FOUR persons were coming down the wood road from the Cattle Ridge in the following order. In front walked a pallid-faced man with thick hair and broad eyebrow’s; next came Cassidy, the county sheriff, big, red-faced, dominant, talkative; third, a slight girl of twenty or thereabout, whose handsome face with its heavy hair and strikingly marked eye brows showed some nearness of kinship to the captive in front; the fourth was Sanderson of Back Meadows. Sanderson was a youngish man at that time, with heavy yellow mustache and gray, quiet eyes,— slight in frame except for that breadth of shoulders characteristic of the Sandersons. Presently the woods broke away before them, and they emerged in the flat-bottomed valley, whose fertility and extent had laid the foundations, generations back, of Sanderson well-being in this world. Fawn-colored cattle grazed in distant fields. Nearer by were a half dozen mares and colts with reddish hides and sinewy necks, whereby one knew the Courier breed, that famous Sanderson stock. The white, wide-winged farmhouse, the huge red barns, the scattered houses of the farm-hands, the meadows golden with buttercups and purple with ripe grass, the hills with their forests, that sheltered and shut in the valley, the brook that wound and glimmered until at the valley’s end it vanished under pine trees in a narrow gorge, all lay in the comforting sunlight, seeming to symbolize a security of anchorage on the earth, a peace sufficient to itself.
The four paused a moment at the opening of the wood. The man in front turned his white face to Sanderson and said passionately, —
“Give me all that to be born with ! I’d have been as straight a man as you.”
The taciturn Sanderson nodded considerately.
“Man, man!” cried the other, “I was a gentleman sport once, then a sport and no gentleman, and now I’m a common thief. I know it all. You make your living breeding horses for the turf, and I made mine backing the breed till that flecked stallion finished me.”
“Bombay,” said Sanderson. “Tricky horse.”
The girl came up and stood beside the prisoner. She did not look at him, but he looked at her.
“And now, if you ask can a man fall lower than to be a common thief,” he went on, dropping his voice, “I answer, ‘yes.’ He can beget a child to take up his shame after him. And if he says he lied and thieved for her, nobody but her will believe him. She’ll believe him.”
The last was all but inaudible.
Sanderson nodded again considerately.
“Anybody would that didn’t know him,” said Cassidy, in pursuit of more judicial estimates, “but I’ll be damned if I swallow Miss Jessie’s believin’ it. Come off, ye was descinded from the father of lies, an’ the moral is it’s no use cryin’ over shpilt milk. Sure, that’s the moral. My opinion of ye, Ben, my opinion is ye’re a darn shlippery lot. Ye niver had an ounce of shtraightness in you. Your morals is meanderin’, your sowl is a butthery fraud. Ye niver was any use to Miss Jessie or her mother before her, a lady niver known to me, and as for their believin’ ye—Aw!—Well, I may be wrong there, I may be wrong. I ’ll say this for ye, Ben , I niver knew a man confess his sins that ingratiatin’. Them sins is your workin’ capital, Ben, ye gets regular interest out of it in the reputation of a wounded spirut. On me sowl, it’ wondherful. It’s insidjous nateness of ye to be callin’ yourself a common thief, when you know we know you ’re an uncommon swindler.”
The prisoner and Sanderson walked silently, front and rear, while Cassidy talked on to the sullen-looking girl; they came in sight of the house, where Sanderson’s red mare stood saddled, and Cassidy’s horse and roadcart were fastened at the gate.
“An’ the truth is, Miss Jessie,” Cassidy moralized, “’t is the warrm nature of women makes throuble in this world, an’ the cool raysonin’ of man is its refrigeratin’ preservation. An’ here’s me practical parable. Ain’t I been afther Ben Hallow the six weeks? Well, that’s long enough for any man to be shkylarkin’ wid me. An’ I sees Ben Hallow’s daughter a gettin’ off the 1.25 thrain, an’ a shlopin’ for the woods, an’ I says, ‘Happen she’s lookin’ for Ben,’ an’ she was. ‘ ’T would be kindness to her an’ raysin in me to follow,’I says, for I’m a raysonin’ man. Sure I had to follow me rayson. The moral is, unraysonin’ affections is dangerous, an’ yours was bad luck for Ben, an’ sure they niver did you any good; but they fetched Ben fore an’ aft this time, they did that.”
