As the days wore on, Lila grew to dread all contact with Aunt Runa. The old woman’s black moods had so lengthened that they now almost merged into one continuous state of ominous gloom. From deep silences she would thrust incisive, tripping questions at the girl. Bedtime, with its tongue lashings and dark warnings, had become a fearsome nightly trial. A fresh lie must always be ready. She was afraid, of course; but, somehow, she forgot the fear of the night in the next day’s sun — and Charlie.
Runa herself came to ignore the man. In spite of his frequent sarcastic inferences, despite his repeated sly interference with her work, she contained herself in silence. Only on the recurrent days when he came to the table out of humor would she notice him. Then she would stare imperturbably at his peevish face. Occasionally she would smile, as if satisfied. More than once Charlie caught her sphinxlike gaze. His beady eyes would counter hers boldly for a moment, then flicker down the table.
Charlie took quite casually his growing prestige with the negroes. Even before going to ‘college’ he had been able to sway uneducated negroes darker than himself. The blacker they were, the easier to handle — particularly women. Runa was the first black one to flout him. The thought of that old nigger bucking him, the realization of his inability to look her eye to eye, goaded him almost beyond endurance. Futilely he squirmed, and cursed himself for a weak fool. In the intervals between the harassing things that trickled in upon him methodically, he would make bold, determined resolutions. But each time when about regaining his poise some new thing would creep stealthily up on him to destroy his aplomb and set his nerves jangling again. More and more difficult did it become to hide his irritation.
And the things grew more repulsive. Two rusty black feathers, tied in a cross with a bit of red fibre root, seemed a harmless enough thing to find under one’s pillow; but on raising it closer to his face he was struck almost breathless with the rank smell of old carrion. ‘Gawd! What kind o’feathers . . . ?’
Then again, digging into his tobacco pouch one night, he felt something crisp and scratchy. Fishing it out, he saw a tiny, mummied gray hand! Nasty little thing! Charlie wondered. . . . Suddenly he gasped: ‘Toad foot!’ His hands flew open like springs. The pouch and the little hand dropped to the floor. Long he stood staring at the thing, futilely shaking his fingers, his face like yellow putty. Presently he wiped his brow on his shirt sleeve, and swept both pouch and little hand on to the papers in the fireplace. He struck a match to the papers and watched. The smell of burning tobacco arose. Then a strangely sickening, mouldy odor drifted about him — faint, but as permeating as ether. He felt it seeping through him. Unexpectedly the pouch began to sizzle and spit little blue sparks. ‘What de devil!’ he murmured, stepping back, with a warding hand in front of him. Suddenly he turned and left the room.
The next day Charlie strode in to dinner with a glitter in his black eyes, his thin lips compressed. ‘I’m givin’ warnin’ ag’in,’ he gritted, his eyes flashing to Aunt Runa. ‘If I catch any creepin’ nigger in my room, may Gawd strike me dead if I don’ kill ’em.’
Runa looked at him meditatively, as he peevishly stabbed at his food; then she smiled grimly around the table at the other darkies. Each pair of eyes in turn dropped to their plates. No one spoke.
The first cutting of red-top clover had been cured, and the wagons with their big slatted scow bodies had emptied their last mellow load into the great barns. Neal’s and Joseph’s bare ankles bore honorable scars of the dewberry briers and stubble of the near fields through which they had trudged to the barn behind the tall loaded wagons, to ride back in the empties.
The long interminable rows of corn had been ‘laid by,’ and the single ploughs lined in a row beneath the pole shed till next summer.
Aunt Runa had in silent melancholy put her seasonable duties behind her. The new pullets had been turned out, the young turkeys brought safely through. Week by week the lines of jars on the storeroom shelves had lengthened and fattened. Each whitescrubbed board, with its layer of yellow sliced apples or red cherries, had dried its allotted time under the midsummer sun. From cherry bounce to brandied peaches, Runa had fulfilled her quota, and could go easy till the little wine grapes assumed their dark purple coats — ready for the press.
