Back to the Index Page


The Deliverance, Book V, The Ancient Law by Ellen Glasgow

A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields



CHRISTOPHER BLAKE, a tobacco-grower

MRS. BLAKE, his mother

TUCKER CORBIN, an old soldier

CYNTHIA and LILA BLAKE; sisters of Christopher

CARRAWAY, a lawyer

BILL FLETCHER, a wealthy farmer

MARIA FLETCHER, his granddaughter

WILL FLETCHER, his grandson

"MISS SAIDIE," sister of Fletcher

JACOB WEATHERBY, a tobacco-grower


SOL PETERKIN, another tobacco-grower

MOLLY PETERKIN, daughter of Sol

Tom SPADE, a country storekeeper

SUSAN, his wife



CHAPTER I. Christopher Seeks an Escape

A clump of brambles caught at his feet, and, stumbling like a drunken man, he threw himself at full length upon the ground, pressing his forehead on the young, green thorns. A century seemed to have passed since his flight from the poplar spring, and yet the soft afternoon sunshine was still about him and the low murmurs of the thrush still floated from the old apple-tree. All the violence of his undisciplined nature had rushed into revolt against the surrender which he felt must come, and he was conscious at the instant that he hated only a little less supremely than he loved. In the end the greater passion would triumph over him, he knew; but as he lay there face downward upon the earth the last evil instincts of his revenge battled against the remorse which had driven him from Maria's presence. He saw himself clearly for what he was: he had learned at last to call his sin by its right name; and yet he felt that somewhere in the depths of his being he had not ceased to love the evil that he had done. He hated Fletcher, he told himself, as righteously as ever, but between himself and the face of his enemy a veil had fallen—the old wrong no longer stood out in a blaze of light. A woman's smile divided him like a drawn sword from his brutal past, and he had lost the reckless courage with which he once might have flung himself upon destruction.

Rising presently, he crossed the meadow and went slowly back to his work in the stables, keeping his thoughts with an effort upon his accustomed tasks. A great weariness for the endless daily round of shall things was upon him, and he felt all at once that the emotion struggling within his heart must burst forth at last and pervade the visible world. He was conscious of an impulse to sing, to laugh, to talk in broken sentences to himself; and any utterance, however slight and meaningless, seemed to relieve in a measure the nervous tension of his thoughts.

In one instant there entered into him a desperate determination to play the traitor—to desert his post and strike out boldly and alone into the world. And with the next breath he saw himself living to old age as he had lived from boyhood—within reach of Maria's hand, meeting her fervent eyes, and yet separated from her by a distance greater than God or man could bridge. With the thought of her he saw again her faint smile which lingered always about her mouth, and his blood stirred at the memory of the kiss which she had neither resisted nor returned.

Cynthia, searching for him a few minutes later, found him leaning idly against the mare's stall, looking down upon a half-finished nest which a house-wren had begun to build upon his currycomb.

"It's a pity to disturb that, Tucker would say," he observed, motioning toward the few wisps of straw on the ledge.

"Oh, she can start it somewhere else," replied Cynthia indifferently. "They have sent for you from the store, Christopher—it's something about one of the servants, I believe. They're always getting into trouble and wanting you to pull them out." The descendants of the old Blake slaves were still spoken of by Cynthia as "the servants," though they had been free men and women for almost thirty years.

Christopher started from his abstraction and turned toward her with a gesture of annoyance.

"Well, I'll have to go down, I suppose," he said. "Has mother asked for me to-day?"

"Only for Jim again—it's always Jim now. I declare, I believe we might all move away and she'd never know the difference so long as he was left. She forgets us entirely sometimes, and fancies that father is alive again."

"It's a good thing Jim amuses her, at any rate."

An expression of anger drew Cynthia's brows together. "Oh, I dare say; but it does seem hard that she should have grown to dislike me after all I've done for her. There are times when she won't let me even come in the room—when she's not herself, you know."

Her words were swallowed in a sob, and he stood staring at her in an amazement too sudden to be mixed with pity.