“You’re a sleuth hound, certain, Cassidy,” said Sanderson, in his drowsy, drawling voice, “but you need n’t be a common cur.”
“ I thank you for that, Mr. Sanderson,” said the man in front quickly.
Cassidy looked blankly bewildered at this unprovoked, sudden, amazing insult. What could Sanderson mean by it? Cassidy flushed from forehead to neck a deeper crimson. They came to the gate.
“I won’t throuble ye further, Misther Sanderson,” he said with dignity. “If Miss Jessica wants to go along wid us, happen she’s willing to drive me horse. I ’ll thank ye to miscall me no more names. I’m thinkin’ Ben Hallow won’t try to be funny, ayther, wid me gun to his backbone. I bid ye good-day, Misther Sanderson.”
The three were soon seated in the roadcart, Cassidy in the back seat alone. The girl held the reins with a practiced hand, small, but sinewy. Sanderson did not answer Cassidy, but stood at Jessica’s elbow, leaning on the wheel, and looking down at the nervous heels of the big bay horse.
“Why, then, the road is all right,”he said to her slowly, “except one place in the gorge. You better look out for the bank there, on the left. It goes down ten or fifteen feet.”
She lifted her sullen eyelids for the first time to look at him. Her voice, when she spoke, was low and tremulous.
“Where ? " she asked.
“About a hundred yards in.”
“I bid ye good-day, Misther Sanderson.”
Sanderson did not stir.
“It’s this way with Cassidy, Miss Jessica,” he drawled on. “He’s got a powerful mind, that always takes time — a minute or two to get under way, though after that, of course, he acts good and rational. Well — your father there, for instance, would n’t, maybe, act so — so — rational — he never did — probably not — but I think — his mind would get under way — a minute or two quicker than Cassidy’s, which makes him — a — ingratiating, as Cassidy says. But that ’s no real harm in Cassidy. Take it the right way, and it’s a good point in him. I’m saying this — because — naturally, you aren’t in a state of mind to see all Cassidy’s good points. You might n’t understand him.”
He put out his hand to Cassidy, who hesitated, then laughed, and shook it.
“Don’t ye miscall an Irishman names, Joe, or ye’ll see him get undher way quick enough. Now, Miss Jessie, ye can hold him easy for the soft mouth of him.”
They were gone, with a clatter of hoofs and flash of wheels. Sanderson opened the gate as if to go up to the house; then seemed to think better of it. He turned back, mounted the little mare, and cantered after the cloud of dust in the wake of the flying wheels. Cattle were at pasture on one side of the road in lately harvested hay-fields. On the other stretehed green acres of corn, where a halt dozen men were at work in the hot sunshine. Crows flew over his head, with slow wings and meditative caws.
“She might,” he reflected peacefully, “and she might not. It’s an interesting gamble.”
As he cantered into the gorge, he heard a shout down its dusky tunnel of rock and pine, followed by a confused crash, and the roar of Cassidy rampant.
Sanderson cantered on. Down the dim vista he saw the sheriff heavily climb the bank, run across the road, and plunge into the underbrush, which procedure, if he purposed a stern chase after Ben Hallow, and supposing that lightfooted gentleman were fleeing up the mountain side, seemed a more desperate than coldly reasonable procedure. Sanderson thought so.
He dropped from his horse. The swirl of the wagon tracks marked the spot where the bay had leaped from the bank. The tracks turned almost at right angles. The driver at that point had found the grip to draw a ferocious rein, the courage to dare a headlong catastrophe.
Sanderson slid down the gravelly bank. The bay stood knee deep in the brook, kicking to pieces, with deliberation and accuracy, the wrecked roadcart against his haunches.
The gully was half opaque with green dusk. The wind high up in the pine woods drew long, sibilant sighs. “Poor Jessica!” or something to that effect. “Poor Jessica!”
She lay, a little huddled heap among the boulders, the blood running in her thick hair, the water crooning at her ear.