Through the long July drought, when the sun set day after day in a pitiless ball of fire, on into the late days of a rainless August, when the wells ran dry and the dusty corn leaves drooped on their seared stalks, Charlie battled with himself. Through the hot, breathless nights, when the cattle kept him awake with their plaintive lowing, he fought against the thoughts that seemed eating at his brain. Things! Things! Always coming suddenly, unexpectedly! He found them everywhere — even in his food. In spite of his efforts at self-control, and his reiteration of the little formula, ‘ ’T ain’ nothin’! ’Tain’ nothin’ but ’at old devil tryin’ skeer me,’ he grew more nervous and irritable. From a mere pecking, the things had grown to hammer him without let-up. And they seemed more ominous, too.
Where at first he would have stepped over the seven little cones of gray powder on his doorsill with a curt oath, he instead carefully swept them into a can, and stealthily scrubbed the sill with kerosene before crossing it.
But the abhorrent things in his clothing, in his bed, touching his bare flesh unexpectedly — oh, Gawd! They were the worst. They seemed to tear and pull at his nerves like a dog at a young sheep. He cursed himself, but his mumbled string of oaths would die out in a low whimper. Sometimes he slept in his chair, a restless, moaning sleep that left him weary and broken in the morning. He was less himself — full of lassitude and odd creepings of the flesh. Malaria, perhaps.
New habits had grown on him, too. He turned over his pillow at bedtime and tapped his shoes bottom-up in the morning. Before he thrust his hand into a pocket, into any shadowy recess, he would hesitate, as if weighing the consequences. To Jenny’s consternation she found, on going to make up his room, a copious sprinkling of salt about the corners. Leaving it untouched, she ran to tell the cook.
Charlie’s periods of ill humor, which at first had barely peeped through his friendly suavity, had come obviously to the surface. He was frequently cross even with Lila. The negroes had growm to recognize these cycles as something definite, something to be watched. Besides, a homemade ring on his finger—a ring fashioned from a horseshoe nail — drew sly, quickened glances from them. They wondered! Was it a nail from the white maremule? When Runa saw the ring she smiled almost cheerfully.
With the exception of her periodical days of brightening, — the days when Charlie was ’low,’ — Runa’s deep silences were seldom broken during the passing weeks. Mrs. Prescott sometimes wondered if she were n’t growing dotty; but her work was done as dexterously and methodically as ever.
Neal, too, had grown fitfully moody. Never had Mammy had so long a spell; never had she seemed less to want him around. He gave up trying to break through her shell, and lapsed into his own long silences. His mother’s thoughts turned to malaria, typhoid, the whole category of ills, but the Doctor laughed her out of them.
Before grape picking, the negroes were fully alive to the fact thatCharlie’s depressions ware surely followed by a brightening in An’ Runa. Once when he detected flecks of gray dust on his bread, and viciously stamped it under foot, Runa actually chuckled. Under their critical, almost contemptuous eyes, he dashed from the room in a cursing fury.
Yes, Charlie’s bad days were Aunt Runa’s good ones.
And, with his increasing testiness, Charlie seemed consumed with desire to hurt Runa; to belittle her, to goad her into controversy with his insinuations affecting her pride and selfrespect. It looked as if his days were spent thinking up aggravating things to say, and ways to set back her work. She, however, appeared to take none of these things to herself. She seemed oblivious of it all — even dull. The other negroes were perplexed, but Lila grew more ill at ease in the presence of Runa and Charlie. To her frowns and handshakings Charlie paid no attention.
One morning Lila gave him a signal in passing. He followed her to an empty room. Her face was ashen, her trim figure drooped.
Fearsomely, as if pulled between desires, she began: ‘Cha’lie, you jes’ gotta stop buckin’ An’ Runa. You gotta make friends.’
‘What!’ he flared. ‘With ’at old hell-cat!’
‘You gotta!’ she whimpered, clutching his arm. ‘You gotta! Cha’lie, you don’ know, you don’ know . . .’
He threw off her hand, his eyes flashing: ‘You crazy? I great mind slap yo’ mouth.’
And, thrusting her roughly away, he started for the door.
Lila sprang, and threw her arms around him from behind. ‘Listen — please!' she panted.
Whirling, his eyes met the stark fear bursting from her own. He paused.
‘Fo’ my sake, Cha’lie. . . . Ef you don’t — ef you don’t — Oh, Jesus! Gawd above!’
‘I believe you are crazy,’ he began.
