his friend without any show of temper, as if he were merely interested in setting the purport of the conversation before Marcella. She kept quite still, her hands holding the bunch of herbs, her eyes meditative and yet attentive. She seemed to pursue a definite train of thought, which she in some sort modified and adjusted in reference to his disclosure. He had never talked so much in all his life. He found a new and unique pleasure in sitting beside Marcella, feeling liberated in some sort, since Mrs. Strobe’s sarcasms no longer paralyzed his simple modes of thought, nor Isabel’s pert interruptions embarrassed him and cut him short. Marcella seemed willing, nay, eager, to hear, and how glad he was to tell! Always afterward he associated the place with that happy hour ; the drear season of autumn seemed the choicest time of the year. How should he take heed now that the splendor of the turn of the leaf was but a hectic red and presage of death; that the sun was withdrawing itself to far ways, and would be but a cold glitter for a time; that snows were garnering somewhere, and many things light and blithe — that bird in its poise on the golden-rod, the squirrel frisking along the tree, even a deer of which they had a sudden glimpse, approaching in a silent interval, thrusting out its graceful head, with startled lustrous eyes, from the laurel not twenty yards away, and disappearing at the sight of them like an hallucination — all should die under the rigors of the hard winter coming. He saw only how Marcella’s hair waved, how fair of face she was, how the sunlight crept to her feet and crouched there, like a tame thing, casting a yellow brilliancy into her brown eyes as she looked down. It was an undreamed-of delight, this choice confidence, and she might be sure of hearing all to which she would listen ; he had forgotten the doubtful past and his fears for the future in the rich flavor of the exquisite present.
“Ye see, Marcelly, Jube air one o’ them boys ez tell all they know, an’ ain’t got no sort’n jedgmint; though he’s good-hearted, Jube is, an’ him an’ me useter play roun’ the wood-pile in the chips tergether ’fore we-uns could walk. An’ so we he toler’ble friendly. An’ though Jube tells on me ter the pa’son, he kems back an’ tells on the pa’son ter me.”
His eyes twinkled, for he thought that, having little to lose, he might endure Jube’s frankness better than the parson, who must be flawless. Then his face grew grave with a certain reflective intentness ; a prescient excitement was kindling in his eye.
“ Waal, Jube say that night whilst him an’ the pa’son roosted like two demented tur-rkey gawblers up thar on them big bluffs right above my forge, they seen no devils, but about midnight two men kem along the road, — powerful dark night it war; they kem gingerly along, an’ Jube say they stopped right thar in front o’ the door o’ the shop. Jube say he knows, kase he hearn one o’ ’em rattlin’ the latch I put on them big doors ter keep ’em from blowin’ open in the wind. An’ then Jube, stiddier waitin’ fur ’em ter go in an’ see what they ’d do, jes’ ’lowed he ’d skeer ’em, an’ he flapped his arms an’ crowed — Ye ever hear Jube crow ? ” he demanded suddenly, breaking off.
She shook her head slowly from side to side, although she refrained from saying that she did not covet the privilege in future.
“ Yes-sum. Waal, sir,” continued Clem in pride, “ he kin crow like a Sureenough, reg’lar rooster, — ye ’d think ’t war haffen a dozen poultry. Skeered the pa’son, sir, bein’ so onexpected, mighty nigh ter death. Jube can’t keep from laffin’ now whenst he tells ’bout’n it, though he say he knows the devil will burn him well fur laffin’ at his dad. An’ them men, they hollered an’ runned a leetle way. An’ then they stopped an’ hailed Jube. An’ all of a suddenly the sheet-lightning flickered up, broad an’ steady, an’ he seen who’t war.”
Marcella’s cheek was burning; her excited bright eyes were still cast down, and how the sunlight at her feet flared up luminously into their limpid depths ! She could hardly wait to hear, although she knew before she heard.
Clem lowered his voice to a husky mystery. “ ’T war Jake Baintree, one of ’em,” he said. “ An’ the t’other Jube hed never seen afore, — dressed diffe’nt, some similar ter town folks, some o’ the boys say, from what Jube tells : tall, with sandy whiskers, an’ light, an’ quick-steppin’. Oh, Jube will know him agin, ef ever he gits a show at him ! ”
There was a sort of savage exultation in his voice, in his face as he nodded his head to one side in a burly gesture of triumphant forecast.