With few words for a world of memories it is desirable to present the “Meadows,” its people, and traditions; and therefore, going back but one generation, enters Israel Sanderson, born 1819, married 1841 to Marion Lorn, and begot Joseph, born 1850. The portraits of extinct Sandersons surround the dining-room walls of the great farmhouse, and Israel himself is there, but beside him there is a vacant space. The portrait of Marion Lorn Sanderson hangs not there, but in Joe Sanderson’s library, a long room opening from the dining-room—a very bookish-looking room, one would say, for a breeder of fancy stock to consider in his personal affairs. The vacancy beside Israel has its pathos, its symbolism. Mark how death and the coming heir shall do their wills with us and ours. Israel lived fifteen years after her, and of his solitude made no complaint, impenetrable, silent, enduring, as his own portrait on the wall, which made no complaint. Turf history mentions him as the breeder of Pendragon, a horse that made records in the late sixties. He is recollected now as one who held to justice and his word, a man slight but broad-shouldered, of medium height, thin cheeks, lips stiff, eyes gray, at the centres of converging wrinkles. As to what his loneliness may have been to him, as to the reason for Joe’s removal of his mother’s portrait after Israel’s death, as to some differences of temperament between Israel and his son, who looked much alike, as to “ Marion Lorn Sanderson, died 1856, œtat. 33,” we may consult her face. Lord lead us to the like! To the sweetness, the patience, the compassion, the delicate home peace, that gives to obscure, unvarying lives their eternal worth, their power of witness to the substance of things hoped for. Behind infinite force is there an infinite love, or no? Your Marion Sandersons are your tangible evidence of the unseen thing.
Israel’s house was kept for him those fifteen years by his sister, Mrs. Cullom Sanderson, a singular variant from the Sanderson slightness of bodily frame and reserve of temper; a vast, fleshy woman, whose conversation was inorganic.
When Joe Sanderson came in bearing Jessica, her face stained and still over his shoulder, Mrs. Cullom plunged hither and yon irrelevantly.
“Why, Joseph! you’ve bumped her head, and I don’t believe you’ve had a bite of dinner. Goodness! what’s her name ?”
But during Jessica’s long illness and dull delirium Mrs. Cullom’s devotion was consistent enough. Jessica hovered lightly on the verge and dizzy overhang of life, and Mrs. Cullom hovered ponderously about her. Jessica crept back toward health with a long white scar under her hair.
Mrs. Cullom’s conversation, after all, had a certain consistency, too. It resembled an angleworm in this respect, that if you cut off and extracted any section of it anywhere, this section had the same general features of any other section, and yet each section so segregated seemed to have an independent vitality of its own.
“You ’ll be fatting up wonderful pretty soon like a growing pig, my dear, though you certain do look like a zigzag rail fence now, and all eyebrows and hair, and enough to shame good vittels, but Joseph’s been putting up wire ones all over the place, and he won’t keep pigs, but I’d like to know why not, when my Cullom kept pigs thirty years, and he was a respected man, to say nothing of savings in swill.”
The fall race meets and fairs were already begun. Sanderson was away with the pick of his stock and stable. He saw Jessica once before he left in early September. It was in Mrs. Cullom’s sittingroom. Thin as a winter-worn fox she looked, with hunted eyes, and though creeping back to life, yet apparently with no gust for it, rather with a sullen dislike.
Whatever Ben Hallow’s flowing repentances, he was an ill man to be responsible for another human life, and that a girl’s, and in particular through those years of it that are its springtime, when the sap flows upward to leafy expansions, when the whimper of spring is in the air, when green tentacles reach out wistfully, He took her from school at fourteen, easily led to do so by the flattery of her passionate adoration. The adoration had faded into a kind of dogged championship. Her faith fought hard for its life, and died fighting. Of the race tracks and their populace, it seemed to her that most of the men were cruel and treacherous, and most of the horses were noble in body and spirit, keen, slender, and strong things, always ready to spend their last gasp for the duty and the hope they understood, namely, speed and the tape at the end of the lap. So she kept her faith in horses. But Ben Hallow was quicksand to whatever faith of man or woman was laid upon him. He swallowed them, and they were gone forever. And Jessica — if she had found life no sunny and substantial comer of a garden wall, but a place of salty, bitter, wind-driven waves, that tossed her like seaweed; if it had salted her to its own savor, it were no wonder. She looked as if it had, where she sat in Mrs. Cullom’s sitting-room, limp and lean as seaweed, the hunted, sullen look in her eyes, overbanded by broad eyebrows.
Sanderson went his way thinking, “I guess she’s paid Ben Hallow all that’s due him;” and thought no further about it. Of Ben Hallow no more news seemed to be forthcoming. He seemed to have left that part of the country.