But the girl’s hands shut down so tightly on his arms that he winced. With a sob, as if using a fearful last resort, she suddenly whispered: ‘I see ’er . . . bu’nin’ grave dus’ . . . over you las’ night.’
‘Dam’ you!’ he snarled, and, spinning her away, slammed from the room.
Neal heard the news just before supper. Sobbing, vowing vengeance, he went to tell his mother. Somebody had killed good old ’Lisha, and hung his mutilated body on Mammy’s gate — right where she would see it. He would catch them — put them in the penitentiary — hang them, the dirty cowards!
Comforting him as best she could, Mrs. Prescott promised that Mammy should have the pick of the new kittens; and he could go after supper to sit with her and comfort her.
Arriving out of breath at the little gate, Neal ran his hand through the slats and muffled the cowbells. He must go softly; this was no time for a noisy entrance. At the steps he paused, rigid. Mammy’s voice had suddenly broken into that half-wailing, fearsome dirge, ‘ ’Rection Day.’ It sent shivers through him and brought a lump in his throat. It was so portentous; so full of pending grief and irrevocable parting. His little fists clenched, his teeth steadied his lip. Softly the old voice quavered: —
An’ de moon drips awa-a-y into blood,
When de rocks begin to me-It,
An’ de riv-ers t’ burn,
Sin-nah-h, wha’ . . . will yo’ turn?’
‘Mammy-y!’ His voice quavered, too.
‘Dat you, son? Wait a minute. I’ll make a light.’
She sat in her low split-bottom rocker at one side of the fireplace, filled with cedar boughs.
Kissing her cheek, he knelt beside her, holding her arm about his neck. He grew tearful as he tried to console her for ’Lisha’s death. ‘You’ve had a lot of spirit trouble, too, this summer, haven’t you, Mammy? Are the black sheep still following you?’ he asked, stroking her hand against his face.
‘Turble bad, son, turble bad. So black and sech a flock er ’em,’ she moaned, ‘all ’bout me, wo’kin’ like maggits in a ol’ ham. Maybe dey tote me ’way fo’ long — dey so stronglike.’ The boy’s hand clutched hers tightly, his eyes became misty. ‘Seem like my . . . strengt’ leavin’ . . . and my deep sight weak’nin’. ... I feared I slidin’ . . . down . . . down . . .’
‘Oh, Mammy,’ the child whimpered, ‘don’t talk that way!’ And suddenly his clutch grew tighter and the little head went down in her lap. ‘Don’t talk — like that. . . . You ’re just as strong as ever. . . .’
‘Hardly — hardly,’ she whispered, shaking her head. ‘One dese mornin’, when you wake up, I’ll be gone.’
‘Don’t, oh, don’t, Mammy!’ he cried, struggling to his feet; and, hysterically clutching her in his arms, he sobbed on her old bosom.
Gently she drew him on to her lap, and with a ‘Sh-h-h, baby, sh-h-h!’ she folded his little body in her arms and began to rock gently, patting his shoulder in rhythm with her rocking. ‘You ’member,’ she began divertingly, ‘how I use’ to rock you, an’ sing?’ His head nodded against her bosom; his muffled voice came up, ‘Sing now, Mammy.’
Folding him tighter, she bowed her cheek on his head, her rocking became regular, her pats measured. Softly, with a slight quaver, rose her soothing voice: —
By an’ by, li’l child’en,
Gwine a-ride on de milk-white ho’ses,
By an’ by-y-y.
Gwine a-clim’ dat golden ladd-er,
Dat leads right up to heav-en,
An’ a-walk dem golden stre-ets,
By an’ by-y-y. ’
When Lila came, Mammy’s tired form was still rocking. Neal was asleep. Mammy made Lila walk home with him.
Snooping, watching, became an obsession with Charlie. But his spying and his timorous hunts through shelves and drawers, his systematic shaking of garments, were fruitless. Just when he was feeling hopeful that he had been granted a respite, — possibly forgotten, — he would suddenly be startled to the very quick. He was lashed from fury to despair. Whiskey — hot raw whiskey — was a solace. But even this was suddenly denied him. On raising the hidden bottle to his mouth one night, he felt something like a little chip touch his lip. He held the bottle to the light. A small lizard, grotesquely stif, swirled slowdy in the liquor. An illness swept over him. With the pains of his retching, he thought he could feel faint creepings and gnawings in his stomach — like something nipping at his insides.