"And you have given up your whole life to her," he exclaimed. appalled by the injustice of the god of sacrifice.

Cynthia put up one knotted hand and stroked back the thin hair upon her temples. "It was all I had to give," she answered, and went out into the yard.

He let her go from him without replying, and before her pathetic figure had reached the house she was blotted entirely from his thoughts, for it was a part of the tragedy of her unselfishness that she had never existed as a distinct personality even in the minds of those who knew and loved her.

When presently he passed through the yard on his way to the store, he saw her taking in the dried clothes from the old lilac-bushes and called back carelessly that he would be home to supper. Then, forgetting her lesser miseries in his own greater one, he fell into his troubled brooding as he swung rapidly along the road.

At the store the usual group of loungers welcomed him, and among them he saw to his surprise the cheerful face of Jim Weatherby, a little clouded by the important news he was evidently seeking to hold back.

"I tried to keep them from sending for you, Christopher," the young man explained. "It is no business of yours—that is what I said."

"Well, it seems that every thriftless nigger in the county thinks he's got a claim upon you, sho' enough," put in Tom Spade. "It warn't mo'n last week that I had a letter from the grandson of yo' pa's old blacksmith Buck, sayin' he was to hang in Philadelphia for somebody's murder, an' that I must tell Marse Christopher to come an' git him off. Thar's a good six hunnard of 'em, black an' yaller an' it's God A'mighty or Marse Christopher to 'em every one."

"What is it now?" asked Christopher a little wearily, taking off his hat and running his hand through his thick, fair hair. "If anybody's been stealing chickens they've got to take the consequences."

"Oh, it's not chicken stealin' this time; it's a blamed sight worse. They want you to send somebody over to Uncle Isam's—you remember his little cabin, five miles off in Alorse's woods—to help him bury his children who have died of smallpox. There are four of 'em dead, it seems, an' the rest are all down with the disease. Thar's not a morsel of food in the house, an' not a livin' nigger will go nigh 'em."

"Uncle Isam!" repeated Christopher, as if trying to recall the name. "Why, I haven't laid eyes upon the man for years."

"Very likely; but he's sent you a message by a boy who was gathering pine knots at the foot of his hill. He was to tell Marse Christopher that he had had nothing to eat for two whole days an' his children were unburied. Then the boy got scared an' scampered off, an' that was all."

Christopher's laugh sounded rather brutal.

"So he used to belong to us, did he?" he inquired.

"He was yo' pa's own coachman. I recollect him plain as day," answered Tom. "I warn't 'mo'n a child then, an' he used to flick his whip at my bare legs whenever he passed me in the road."

"Well, what is to be done?" asked Christopher, turning suddenly upon him.

"The Lord He knows, suh. Thar's not a nigger as will go nigh him, an' I'm not blamin' 'em; not I. Jim's filled his cart with food, an' he's goin' to dump the things out at the foot of the hill; then maybe Uncle Isam can crawl down an' drag 'em back. His wife's down with it, too, they say. She was workin' here not mo'n six months ago, but she left her place of a sudden an' went back again."

Christopher glanced carelessly at the little cart waiting in the road, and then throwing off his coat tossed it on the seat.

"I'll trouble you to lend me your overalls, Tom," he said, "and you can send a boy up to the house and get mine in exchange. Put what medicines you have in the cart; I'll take them over to the old fool."

"Good Lord!" said Tom, and mechanically got out of his blue jean clothes.

"Now don't be a downright ass, Christopher," put in Jim Weatherby. "You've got your mother on your hands, you know, and what under heaven have you to do with Uncle Isam? I knew some foolishness would most likely come of it if they sent up for you."

"Oh, he used to belong to us, you see," explained Christopher carelessly.

"And he's been an ungrateful, thriftless free Negro for nearly thirty years—"

"That's just it—for not quite thirty years. Look here, if you'll drive me over in the cart and leave the things at the foot of the hill I'll be obliged to you. I'll probably have to stay out a couple of weeks—until there's no danger of my bringing back the disease—so I'll wear Tom's overalls and leave my clothes somewhere in the woods. Oh, I'll take care, of course; I'm no fool."