Marcella felt a sudden cold thrill. She turned her head, and her eyes met his. “ How does Jube expec’ ter see him agin ? What’s he contrivin’ ter do ? ”
Even Clem Sanders hesitated, conscious that in this lure of happiness he had been led too far. The secret he would not have deemed safe with any woman. Had she been the wife that he wished to make her, he might have contrived to shift, to evade, to postpone. She was not married to him, and he could deny her nothing.
“ Yes-sum,” he began, with polite preface ; " but don’t let them boys know ez I hev tole ye, Marcelly, else they’d string me up ter a tree. Thar’s a lot of ’em a-layin’ fur Jake an’ that strange man.”
“ What air they a-goin’ ter do ter ’em?” Her voice had risen from its mellow contralto tones into a husky shrillness that was a note of fear, presaging horror.
Clem Sanders’s sensibilities were not acute, and he did not recognize its meaning.
“ That depends on what sort’n account they kin gin o’ tharselves.”
He was flattering himself that he had succeeded in so interesting her, and as he looked at her his long and narrow eyes smiled brightly, in the full faith of pleasing her.
“ Gin an account o’ tharselves ? ” she murmured ponderingly. She remembered how fragmentary and elusive had been their explanation of their intrusion at the forge and of the stranger’s presence in the mountains. This, she was sure, would fail to satisfy aught but gratitude that in its fullness was content to abate even curiosity. How should it satisfy antagonistic, suspicious, even cruel men, who had set themselves to spy, to judge, to punish ? The rough habits of the region, the lawless justice sometimes meted out by the arbitrary tribunals who claimed the preservation of local morals as within their exclusive jurisdiction, were only too familiar to her. She realized with a quick throb of the heart that these men were in danger. They had involved themselves in mystery ; their midnight intrusions at the forge could not be easily explained and innocently accounted for, or they would not have been secret. She was aware, too, of that insurmountable inequality which character creates in equal conditions. Had it been Bassett and Jube Donnard who, for secret purposes of their own, had invaded the smith’s forge and cloaked their comings and goings in mystery, it would have been hard to rouse Broomsedge Cove to any sense of wrong that the owner might have sustained, or any threatened insecurity of the public peace and honor. Far less leniently regarded would be the same deeds wrought in the same way by Jake Baintree, who according to public opinion had escaped the gallows by a technicality. and this stranger, a physician, a learned man, lurking in his company, she made no doubt, to evade the vengeance of the law for some dark deed that she shuddered to more definitely imagine. Doubtless they were in danger.
She had strong nerves. There was nothing partisan in her manner as she said, “ How do ye know they ever war in the forge a-workin’ an’ sech ? Ez ter Jube, I don’t set no store by Jube’s seein’. He kin see ennything he air a mind ter, — or else say he hev seen it. Mought be Satan, sure enough.”
“Yes-sum,” acquiesced Clem. “It air somebody ez ain’t used ter the blacksmithin’ business, fur no good smith would hev let that thar leetle bend in my leetle tongs git bruk off that-a-way, an’ then botch it a-mendin’ it. That hurt my feelin’s wuss ’n all, — the way he done the work.” He shook his head, grieved at the artificer’s incapacity. “ But sence Jube knowed ez’t war Jake Baintree at the latch, the boys don’t b’lieve in the devil no mo’, — leastwise not at the forge, ’thout it’s him along o’ Jake. Jake’s ekal ter ennythin’. Ye know he killed Sam’l Keale.”
“ He never ! ” Marcella burst forth suddenly. “ Dad say he never ! ” “ Yes-sum.” Clem made haste to agree. “ Ye know, though, that’s what them fellers up an’ down declar’.”
Marcella was silent for a moment, regretting her display of feeling, but Clem, alarmed for the progress which he fancied he had made in her good graces, proceeded with the subject in which she so evidently felt an interest.
“ They — whoever they air — hain’t been ter the forge more ’n a few times, an’ that’s a fac’, — the night whenst I saw’ it lighted up, an’ the time when they tried ter git in, an’ Jube skeered ’em off; arter that the boys began ter set up reg’lar fur ’em.”