By threshing time Charlie was a sick man. Bad dreams and night sweats and agues troubled him. His food tasted queer — like the horrid smell that had come from the burning tobacco pouch. And the creepings and gnawings in his stomach continued. This symptom worried him more than all the rest.
He complained of everything. His smiling repartee, his piquant tales of trade-school life, were a thing of the past. His shell of savoir-faire seemed to have broken, to let out a disturbing, unpleasant personality that wore badly with the negroes. Hunh! Dat Cha’lie was sure gittin’ worrisome an’ tetchy. Slam a door, or knock a pan, and he would jump an’ cuss. Look like when he did laugh he sort a strained at it. He oughta git Doctor to gi’e him some pills an’ tonic.
Charlie thought so, too, for he asked Doctor Prescott to prescribe for him.
Runa did n’t carry quite the former air of stress about her; she appeared to have relaxed somewhat, as one does after the crux of a highly tensed situation. She looked at Charlie less often, less intently. He seldom even glanced toward her.
The moon turned to its wane, and Charlie grew worse. He talked aloud to himself, and, although he knew that was a bad sign, he could n’t stop it. He would curse and then pray — plunging from one to the other. Gawd! If they would only let up! If he could but look forward to a month — a week — of peace! But the dam’ things kept hammering — like the beat of a rubber mallet on his brain. And he found himself waiting — waiting for the next blow. The spring had left his stride; his small eyes turned yellow, like old Runa’s, and they had now a strange look to them. ‘Jes’ like he all time ’spectin’ somep’n tur’ble to happen — to hese’f,’ ventured the cook, in a hushed voice, to the others about the table. ‘Hit sho’ is skeery. Look like somep’n — wo’kin’ on ’im,’ she continued. But no one spoke; no one looked at the other. Shivering, she whispered, ‘I feel like somep’n — gwine happen. Jesus — ’ Her whisper died. Suddenly she began collecting the plates with an unusual clatter.
Yes, Charlie was bad off. They all knew it. He dodged Runa, and avoided even Lila. And Lila was grievin’, too, — love-grievin’, — they could see it. Charlie must have lost his taste for her. They would watch closer.
But Runa did n’t avoid Charlie any more. It seemed to him she sought him out — followed him. Without warning she would pop out on him; unexpectedly she would be standing beside him — smiling her dour, inscrutable smile.
After a particularly trying day of almost hiding from her, he went to bed early; not that he expected to sleep, but to be alone. Somehow he needed to be alone these days. His bare foot touched something! He sprang from the bed, shaking as in a chill. Tremblingly he lifted the folded sheet. There, lifelike, squatted a yellow-gray toad. Gawd! Stealthily clutching a shoe by the toe, he struck. The stuffed toad exploded and a fine dust rose in the air. It seemed to penetrate his vitals. Nostrils, lungs, even his very heart seemed choked with an acrid burning.
He staggered to the cook’s door adjoining, and frantically hammered. ‘Help! Help!’ he gasped. ‘Can’ see! . . . Can’ breathe! . . . She killin me! She killin’ me!’ as he fell across her bed.
‘Who killin’ you?’ she asked excitedly.
‘ Water! ’ he begged. ’Water! ’
Between moans, he drank great gulps.
The cook sat watching him, a mingling of awe and intense curiosity in her face. When his low moans lessened, she asked curiously: —
‘Why n’t you go on to yo’ room now?’
‘No! No! Le’ me stay here — on a quilt — in de corner. I ’fraid . . . I git sick ag’in. . .
She gave him a strange, critical look, almost of contempt, but nevertheless humored him; and Charlie lay on the floor, staring up into the black dark, till day broke.
The day was one of little work for Charlie. He sat in his room, trying to think, trying to plan. Then he wandered vacantly about the stables, and finally out into the orchard, where he sat against an apple tree listening to the busy sounds of wheat threshing. But the interminable moan of the big thresher drifted down upon him depressingly. Droning, droning monotonously, then shrieking out as in agony when it crunched into the heavy bundles of grain. ‘Like a sick somebody moanin’ an’ hollerin’,’ he mumbled, fidgeting. And the never-ceasing chant of the driver boys, urging the twelve big mules round, and round, and round, worried him. Their eternal ‘Gi’ up! Gi’ up! Gi’ up-up-up-up!’ throbbed in his ears, pecked at his nerves. Cursing the boys, the thresher, everything, he raged back to his room and shut himself between its hot walls.