"You're surer of that than I am," returned Jim, thinking of Lila. "I can't help feeling that there's some truth in father's saying that a man can't be a hero without being a bit of a fool as well. For God's sake, don't, Christopher. You have no right—"

"No, I have no right," repeated Christopher, as he got into the cart and took up the hanging reins. A sudden animation had leaped into his face and his eyes were shining. It was the old love of a "risk for the sake of the risk" which to Tucker had always seemed to lack the moral elements of true courage, and the careless gaiety with which he spoke robbed the situation of its underlying somber horror.

Jim swung himself angrily upon the seat and touched the horse lightly with the whip. "And there's your mother sitting at home—and Cynthia—and Lila," he said.

Christopher turned on him a face in whose expression he found a mystery that he could not solve.

"I can't help it, Jim, to save my life I can't," he answered. "It isn't anything heroic; you know that as well as I. I don't care a straw for Uncle Isam and his children, but if I didn't go up there and bury those dead darkies I'd never have a moment's peace. I've been everything but a skulking coward, and I can't turn out to be that at the end. It's the way I'm made."

"Well, I dare say we're made different," responded Jim rather dryly, for it was his wedding day and he was going farther from his bride. "But for my part, I can't help thinking of that poor blind old lady, and how helpless they all are. Yes, we're made different. I reckon that's what it means."

The cart jogged on slowly through the fading sunshine, and when at last it came to the foot of the hill where Uncle Isam lived Christopher got out and shouldered a bag of meal.

"You'll run the place, I know, and look after mother while I'm away," he said.

"Oh, I suppose I'll have to," returned Jim; and then his ill- humour vanished and he smiled and held out his hand. "Good-by, old man. God bless you," he said heartily.

Sitting there in the road, he watched Christopher pass out of sight under the green leaves, stooping slightly beneath the bag of meal and whistling a merry scrap of an old song. At the instant it came to Jim with the force of a blow that this was the first cheerful sound he had heard from him for weeks; and, still pondering, he turned the horse's head and drove slowly home to his own happiness.

CHAPTER II. The Measure of Maria

When, two weeks later, Christopher reached home again, he was met by Tucker's gentle banter and Lila's look of passionate reproach.

"Oh, dear, you might have died!" breathed the girl with a shudder.

Christopher laughed.

"So might Uncle Tucker when he went into the war," was his retort. He was a little thinner, a little graver, and the sunburn upon his face had faded to a paler shade. After the short absence his powerful figure struck them as almost gigantic; physically, he had never appeared more impressive than he did standing there in the sunlight that filled the kitchen doorway.

"But that was different," protested Lila, flushing, "and this- this—why, you hardly knew Uncle Isam when you passed him in the road."

"And half the time forgot to speak to him," added Tucker, laughing. His eyes were on the young man's figure, and they grew a little wistful, as they always did in the presence of perfect masculine strength. "Well, I'm glad your search for adventures didn't end in disaster," he added pleasantly.

To Christopher's surprise, Cynthia was the single member of the family who showed a sympathy with his reckless knight errantry. "There was nothing else for you to do, of course," she said in a resolute voice, lifting her worn face where the lines had deepened in his absence; "he used to be father's coachman before the war."

She had gone from the kitchen as she spoke, and Christopher, following her, threw an anxious glance along the little platform to the closed door of the house.

"And mother, Cynthia?" he asked quickly.

"Her mind still wanders, but at times she seems to come back to herself for a little while, and only this morning she awoke from a nap and asked for you quite clearly. We told her you had gone hunting."

"May I see her now? Who is with her?"

"Jim. He has been so good."

The admission was wrung shortly from her rigid honesty, and there was no visible softening of her grim reserve, when, entering the house with Christopher, she found herself presently beside Jim Weatherby, who was chatting merrily in Mrs. Blake's room.