“ Whar ? ” she exclaimed, aghast; then recollecting herself, she asked, “ Wharbouts, Clem ? ”
“ At my house. Night arter night ’bout ten of ’em hev kem thar with thar rifles, an’ watched that thar forge fur a glimge o’ light through the chinkin’, an’ listened fur the hammer an’ sledge. But them two hev n’t never lit up the forge but twict, — the time I seen it, an’ Joe Bassett seen it wunst afore that. Though some say they b’lieve’t war lighted that night o’ the big storm; the boys kem ter watch, but it ’peared so durned rainy they ’lowed ’t warn’t no use.”
So the vigilantes had nodded while she made her perilous journey to the forge, that terrible night, and brought help thence. She trembled to think how slight a thing had saved the two intruders.
“ They hain’t done much harm, — jes’ three times sence the first of August, an’ this air deep in the fall o’ the year,” she commented.
“ Yes-sum,” assented Clem. “ But nobody knows what harm they air doin’, an’ what mo’ they air goin’ ter do. Ef it’s good, ’t ain’t apt ter be hid.”
“ I dunno who sets them Brumsaidge boys up ter jedge,” she said angrily, abandoning argument for the more facile depreciation.
“ Yes-sum,” said Clem blandly. “ But they ain’t the sort ter wait ter be set; they jes’ set tharse’fs up, — with thar rifles ter prop ’em,” he added, carrying out the figure.
There was a troubled restlessness in her anxious bright eyes, a pathetic droop in her red lips. She looked deeply thoughtful, careful, plotting, as she said :
“I wonder at ye, Clem Sanders, knowin’ ez ye do ez sech ez that air agin the law, a-capturin’ them men; an’ ef thar ’count o’ tharselves don’t suit ye foolish Brumsaidge pates, a-shootin’ them two fellers, or stringin’ ’em up. An’ ye a-lettin’ them spies an’ lynchers ter meet at yer house ter watch an’ lie in wait! ”
“ Yes-sum. Laws-a-massy, Marcelly,” exclaimed Clem, enlightened and precipitate, " ef ye don’t want ’em ter kem ter my house an’ spy, I ’ll run ’em every one off from thar, — every mother’s son of ’em, ef I hev ter shoot a hole through every man’s head ter git him started. Say the word, Marcelly! ” he cried, in the enthusiasm of his prospective obedience. " Say the word! ”
Marcella was mechanically tearing the herbs into bits in her nervous, tremblinghands, as she sat and thought, — significant thoughts, since the lives of two men, perchance, hung upon them.
“ That would n’t do no good,” she remarked presently. “They’d jes’ take tharselves ter watchin’ somewhar else.” After a moment she added bitterly,
“ Ye know how sech men be : gin ’em a notion arter blood, an’ it’s no mo’ use ter call ’em off ’n ’t is ter blow yer horn fur a hound ez hev got a hot scent. Thar’s some hound an’ some painter an’ some fox in sech men,” the soft-faced young cynic declared.
“ Yes-sum,” faltered Clem Sanders. He sat dumfounded for a moment, the fact of her objections, the significance of her troubled mien, gradually dawning on his slow perceptions. " Laws-a-massy, Marcelly,” he cried, " ef ye want me ter, I ’ll jes’ let them men work in my forge ez a constancy, scot-free. I won’t gredge ’em nuthin’, though they bruk up every tool in my shop, an’ ” — his face clouded — mended ’em arterward. I will say I never see sech work, — the man oughter be ’shamed! I dunno whar in Kingdom Come he could hev larnt his trade, — sech lamin’ ez he hev got. But I ’ll take Jake Baintree an’ that strange man, ef he war the devil, inter partnership, ef ’t will please youuns. That’s all I live fur, Marcelly, — ter please you-uns. Ef ye will marry me,” he continued, leaning nearer to her, — “ ef ye ’ll marry me ” —
“ Oh,” exclaimed the girl, with a gesture of impatient repudiation, “ ye air so tormentin’ tiresome.”
“ Yes-sum,” said Clem, drawing back, rebuffed, but not alienated.
“ Would enny other mortal on the yearth ’low I ’d marry a man so ez ter git his cornsent fur two other idle idjits ter hev the run of his forge ? ”
Clem thought that it would be better for all concerned if the “ other idjits ” were idle, but he only murmured, " Naw ’m,” and listened with respectful and earnest attention as she went on.