It was late in October when Jessica began to go about the “Meadows,” and look at the fawn-colored cattle, the beautiful, nervous horses. The winds blew down from the hills and the wilderness of woods, now splashed with autumn colors. The cornfields were light yellow, the roadsides banked with goldenrod and purple asters. The long leisures and silences of the place, the quiet routine, the shelter and removal, the large, unirritated look of the world, and the slow speech of men there, all seemed to constitute a life of some kind, a book with a meaning in it, but written in a language to which she had no grammar or lexicon. She vaguely felt the elements of the phenomenon. She hardly knew whether it made her intensely bored or intensely happy. She looked at it suspiciously. Nameless dim emotions rose up and asked for names.
In November there were heaps of weeds behind the red barns, burning and smouldering. They drew her to watch them in a kind of trance, as the men of old used to watch the smoke of altar and sacrifice go creeping heavenward, and follow it with prayers. Is it out of that ancient human experience that one cannot watch long the drift of a smouldering fire without ancestral solemnities stirring in his heart? Jessica stared at the twisting, mounting, noiseless smoke, and knew not why she stayed. She knew that she hated her memories; — old despairs are hideous and shapeless as outworn garments;— that she had no plans and dreaded the making of them. The languor of her mind and heart seemed like a dragging weight. Her interest in the aspirations of the bonfires was a vague, effortless interest.
She went back to the house in the early twilight. It was a misty day, and settled into rain at night.
After supper Mrs. Cullom’s conversation with drowsiness grew too confused to follow. It concerned “ Israel " “ Joseph, ” “Marion,” and through a half-grotesque medium gave glimpses of the lady whose portrait with the searching compassionate eyes hung in the library, and whose spirit even after death seemed to have hung brooding, counseling, comforting, over husband and son; glimpses of the two silent men, whose habit it was each to shut his heart away from the world, and so go about his business with his generation. But when Mrs. Cullom seemed to be arguing that Marion’s secluded life had resulted from Israel’s dislike of cats, and that one or the other of these was responsible for the moths in Mrs. Cullom’s muff, Jessica lost track of the argument, and presently, Mrs. Cullom having openly fallen asleep, she rose and went through the dining-room to the library. The room was cold, and she lit the fire. The wind and rain droned desolately at the windows. She drew a heavy leather-covered reading-chair before the fire. The lamplight, escaping over the top of a green shade, fell on the face of the portrait above the mantelpiece, and lit it softly but clearly. Over Jessica’s face, deep in the reading-chair, the wavering firelight sent red glows and pursuing shadows.
The noise of the rain without was unceasing, but the house within stayed mainly quiet from hour to hour. Mrs. Cullom went lumbering upstairs to bed. A servant girl opened the library door, and, seeing Jessica by the fire, closed it again, softly. The busy blaze on the hearth subsided to a bed of red coals. But Jessica and Marion maintained their still communion.
It was late when the door opened again, without warning. Sanderson stood in the doorway, dripping with the rain. He said, “Don’t move,” at her startled motion to rise, and threw off his rain coat, and bent over the fire in silence to warm his hands. “I brought Bombay home,” he said at last, slowly. “He’s been getting glory for himself this fall. Do you know McMahon and that crowd ? Well, they tried to buy Bombay. I’ve been warned about them now, that they ’d like to doctor him, or play some game on him before the New Orleans winter meet. It would clear the way for Kentuckian and Prince Charlie, if that’s the way they’re interested. Anyhow, I can watch Bombay better up here. He’s tripled his value. Aren’t you up too late?”
The race track gossip and scandal he fancied would interest her, and then fancied she had hardly heard him. Her eyes were fixed on the portrait over the mantel. She made no comment on “Bombay” or “McMahon,”nor indicated if she knew whether “Kentuckian” was a man or a horse. Presently he felt his eyes drawn to follow hers up to the familiar place. When she said in a low voice: “What does she tell you when you are very sad ?” he stood up quickly, and looked down at her, wondering at one knocking so quietly at the locked gate of Sanderson reserve, at the very door of its secret place, as if it were quite natural to knock and enter.
She felt the pressure of his silence, and, as if forgetting her question, leaned quickly forward, spreading out her hands to the glow of the coals.