The old lady, shrivelled and faded as the dried goldenrod which filled the great jars on the hearth, lay half hidden among the pillows in her high white bed, her vacant eyes fixed upon the sunshine which fell through the little window. At Christopher's step her memory flickered back for an instant, and the change showed in the sudden animation of her glance.

"I was dreaming of your father, my son, and you have his voice."

"I am like him in other ways, I hope, mother."

"If I could only see you, Christopher—it is so hard to remember. You had golden curls and wore a white pinafore. I trimmed it with the embroidery from my last set of petticoats. And your hands were dimpled all over; you would suck your thumb: there was no breaking you, though I wrapped it in a rag soaked in quinine—"

"That was almost thirty years ago, mother," broke in Cynthia, catching her breath sharply. "He is a man now, and big—oh, so big—and his hair has grown a little darker."

"I know, Cynthia; I know," returned Mrs. Blake, with a peevish movement of her thin hand, "but you won't let me remember. I am trying to remember." She fell to whimpering like a hurt child, and then growing suddenly quiet, reached out until she touched Christopher's head. "You're a man, I know," she said, "older than your father was when his first child was born. There have been two crosses in my life, Christopher—my blindness and my never having heard the voices of my grandchildren playing in the house. Such a roomy old house, too, with so much space for them to fill with cheerful noise. I always liked noise, you know; it tells of life, and never disturbs me so long as it is pleasant. What I hate is the empty silence that reminds one of the grave."

She was quite herself now, and, bending over, he kissed the hand upon the counterpane.

"Oh, mother, mother, if I could only have made you happy!"

"And you couldn't, Christopher?"

"I couldn't marry, dear; I couldn't."

"There was no one, you mean—no woman whom you could have loved and who would have given you children. Surely there are still good and gentle women left in the world."

"There was none for me."

She sighed hopelessly.

"You have never—never had a low fancy, Christopher?"

"Never, mother."

"Thank God; it is one thing I could not forgive. A gentleman may have his follies, your father used to say, but he must never stoop for them. Let him keep to his own level, even in his indiscretions. Ah, your father had his faults, my son, but he never forgot for one instant in his life that he was born a gentleman. He was a good husband, too, a good husband, and I was married to him for nearly forty years. The greatest trial of my marriage was that he would throw his cigar ashes on the floor. Women think so much of little things, you know, and I've always felt that I should have been a happier woman if he had learned to use an ash-tray. But he never would—he never would, though I gave him one every Christmas for almost forty years."

Falling silent, her hands played fitfully upon the counterpane, and when next she spoke the present had slipped from her and her thoughts had gone back to her early triumphs.

She wandered aimlessly and waveringly on in a feeble vacancy, and Christopher, after watching her for an agonised moment, left the room and went out into the fresh air of the yard. He could always escape by flight from the slow death-bed; it was Cynthia who faced hourly the final tragedy of a long and happy life.

The thought of Will had oppressed him like a nightmare for the last two weeks, and it was almost unconsciously that he tuned now in the direction of the store and passed presently into the shaded lane leading to Sol Peterkin's. His mood was heavy upon him, and so deep was the abstraction in which he walked that it was only when he heard his name called softly from a little distance that he looked up to find Maria Fletcher approaching him over the pale gray shadows in the road. Her eyes were luminous, and she stretched her hand toward him in a happy gesture.

"Oh, if you only knew how wonderful I think you!" she cried impulsively.

He held her hand an instant, and then letting it fall, withdrew his gaze slowly from her exalted look. The pure heights of her fervour were beyond the reach of his more earthly level, and as he turned from her some old words of her own were respoken in his ears: "Faith and doubt are mere empty forms until we pour out the heart's blood that vivifies them." It was her heart's blood that she had put into her dreams, and it was this, he told himself, that gave her mystic visions their illusive appearance of reality. Beauty enveloped her as an atmosphere; it softened her sternest sacrifice, it coloured her barest outlook, it transformed daily the common road in which she walked, and hourly it sustained and nourished her, as it nourished poor, crippled Tucker on his old pine bench. The eye of the spirit was theirs—this Christopher had learned at last; and he had learned, also, that for him there still remained only the weak, blurred vision of the flesh.