“I ain’t got no wish ’bout’n ’em, ’ceptin’ I don’t want ’em kilt nor hurted no ways, — jes’ fur thar sake, not mine ; jes’ kase they air folks, an’ hev got a right ter live till thar Maker calls ’em. Takes a man ter expec’ ter git suthin’ fur hisself ter pay him fur every leetle favior he does fur other folks.”
She was fast becoming pessimistic under the stress of her fears, and her perplexities, and her consequent anxious irritation.
“ Yes-sum,” said Clem in humble concession. Then plucking up, " I jes’ mean ter say, Marcelly, ez I would do ennything ter pleasure you-uns, an’ ef ye want them men ter work in my forge, they kin do it an’ welcome ! ”
She looked sharply at him, seeking to discern in his open, ingenuous countenance any indication that he divined her personal interest in the intruders, that she had more definite knowledge of them than he had been able to secure, that she was ready to scheme for their safety, that she tolerated and continued the conversation in their behoof, in the hope of further light for their sake. But it was evident that Clem Sanders, in the fullness of his loyalty, neither questioned her motives nor even speculated concerning them; he accepted all that she said and did as he accepted the sunshine, — as the most righteous and beneficent expression of the generosity of nature. Some gratitude stirred in her heart with the recognition of the depth and sincerity of the sentiment with which he regarded her, and it was more gently that she said : —
“Ye could n’t do nuthin’ nohow, Clem. Wunst them boys hev got the idee, nuthin’ kin stop ’em, an’ ef they did n’t watch at yer house they ’d watch somewhar.”
“ Yes-sum,” said Clem.
“ An’,” she went on thoughtfully, “ ef, when they tuk arter them men, ye tried ter stop ’em, they mought slash ye up, or shoot ye ’mongst ’em, an’ I don’t want that ter happen.”
His face was irradiated by this evidence of her care for him.
“Yes-sum!” he cried jubilantly.
Marcella rose abruptly from the log. “ I mus’ be goin’ in,” she remarked. “ Granny won’t know what hev kem o’ me.”
She put on her tunnel-like sunbonnet, and with the eclipse of her face within its depths the day seemed to him to have darkened suddenly. She stood irresolute for a moment, looking vaguely about her, her lithe figure not alert, as was its wont; her attitude denoted despondency ; she drew a long breath that had a suggestion of a sigh, and then she picked up her basket of eggs.
“ Kin I tote yer basket fur ye, Marcelly ? ”
“ Ye could, bein’ toler’ble survigrous, — ef I’d let ye,” she responded ungraciously, still keeping hold of the handle of the basket. She moved slowly along, her tread noiseless upon the thick carpet of pine needles ; only now and then her skirts stirred the fallen leaves, that gave a sibilant rustle. Clem walked humbly beside her, looking down at the baffling sunbonnet that hid her face, and keeping silence in deference to her mood. All the world was still ; the sunshine made no progress from limb to limb of the dark bare trees where it lay so yellow. And time was surely drowsing somewhere. The sky was cloudless, changeless. Winds!—they seemed a mere tradition; the day had suggestions that were eternal in its rich, enduring light, its serene impassivity. The shadows, too, were motionless, save for those of the young mountaineers as they passed under the leafless boughs.
Marcella paused when they reached the fence that was the boundary of Eli Strobe’s land, and Clem began to see that she intended to take leave of him here. There was a gap in the fence; rails lay half fallen, one end upon the ground and one remaining supported by the zigzag structure. She rested her basket here, and looked up at him from the shadow of her sunbonnet. Hereyes seemed dark and melancholy, and her look was afar off, somehow, and he had a sense of distance between them which led him abruptly to exclaim, “ I ain’t said nuthin’ ter make ye mad at me, hev I, Marcelly ? ”
She laughed a little. “ Nuthin’ but foolishness. Thar’s so much o’ that in this world thar’s no use in gittin’ mad; don’t make folks no mo’ reasonable ez I knows on.”
“ Yes-sum. But ye ain’t mad at me ? ” he pleaded.
“ Naw, I ain’t, — I ain’t ! Good-by,” she added, encouragingly.