“I have n’t ever thanked you for helping me.”
“I should think,” said Sanderson dryly, “ it was a dubious case for gratitude, that advice as to how you might break your neck with expedition — and — effect. It might be kindly meant and yet look dubious. I would n’t guarantee the kindliness, not taking any interest in Ben Hallow. As I recollect it, it occurred to me that crawling around behind Cassidy’s intelligence was — was pleasant in its way. It occurred to me that whether you had the nerve to drive off in —the — general atmosphere that way - was an interesting gamble. It occurred to me to — think you ’d do it.”
“That’s all I was grateful for,” she said. “I knew that you thought so, and I was glad of that, else perhaps I could n’t have done it. But then, it’s easy to die in that condition. Somehow, I thought it would be the end, and it looked pleasant.”
“Oh, I mean— But you know, once — once on a time — to me — everything seemed so worth while, and — Ben — you know — he pretends so well that it was a long time before I saw it was all worth nothing, and that — that he did n’t care in the least about me, you know. After that I thought I could stand it, because I thought he had to have me. But he does n’t, have to have me. So when even that — when all that — is gone, it leaves one very hungry and despairing, and one could die quickly, and not mind. Don’t you see ? Of course it’s silly to feel that way, and wicked enough to want to get rid of one’s life. When I came in here to-night, I was thinking it was silly and bad to have despair. But if one is — poisoned in spirit — it is hard—to find the way. I began to look at your mother’s picture, and then I thought she seemed to say things — at first only kind things, about understanding how hard it was — to live without — without seeing any use in it, and then she seemed to ask it I were good enough to be happy, and questions like that, and for hours to go searching through me for the answers.”
“She knows what she’s about,” said Sanderson. “She asks me the questions first. If she reversed the order with you, there was reason in it. She tells me to keep a quiet, clean place where she can meet me, or else to be clean and quiet when I come, — that’s the same thing. It comes first. But whether the place is in her soul or mine I don’t know, but it was always for us two, my mother and me. I don’t altogether see how you got in.”
In the silence that followed she leaned still lower, with head bent to the fire, and looked something like the huddled heap among the boulders in the gorge.
“Do you want me to go out?” she asked.
“No, you’d never have got in without a key of your own.”
The rain beat and dripped at the dark windows. The tall clock in the next room struck its midnight call, as if to signalize it a proper hour for the locked gates to open, and spirits imprisoned in the dungeon of themselves to come out, to cross estranging distances, and meet face to face and ghost to ghost.
The first heavy snow of the winter fell one gray afternoon in early December. It was a large, quietly determined storm to begin with, calm, mystical, incessant. The great flakes wavered down, and lay deep and contented on the hills.
But a wind, already stirring on the mountain sides, as the evening wore on crept down over low bordering woods to the level meadows, and whistled and capered in Wyanteuaug Valley. It forced the dignified flakes into wild Bacchanalian skirt dances, piled the roadsides with fugitive and empty grave-mounds in mockery of Preston Plains cemetery, swept the spaces between so bare that it seemed an indecent exposure, and sniffed along the fences like a thirsty bloodhound.
Cold. Not a ghost in the cemetery was stirring, or had come out according to regulations to read over his epitaph, but crouched, hugging himself unsocially in his narrow tenement. So cold that the traveler who got down from the ten o’clock train pulled his sealskin cap low over his ears and face, and his steps shrieked dismally as he hurried away from the lamplit space. He pushed over the long bridge that creaked in the wind, and so up the gorge where pine, hemlock, and spruce stood up sombre and murmuring in the night, where the brook under the steep bank chuckled in its icy throat. White, cold, desolate. The lights in the Sanderson farmhouse were curtained close or invisible in the storm.
The plodder in the snow was uninterested in the farmhouse lights, but in the dark windows of the barns and stables he took a singular interest, going close to window after window, peering in, now and then trying a fastening. At length he slipped a thin blade between the sashes of one, lifted the lower sash, crept through, and stood on the floor within.
The temperature was artificially moderate there, the darkness complete. The occasional sound of lifted and planted hoof came from the right. He followed the sounds, and felt his way to the boarded wall of a passage where the sounds were close to his ear. He halted and listened. He opened his coat and flashed a dark lantern along the wall, saw the long row of square stall windows. The narrow beam of the dark lantern slipped through the first square opening, and caused a startled plunge within. He saw a pair of wild eyes, a white splash on a flying black mane. “Bombay all right, he muttered, and knelt down on the clean-swept floor of the passage, drew from his pocket a bottle of colorless liquid and an injection syringe, shook the bottle, and held it against the beam of the lantern.