"You make me feel the veriest hypocrite," he said at the end of the long pause.

She shook her head. "And that you are surely not."

"So you still believe in me?"

"It's not belief—I KNOW in you."

"Well, don't praise me; don't admire me; don't pretend, for God's sake, that I'm anything better than the brute you see."

"I don't pretend anything better," she protested; "and when you talk like this it only makes me feel the more keenly your wonderful courage."

"I haven't any," he burst out almost angrily. "Not an atom, do you hear? Whatever I may appear on top, at bottom I am a great skulking coward, and nothing more. Why, I couldn't even stay and take my punishment the other day. I sneaked off like a hound."

"Your punishment?" she faltered, and he saw her lashes tremble.

"For the other day—for the afternoon by the poplar spring. I've been wanting to beg your pardon on my knees."

Her lashes were raised steadily, and she regarded him gravely while a slight frown gathered her dark brows. She was still humanly feminine enough to find the apology harder to forgive than the offense.

"Oh, I had forgotten," she said a little coldly. "So that was, after all, why you ran away?"

"It was not the only reason."

"And the other?"

He closed his eyes suddenly and drew back.

"I ran away because I knew if I stayed I should do it again within two seconds," he replied.

A little blue flower was growing in the red clay wheel-rut at her feet, and, stooping, she caressed it gently without plucking it.

"It was very foolish," she said in a quiet voice; "but I had forgotten it, and you should have let it rest. Afterward, you did such a brave, splendid thing."

"I did nothing but run from you," he persisted, losing his head. "If I hadn't gone to Uncle Isam I'd have done something equally reckless in a different way. I wanted to get away from you—to escape you, but I couldn't—I couldn't. You were with me always, night and day, in those God-forsaken woods. I never lost you for one instant, never. I tried to, but I couldn't."

"You couldn't," she repeated, and, rising, faced him calmly. Then before the look in his eyes her own wavered and fell slowly to the ground, and he saw her quiver and grow white as if a rough wind blew over her. With an effort he steadied himself and turned away.

"There is but one thing to do," he said, holding his breath in the pause; "it's a long story, but if you will listen patiently—and it is very long—I will tell you all." Following him, she crossed the carpet of pine needles and sat down upon the end of a fallen log.

"Tell me nothing that you do not care to," she answered, and sat waiting.

"It began long ago, when we were both little children," he went on, and then going back from her into the lane he stood staring down upon the little blue flower blooming in the wheel-rut. She saw his shadow, stretching across the road, blurred into the pale dusk of the wood, uncertain, somber, gigantic in its outline. His hat was lying on the ground at her feet, and, lifting it, she ran her fingers idly along the brim.

For a time the silence lasted; then coming back to her, he sat down on the log and dropped his clasped hands between his knees. She heard his heavy breathing, and something in the sound drew her toward him with a sympathetic movement.

"Ah, don't tell me, don't tell me," she entreated.

"You must listen patiently," he returned, without looking at her, "and not interrupt—above all, not interrupt."

She bent her head. "I will not speak a word nor move a finger until the end," she promised; and leaning a little forward, with his eyes on the ground and his hands hanging listlessly between his knees, he began his story.

The air was so still that his voice sounded strangely harsh in the silence, but presently she heard the soughing of the pine trees far up above, and while it lasted it deadened the jarring discord of the human tones. She sat quite motionless upon the log, not lifting a finger nor speaking a word, as she had promised, and her gaze was fixed steadily upon a bit of dried fern growing between the roots of a dead tree.

"It went on so for five years," he slowly finished, "and it was from beginning to end deliberate, devilish revenge. I meant from the first to make him what he is to-day. I meant to make him hate his grandfather as he does—I meant to make him the hopeless drunkard that he is. It is all my work—every bit of it—as you see it now."

He paused, but her eyes clung to the withered fern, and so quiet was her figure that it seemed as if she had not drawn breath since he began. Her faint smile was still sketched about the corners of her mouth, and her fingers were closed upon the brim of his harvest hat.