He was tired, sick of Kennon Hills and its people. He had often thought of leaving; had been on the point of quitting before. But now, as always, his pride, the white blood in him, revolted against acknowledging, even to himself, that he was being — well, sort of driven away . . . by an old . . . But to-day he could n’t think. He was sick — that was it! Too sick to think! He would n’t try. Wait till to-morrow — when he felt better, and could plan — scheme. He had always been able to scheme — out of anything.
Stealing back from the kitchen late that night, Charlie tiptoed into his room and stealthily closed the door. From under his shirt he took out a flour sifter, and tilted it face-out against the door. He wondered why he had n’t thought of this charm of his old grandmother’s before. Maybe sifters did catch — things. Sitting on the bed, he took a nutmeg from his pocket and, after looking at it for a moment, began stitching a piece of dark cloth about it. Then to the cover he sewed the loop of a string. Opening his shirt, he tied the ends around his neck. He remembered several old people wearing nutmeg trick breakers. With a weary sigh of hopefulness, he stretched out and presently slept.
Charlie felt better, more at peace, after his good night’s sleep. He was elated, almost happy with the idea that Grandma was right. Perhaps the old folks did know. . . .
In place of a surly grunt he gave Lila an almost genial greeting. The girl’s eyes quickened. Searchingly, hopefully, she gazed at him. Throughout the morning she made opportunities to be near him, to watch him appraisingly. Later she cornered him. ‘I gotta talk wid you to-night, Cha’lie,’ she began earnestly. ‘Dere’s a heap I ’bleeged to tell you — a heap you gotta know. My min’ can’ res’!’
Sensing something disagreeable, he peevishly demurred; but at length he nodded reluctantly. ‘A’ right — under de same tree.’
Lila was very late. Aunt Runa had been fidgeting and mumbling for some time. Suddenly, with a look of stark resolve, she removed her slippers and stockings and glided out of the door.
Silently as an Indian she stole down the lane, pausing, listening. Voices in the orchard! She crept along the shadow of the fence. Lila’s voice! And a man’s! That pizen yaller nigger. . . .
Lila’s earnest tones were interrupted by a voice quivering with rage; ‘I great min’ kill you — you hussy!’
With a sharp cry, the girl sprang up. ‘An’ Runa!’ she gasped, and shrank back against Charlie.
Come here to me!’ Runa’s pitiless voice commanded. Lila started; hesitated. You hear me? and the incisive words seemed to penetrate the girl like a knife. Moaning softly, her head bowed, she dragged her feet slowly toward the old woman. The man hesitantly followed, as one dazed.
Runa’s old frame tautened. Like a flash she lunged — and struck. One, two, three open-handed blows against the girl’s face! Lila screamed. It was hopeless to struggle. A steely claw clutched tight in her hair. Fast, fast, like strokes of a snake, came the blows. ‘You would — would you? You slut — wid a — yaller snake . . .’
‘He’p, Cha’lie! He’p!’ the girl beseeched frantically.
Berserk, with smouldering hate bursting forth with the flame of resentment, the yellow negro sprang. Viciously he swung against Aunt Runa’s face. Her old knees sagged; slowly the old body toppled and lay still — almost hidden in the pea vines and Jimson weeds.
Mammy was very sick, Neal heard at breakfast. She had fallen in the night and seriously hurt her head. And Mammy was so old — one scarcely knew . . . No, he must n’t go up now. Mother would send her a nice tray later. No, they couldn’t tell just how ill she was. Mother would let him know at dinner. Neal couldn’t eat; struggle as he would, great straining sobs would break out and choke him. Mrs. Prescott rose and, putting her arm about him, led him from the room.