“ Yes-sum. Good-by,” the poor fellow echoed dolorously; and so he turned and took his way down the long lane. leaving her still standing at the fence. His heart was heavy within him ; how eager she had been to be rid of him ! His hope had sunk ; the wound his rival had dealt had begun to ache. He felt a repulsion for all the familiar world, for all the aspects of the future as they shaped themselves before his glance, unwontedly prescient. Life hardly seemed worth the living, and he had scant courage to see it through. His mental and moral atmosphere was all uncharacteristic, and although he had not command of even the simplest capacity to feign, and made no effort to disguise the downeast spirit in which he had returned from his open and obvious mission, the gossips at the forge forbore, rather from an intuition of prudence and policy than a merciful desire to spare him, to rally him upon his defeat. He was stern and gruff, and the presence of his cronies grated upon his mood. He went to his work silently, some of his superfluous emotion expending itself in an energy of industry, and the mellow clanking of the hammers roused the echoes to their wonted iteration ; under his strength the metal grew soft or hard as he willed, and for a time there was no outward indication that aught was amiss with the master of the forge, save his dull, intent, and frowning face. This tense mood could not continue, and presently, under the strain, his nerves began to give way. He had already felt some slight inconvenience from the inexperience of Jube Donnard, who was striking for him to-day, his own assistant having gone hunting. Once so absorbed was he that, as he tapped the iron where Jube should strike, he did not swiftly remove the hammer, as was his habit, and the great sledge, hoisted by the parson’s son with both arms, came crashing down upon the hand-hammer, sending it flying out of the smith’s practiced hand, and jarring his arm to the shoulderblade. In a sudden passion he flung the bar of hot metal at his dodging volunteer striker, and then with a growling oath he turned away to the door.
“ Time ter quit, ennyhow,” said the facile Jube.
For the great red sunset was flaring in at the widely opened barn-like doors, and for all the vermilion disk still lingered above the dusky purple mountains, the hunter’s moon, a luminous sphere, pearly and splendid, swung high in the east, with all its sentiments of solitude and alien influences, with all its brooding nocturnal fancies, as if it were alone in the sky save for its familiar the vaguely scintillating star at the zenith.
“ A clear night,” said Clem to himself, with a sigh, as he sat down on the log by the door.
It was not the weather signs alone that gave his voice its significant intonation ; it was the congruous circumstance furnished to the nocturnal enterprise. He noted presently a dark figure with a rifle on its shoulder, crossing the little footbridge above the narrows of the river, thrown into bold relief between the crimson sky and its red lustrous reflection in the water. The sun still gave the current a glint of gold : a rising vapor borrowed mysteries from the moon, and the figure seemed taller than normal height as it disappeared in the woods. It was not long before Clem saw another armed man approaching from down the road. The vigilantes were gathering. He rose, with a long-drawn sigh, and closed the shop, as was his wont, for the night, — for all his cronies were gone, — and then betook himself home to his supper.
He had had no very definite sentiment concerning the organization that had charged itself with the enterprise of solving the mystery of the intrusions at the forge, and administering punishment should it be deemed required. It had seemed natural and right enough that these enigmatical proceedings should, in the interests of public justice, be subjected to scrutiny, especially since it had been discovered that Jake Baintree, almost universally considered to have cheated the gallows, was concerned in it. Since, however, Marcella had set her face against the self-constituted judges, and had spoken of them in reprobation, his interest, his sense of injury, even his curiosity, had dwindled. He was conscious of wishing them all far enough from his premises when, after leaving his mother unsuspiciously washing the supper dishes, thinking he had gone to his cronies at the forge, he took his way out through the tall sere grass and leafless bushes across the door-yard to the barn, where his hidden coadjutors lurked, awaiting him.