"For five years I was like that," he went on again. "I did not know, I did not care—I wanted to be a beast. Then you came and it was different."

For the first time she turned and looked at him.

"And it was different?" she repeated beneath her breath.

"Oh, there's nothing to say that will make things better; I know that. If you had not come I should never have known myself nor what I had been. It was like a thunderclap—the whole thing; it shook me off my feet before I saw what it meant—before I would acknowledge even to myself that—"

"That?" she questioned in a whisper, for he had bitten back the words.

"That I love you."

As he spoke she slipped suddenly to her knees and lay with her face hidden on the old log, while her smothered sobs ran in long shudders through her body. A murmur reached him presently, and it seemed to him that she was praying softly in her clasped hands; but when in a new horror of himself he made a movement to rise and slip away, she looked up and gently touched him detainingly on the arm.

"Oh, how unhappy—how unhappy you have been!" she said.

"It is not that I mind," he answered. "If I could take all the misery of it I shouldn't care, but I have made you suffer, and for the sin that is mine alone."

For a moment she was silent, breathing quickly between parted lips; then turning with an impulsive gesture, she laid her cheek upon the hand hanging at his side.

"Not yours alone," she said softly, "for it has become mine, too."

Before the wonder of her words he stared at her with dazed eyes, while their meaning shook him slowly to his senses.

"Maria!" he called out sharply in the voice of one who speaks from a distance.

She met his appeal with a swift outward movement of her arms, and, bending over, laid her hands gently upon his head.

"Mine, too, Christopher—mine, too," she repeated, "for I take the blame of it, and I will share in the atonement. My dear, my dear, is love so slight a thing that it would share the joy and leave the sorrow—that it would take the good and reject the evil? Why, it is all mine! All! All! What you have been I was also; what I am to-day you will be. I have been yours since the first instant you looked upon me."

With a sob he caught her hands and crushed them in his own.

"Then this is love, Maria?"

"It has been love—always."

"From the first—as with me?"

"As with you. Beloved, there is not a wrong on this earth that could come between us now, for there is no room in my heart where it might enter. There can be no sin against love which love does not acknowledge."

Falling apart, their hands dropped before them, and they stood looking at each other in a silence that went deeper than words. She felt his gaze enveloping her in warmth from head to foot, but he still made no movement to draw nearer, for there are moments when the touch of the flesh grows meaningless before the mute appeal of the spirit. In that one speechless instant there passed between them the pledges and the explanations of years.

Suddenly the light flamed in his face, and opening his arms, he made a single step toward her; but melting into tears, she turned from him and ran out into the road.

CHAPTER III. Will's Ruin

Blinded by tears, she went swiftly back along the road into the shadows which thickened beyond the first short bend. Will must be saved at any cost, by any sacrifice, she told herself with passionate insistence. He must be saved though she gave up her whole life to the work of his redemption, though she must stand daily and hourly guard against his weakness. He must be saved, not for his own sake alone, but because it was the one way in which she might work out Christopher's salvation. As she went on, scheme after scheme beckoned and repelled her; plan after plan was caught at only to be rejected, and it was at last with a sinking heart, though still full of high resolves, that she turned from the lane into a strip of "corduroy road," and so came quickly to the barren little farm adjoining Sol Peterkin's.

Will was sitting idly on an overturned wheelbarrow beside the woodpile, and as she approached him she assumed with an effort a face of cheerful courage.

"Oh, Will, I thought you'd gone to work. You promised me!"

"Well, I haven't, and there's an end of it," he returned irritably, chewing hard on a chip he had picked up from the ground; "and what's more, I shan't go till I see the use. It's killing me by inches. I tell you I'm not strong enough to stand a life like this. Drudge, drudge, drudge; there's nothing else except the little spirit I get from drink."

"And that ruins you. Oh, don't, don't. I'll go on my knees to you; I'll work for you like a servant day and night; I'll sell my very clothes to help you, if you'll only promise me never to drink again."