Leaning against the dining-room wall, apathetic, Charlie had tried to make his mind take in the conversation. Stupidly his brain felt for the elusive thoughts. Suddenly a look of satisfied cunning came over his drawn face. His brain began to function — brokenly. She hadn’t told on him! . . . Maybe she would die? . . . Lila would never tell! . . . He could stay on at Kennon Hills, with Lila, and rule the roost again! Gawd knew he wished she would die. But if she should n’t! lie caught his breath. His eyes grew round and glassy. Had n’t he struck her? Gawd, yes, he had actually hit her — hard. Pity he had n’t used a rock! . . . But he had n’t. . . . And if . . . when . . . she came back? Jesus, the Saviour! He had a great mind to run. He struggled against the thought, fought it. But the idea drove him out of the room, into the pantry, undecided, confused. Pressing both hands against his forehead, he sank on to the low bench, his head bowed almost to the worn boards. Presently he gave a deep, quivering sigh, and, straightening, let his hands fall loosely. The inherent, pride of the ‘high yellow’ had conquered. He would wait — take a chance.
Neal was sitting on the back porch, dejectedly stroking Budger’s head. It was quiet there, where he could be alone with his thoughts. His shocking grief at the possibility of Mammy’s dying had worn itself down with its very intensity. And with emotional exhaustion had come youthful optimism. Mammy was n’t the kind to give under to a little old fall. She had survived a mule’s kick, the black mare’s throwing her against a tree — oh, lots of things! Besides, Mammy’s mind — her second sight — would bring her through. . . .
The twelve-o’clock bell struck. Neal looked up. Suddenly he started. Then, with a cry of ‘Look! There’s Mammy! Mammy!’ he tumbled the startled puppy aside and dashed across the yard.
Weaving down the lane, bracing herself with a stick, tottered Aunt Runa.
When Neal helped her up the steps she was nearly exhausted. He shouted for his mother, Elizabeth, the cook — everybody. Run quick! Here was Mammy! His was a hysterical frenzy of joy.
With the family solicitously gathered around her, Neal fanning her, the cook bringing ice water, and Jenny a stool for her feet, Aunt Runa lay back motionless, a look of pride, a smile of triumph on her ashen face.
Charlie had missed it all. He was sleeping exhaustedly in his room.
Presently the cook helped her down to the cellar room, where she could drink her coffee in peace. Neal hurried to find cake, jelly, rolls, crackers — anything he could lay hands on.
Mammy’s return was indeed a triumphal one. Nor was her departure less; for the Doctor, coming back from a call, scolded her from her chair, and with Jenny on one side, the cook on the other, and Neal walking backward in the van, he ordered her to his shiny buggy and helped her to the cushioned seat.
As the procession emerged from the area-way, Charlie came out of his door, and stopped, frozen. With a sucking of breath, he sprang inside, slammed the door — and locked it.
Charlie came late to dinner. He had an ill, hunted look. Abstractedly he reached into the cupboard for his bottle of tonic. His fingers touched a bottle — but it did n’t feel familiar. . . . Deliberately he drew forth the strange bottle. It was pale green, of queer shape, and . . . Hesitating, but spurred by some inner urge, he moved slowly across the room to a better light. Tense eyes followed the bottle as Charlie raised it. ‘Who put this —' he began to snarl. But a muffled cry broke in: ‘Look! Jesus — dey ’live!’
Charlie started. His hand trembled, his eyes bulged. The coppery mass in the pale green bottle was alive, squirming! Fascinated, like one hypnotized, he stared. A small red lizard, with little bunches of hair tied to its forefeet, swam sinuously up from the bottom, as if to greet Charlie.
‘Christ!’ he choked, and, with only the instinct to get rid of the thing, flung it hysterically against the wall. It crashed, and with the crash came a woman’s scream. Conjure bottle — broken! As if by magic Charlie was alone.
Shaking, his yellow face like a dead man’s, he swayed. Catching the table, he staggered through the door, out into the yard. Not a soul was in sight. In a half run he reached his room.
Charlie gave notice that night. He was too sick to work. Thought he’d better go to the City. He would like to take his things in the spring wagon when it went to town to-morrow. He asked that the servants not be told till he was gone. Save him a lot of questions.
The man was undoubtedly ill. Doctor Prescott was more puzzled than ever. He ordered him to bed. The wagon would n’t leave till after dinner to-morrow.
Aunt Runa tottered down in the late forenoon next day, and insisted on mending some of Neal’s clothes. She felt lots better, she protested.