The building was of the description most usual in the region, constructed of logs, unhewn and unchinked, with a loft and a wide open space beneath, where a wagon, two or three ploughs, and a sorghum-mill stood. The brilliant moonlight fell through each crevice, its silver sheen alternating with the black shadow of the logs ; the whole place was pervaded by this tempered splendor, and through the broad open passway he could see the white frost gleam responsive upon the expanse of the fields, on the rails of the fence, on the boughs of the great pallid, denuded trees, with their stark and wintry shadows, on the clumps of broad-leaved mulleins beside the door. The horned heads of the three cows were distinct in the placiddivergent rays, filtering through the crannies as the animals still stood at their manger ; and on the opposite side the two sorrel mares were half dozing, and did not so much as turn their heads as he entered the shadowy place, so accustomed had they become to this in-coming and outgoing of nocturnal visitants. A slimlegged filly, however, hardly larger than the calf who stood on the opposite side, came frisking out to see whom the sound of the step heralded, and seemed to consider a great up-kicking and a series of bounding gambols on its wiry, angular legs an appropriate greeting ; then finally disappeared into the shadows of its dam’s stall. The calf suddenly backed its ears, and sought to imitate the filly’s deft demivolt in a stiff bovine caper; then stood still once more, earaestly watching Clem as he made his way to the ladder, the rungs of which were very far apart, and up into the loft.
Here the shadows were less assertive, for a rude, square window had been cut in one of the gables, and the moonlight came through, and lay in a refulgent rhomboidal figure upon the floor. An occasional flicker across it told that the wind was beginning to stir the cobwebs that hung in thickly woven folds from the rafters, and were stretched in gossamer filaments across the aperture itself ; sometimes, as these caught the light, they gave out a silvery silken glimmer, as if some precious metal had served in the weaving. There was a great pile of corn in the ear in one corner, and the swelling masses of hay bulged far over the open passway beneath, and almost hid it from view. Amongst its billows, close in to the wall, a setting hen, with outspread wings, was upon her nest ; now and then she opened her small bright eyes, but for the most part she kept them calmly shut, for, timorous though she was, she had become inured to the strange and unwonted conditions of the place, feeling assured that whatever might result from the councils held here, she and hers were not under consideration. For altogether incongruous and at variance with the simple, rural significance of the spot were the figures of armed men, booted and spurred, that lay idly and at ease upon the hay, or strode restlessly to and fro upon the quaking flooring, or paused before the square moon-flooded window to look out upon the strip of cultivated land, the expanse of darkling forest on every hand, the violet vaporous spaces — empty air — above the unseen valley, and the towering, purple, moonlit ranges looming to the sky ; but most of all, and often indeed, they looked down the white winding road to where the little forge stood under the crag, between the mountains and the dark and lustrous river.
“ Hy’re, Clem,” the owner of the premises was greeted, when his head appeared above the floor as he slowly mounted the rungs.
Hy’re, he responded in a gruff growl.
The tone and manner were so uncharacteristic that one or two of the martial figures striding about the floor turned and looked around at him in surprise. Bassett, lying on the hay, lifted himself upon his elbow, and demanded, “ What ails you-uns ter be so powerful high an’ mighty ? Ye think ye air Teck Jepson, don’t ye ? ”
Clem Sanders did not reply for a moment. Still, with his unwonted air of grave dissatisfaction, he lumbered into the moonlit place, one hand in his pocket, his shoulders slouched forward as he peered about from under his broad hatbrim at the men’s faces, as if he were seeking to individualize them, and mentally calling the roll.
“ Whar’s Teck, ennyhows ? ” he asked. “ He ain’t hyar.”
“ Not yit,” sneered Bassett. “ He ’ll be kemin’ along alter a leetle, a-ridin’ of his mare, though he knows the rest o’ we-uns ’low ez’t ain’t safe ter hev hoss critters an’ sech hitched round hyar. Ef all o’ we-uns done that, thar’d be enough hosses ter make ez much racket, an’ whinnyin’, an’ sech, ez a comp’ny o’ cavalry, an’ them men would git a warnin’, an’ we-uns would never ketch ’em. Ye mark my words, Teck ’ll be ’long d’rec’ly, a-ridin’ like some great captain.”
As he spoke, a sudden, distant, undistinguished sound smote the air.
“ What’s that ? ” cried Bassett, half springing up, and resting upon one knee on the pile of hay.
“ Hush! ” said one of the vigilantes near the moonlit window. He bent toward it, his eyes scanning the empty road, the silent woods, and lonely mountains with the melancholy splendor upon them.
The others stood motionless, listening.
The man at the window abruptly turned toward them his moonlit face, the sheen full in his dilated, excited eyes ; he held up one significant finger, bespeaking silent attention.
For the sound had come once more.
Charles Egbert Craddock.