"You a servant!" said Will, and laughed shortly while he looked her over with raised eyebrows. "Why, your stockings would keep me in cigarettes for a week."

A flush crossed Maria's face, and she glanced down guiltily, letting her black skirt fall above the lace upon her petticoat. "I have bought nothing since coming home," she responded presently with quiet dignity; "these belong, with my old luxuries, to a past life. There were a great many of them, and it will fortunately take me a long time to wear them out."

"Oh, I don't begrudge them," returned Will; a little ashamed of his show of temper; "fine clothes suit you, and I hope you will squeeze them out of grandpa all you can. It's as good a way for him to spend his money as any other, and it doesn't hurt me so long as he'll never let me see the colour of a cent."

"But your promise, dear? Will you promise me?"

He lifted his sullen face toward her kind eyes, then turning away, kicked listlessly at the rotting chips.

"What's the use in promising? I wouldn't keep it," he replied. "Why, there are times when but for whisky I'd go mad. It's the life, I tell you, that's killing me, not drink. If things were different I shouldn't crave it—I shouldn't miss it, even. Why, for three months after I married Molly I didn't touch a single drop, and I'd have kept it up, too, except for grandpa's devilment. It's his fault; he drove me back to it as clear as day."

His weak mouth quivered, and he sucked in his breath in the way he had inherited from Fletcher. The deep flush across his face faded slowly, and dropping his restless, bloodshot eyes, he dug his foot into the mould with spasmodic twitches of his body. His clothes appeared to have been flung upon him, and his cravat and loosened collar betrayed the lack of neatness which had always repelled Maria so strongly in her grandfather. As she watched him she wondered with a pang that she had never noticed until to-day the resemblance he bore to the old man at the Hall.

"But one must be patient, Will," she said helplessly after a moment's thought; "there's always hope of a mending—and as far as that goes, grandfather may relent tomorrow."

"Relent? Pshaw! I'd like to see him do it this side of hell. Let him die; that's all I ask of him. His room is a long sight better than his company, and you may tell him I said so."

"What good would come of that?"

"I don't want any good to come of it. Why should I? He's brought me to this pass with his own hand."

"But surely it was partly your fault. He loved you once."

"Nonsense. He wanted a dog to badger, that was all. Christopher Blake said so."

"Christopher Blake! Oh, Will, Will, if you could only understand!"

She turned hopelessly away from him and looked with despairing eyes over the ploughed fields which blushed faintly in the sunshine.

"So your spring ploughing is all done," she said at last, desisting from her attempt to soften his sullen obduracy, "and you have been working harder than I knew."

"Oh, it's not I," returned Will promptly, his face clearing for the first time. "It's all Christopher's work; he ploughed that field just before he went away. Do you see that new cover over the well? He knocked that up the last morning he was here, and made those steps before the front door at the same time. Now, he's the kind of friend worth having, and no mistake. But for him I'd have landed in the poorhouse long ago."

Maria's gaze left the field and returned to Will's face, where it lingered wistfully.

"Have you ever heard what it was all about, Will?" she asked, "the old trouble between him and grandfather?"

"Some silly property right, I believe; I can't remember. Did you ever see anybody yet with whom grandpa was on decent terms?"

"He used to be with you, Will."

"Only so long as I wore short breeches and he could whack me over the head whenever he had a mind to. I tell you I'd rather try to get along with Beelzebub himself."

"Have you ever tried peace-making in earnest, I wonder?"

Twirling a chip between his thumb and forefinger, he flirted it angrily at a solitary hen scratching in the mould.

"Why, shortly after my marriage I went over there and positively wiped up the floor with myself. I offered him everything under heaven in the shape of good behaviour, and, by Jove! I meant it, too. I'd have stopped drinking then; I'd even have given up Christopher Blake—"

"Did you tell him that?"

"Did I ever tell a thunderstorm I'd run indoors? It was enough to get away with a whole skin—he left me little more. And the day afterward, by the way, he sent me the deeds to this rotten farm, and warned me that he'd shoot me down if I ever set foot at the Hall."

"And there has been no softening—no wavering since?"