Shortly before servants’ dinner time she came into the kitchen, to rest and talk, she said. The cook was grumbling about Miss Betty’s ordering her to boil eggs for ‘dat Cha’lie.’ Placing the food on a tray, she asked An’ Runa please to take it downstairs for her, while she brought the other things.
When Charlie came in, he answered their perfunctory greetings and sly inquisitive looks with a mumbled word and a vacant, dazed smile around the table. Runa’s inflexible stare caught his eyes, and held them. Their vacant look was slowly crowded out by one of dreadful fear. Suddenly a strange light of desperation shot from them. Runa looked away.
Charlie ate his eggs half-heartedly, in silence. Suddenly he sprang up and started for the door, but before he could reach it he vomited. One brought a glass of water, another a towel; even Aunt Runa joined the solicitous group about him. Charlie was led to a chair.
Jenny’s voice startled them: ‘Jesus Gawd! Look!’ Shrinking back, with abject horror in her eyes, she pointed to the splotch on the floor.
Charlie looked up weakly at the awestruck negroes gathered behind the rigid, pointing girl.
‘Gawdamighty!’ breathed the cook. Throwing her apron over her head, she stumbled for the door — the others in sheer panic crowding her through.
Runa stood calmly looking down with a contemplative smile at something obscurely wriggling. ‘Hit’s a lizard, ain’t it?’ she said in a tone of casual interest, not shifting her gaze.
At the word ‘lizard,’ Charlie struggled to his feet. Slowly, fearsomely, he advanced, his eyes fixed on the spot. Abruptly he stiffened. For a full minute he stared as one hypnotized. But, as if drawn by some power beyond him, his glazed eyes slowly lifted to meet the old woman’s mockingly triumphant ones.
Suddenly his face blazed with a maniacal glare. His teeth snapped shut, the lips drawn back like a vicious dog’s. With the snarl of a mad beast he sprang back, his finger pointing rigidly at Runa. ‘’Tain’ so! ’T ain’ so!’ he screamed — and leaped for the door.
The spring wagon left for town without Charlie. No, no one knew where he was, nor anything about him. Doctor Prescott was puzzled — and worried. When questioned, Neal smiled halfpityingly into his father’s face, but denied all knowledge of ‘that sneakin’ yellow nigger.’
The domestic machinery of Kennon Hills had gone to pieces. From garden to chambers there was little done; and that little as if by absent-minded, furtive idiots, thought the mistress. Even Neal bore a mysterious air of silent preoccupation. Mammy had taken to her bed. She felt po’ly — kinda tired out. If the Doctor did n’t mind, she’d rest a few days.
At dusk the third evening after Charlie’s disappearance, Neal came in from a drive to the river farm with his father. Moses, the stableboy, was not waiting in his accustomed place by the steps; nor was there any response to the Doctor’s impatient calls. Neal hitched the horse to the rack, and followed his father indoors. There was no light on the first floor. The Doctor spluttered as he started upstairs. Confound the lazy niggers! Son must run to stir them out — this minute!
Drifting through the half-dark rooms, Neal was struck with an unnatural stillness pervading the house. Not a nigger in sight! That was funny! He shivered. With a strained look of expectancy, he tiptoed on to the porch and paused, silent, listening.
Faintly out of the dusk came the low murmur of voices, from the lane, behind the smokehouse. For a moment the boy stood tense; then he crept softly down the steps, and across the yard. Cautiously he looked around the corner.
A group of silent, shadowy figures stood about an old darky who held a mule by the bridle. The old man’s low voice continued dramatically; —
'. . . an’ dey see by de light er de lantun dat ’t was him de possum dogs had treed . . . dar, in de middle er de Big Slash. He fit ’em like a wil’cat; but las’ dey got ’im down . . . an’ tied ’im . . . wid dey galluses. . .
A stifled sob broke from a girl’s throat. Vague feet shuffled softly; dim forms moved, swayed gently; and a long indrawn breath quivered — and died. Then a woman’s awed voice trembled in supplication: —
‘Jesus, de Saviour . . . have mercy, Lord!’
A low ‘Amen!’ came in responsive chorus.
Neal’s very flesh seemed to creep from his back. He crowded hard against the wall, and held his breath.
‘An’ so,’ the old negro’s voice dropped almost to a whisper, ‘Doc’r Wright an’ de Sheriff took ’im down, dis mornin’ ... to de ’sylum.’