Then he leaped, startled, to his feet, He found himself in the bright area and control of a search lantern in a distant corner.
Whoever stood in the pitch blackness behind it realized the completeness of his control, for he stayed where he was, and enjoyed it, while the captive of his lantern put bottle, syringe, and dark lantern, one by one, deliberately back into inner pockets. The captor came forward behind his light.
“The surprise is mutual, Ben,”said Sanderson, and smiled pleasantly. “You did n’t occur to me.”
He put the big lantern on the feed box, and sat down beside it, drawing his ulster around him. The light, brilliant from polished reflectors, streamed across the wide, clean floor of the barn.
“See here, I’ll give you three messages,” he drawled on. “They’re for McMahon. First, that I’m on to him real clever. Second, that he can have Bombay at the price he named, because I’m not going to New Orleans. He can poison his own horse if he wants to, but I ’ve changed my mind. Third, that he’s a damn hound.”
“And I?” asked Ben Hallow.
Sanderson looked at him with a kind of puzzled admiration, then studied the floor for some moments. Hallow’s face fell into lines expressing patience and the victory of the spirit.
“Why — you’re poison in this neighborhood,” Sanderson said at last confidentially. “Why—you see, the reason I ’m not interested in the New Orleans meet this year, is that I ’m going to marry your daughter.”
“Why, just that way. But I’m not after the paternal blessing. You see that. I ’d rather the paternal did n’t take any interest in it.”
They talked across the lantern. There seemed to be no tone of hostility between them.
Ben Hallow said gently, —
“Of course, you’d rather, of course.”
“Meaning you’re a disreputable connection. Oh, that’s all right. I can stand it. The trouble with the paternal is here. You’re poison to her, Ben, same as that bottle of yours of insidious chemistry to Bombay. It would n’t kill him. It would n’t particularly make him sick, but it would spoil his nerve, and make him see blue devil ghosts, and fill his horse soul with corrosive despair. Well, whenever she thinks of you it acts on her something that way. You ’re a taint in the air, Ben, and there’s an — an antiseptic — arrangement being made, that — well — poison — h’m — well — anyhow, seeing she gave you six years out of a time of life particularly valuable to a woman, so they say; seeing she threw herself head first at kingdom come and nearly got there, in order to take you away from Cassidy, who had a proper right to you,—now, it seems to me she’s paid about all that’s due you. Has n’t she, to be candid ? She does n’t want you, Ben. She wants me. You don’t need her, either, but I do. Now, put it your beautiful and benignant emotions are at flood, put it they rise up and swallow the situation, put it you see humility and the outraged feelings of a father are a nice line of goods, put it you think I’d be handy the next time you went broke, put it this county is too hot to hold you, and can be made hotter, put it any interesting way you please, so long as you stay as far off as the wind blows. Stay out of the state, and for God’s sake let Jessie alone.”
The other said, “All right,” very low, almost inaudibly, buttoned up his coat, and followed Sanderson in silence to the stable door. Outside Sanderson said, —
“You have half an hour to catch the 11.45,” and Hallow said, —
“Half an hour,— thank you.”
He turned his white face against the storm, glided away, and vanished silently into its muffling drift. Sanderson stood looking after him.
“He’s an ingratiating penitent, he is; very delicate; no melodrama, not a dram. Well, likely it does hit him, and likely it does n’t.”
He picked his way through the snow to the house, muttering sarcastic comments on Ben Hallow, and threw off his snowy ulster in the hall.
In the library Jessica lay huddled, sobbing, on the floor, before a smouldering fire.
“I’m not good! She thinks I’m not good enough, Joe!”
He dropped into the reading-chair, and drew her up to his knee.
“She and I settled that long ago. It’s none of your business, Jessie. You’ve lost the clue.”
She grew quieter, looking up at Marion above the mantelpiece.
“Will it cure us of trouble to love each other ?”
“It’s an insidious old chemistry. I suppose she taught it to us. She knew all about it. I suppose it comes down to us from old times.”