Will shook his head with a brutal laugh. "Oh, you heard of our meeting in the road and what came of it. I told him I was starving: he answered that he wasn't responsible for all the worthless paupers in the county. Then I cursed him, and he broke his stick on my shoulders. I say, Maria," he wound up desperately, "do you think he'll live forever?"

She kept her eyes upon him without answering, fearing to tell him that by the terms of the new will he could never come into his share of Fletcher's wealth.

"Has he ever seen Molly?" she asked suddenly, while an unreasonable hope shot through her heart. "Does he know about the child?"

"He may have seen her—I don't know; but she's not so much to look at now: she's gone all to pieces under this awful worry. It isn't my fault, God knows, but she expected different things when she married me. She thought we'd live somewhere in the city and that she'd have pretty clothes to wear."

"I was thinking that when the child came he might forgive you," broke in Maria almost cheerfully.

"And in the meantime we're to die like rats. Oh, there's no use talking, it's got to end one way or another. There's not a cent in the house nor a decent scrap of food, and Molly is having to see the doctor every day. I declare, it's enough to drive me clean to desperation!"

"And what good would that do Molly or yourself? Be a man, Will, and don't let a woman hear you whine. Now I'm going in to see her, and I'll stay to help her about supper."

She nodded brightly, and, opening the little door of the house, passed into the single lower room which served as kitchen and dining-room in one. Beyond the disorderly table, from which the remains of dinner had not yet been cleared away, Molly was lying on a hard wooden lounge covered with strips of faded calico. Her abundant flaxen hair hung in lusterless masses upon her shoulders, and the soiled cotton wrapper she wore was torn open at the throat as if she had clutched it in a passion of childish petulance. At Maria's entrance she started and looked up angrily from her dejected attitude.

"I can't see any visitors—I'm not fit!" she cried.

Marie drew forward a broken split—bottomed chair and sat down beside the lounge.

"I'm not a visitor, Molly," she answered; "and I've come to see if I can't make you a little easier. Won't you let me fix you comfortably? Why, you poor child, your hands are as hot as fire!"

"I'm hot all over," returned Molly peevishly; "and I'm sick—I'm as sick as I can be. Will won't believe it, but the doctor says so."

"Will does believe it, and it worries him terribly. Here, sit up and let me bathe your face and hands in cold water. Doesn't that feel better?"

"A little," admitted Molly, when Maria had found a towel and dried her hands.

"And now I'm going to comb the tangles out of your hair. What lovely hair! It is the colour of ripe corn."

A pleased flush brightened Molly's face, and she resigned herself easily to Maria's willing services. "There's a comb over there on that shelf under the mirror," she said. "Will broke half the teeth out of it the other day, and it pulls my hair out when I use it."

"Then I'll bring you one of mine. You must be careful of these curls. They're too pretty to treat roughly. Do I hurt you?"

As she spoke, a bright strand of the girl's hair twisted about one of her rings, and after hesitating an instant she drew the circle from her finger and laid it in Molly's lap.

"There. I haven't any money, so that's to buy you medicine and food," she said. "It cost a good deal once, I fancy."

"Diamonds!" gasped Molly, with a cry of rapture.

Her hand closed over the ring with a frantic clutch; then slipping it on, she lay watching the stone sparkle in the last sunbeams. A colour had bloomed suddenly in her face, and her eyes shone with a light as brilliant as that of the jewel at which she gazed.

"And you had—others?" she asked in a kind of sacred awe.

"A great many once—a necklace, and rings, and brooches, and a silly tiara that made me look a fright. I never cared for them after the novelty of owning them wore off. They are evil things, it seems to me, and should never be the gifts of love, for each one of those foolish stones stands for greed, and pride, and selfishness, and maybe crime. That was my way of looking at them, of course, and whenever I wore my necklace I used to feel like asking pardon of every beggar that I passed. 'One link in this chain might make a man of you,' was what I wanted to say—but I never did. Well, they are almost all gone now; some I sold and some I gave away. This one will buy you medicine, I hope, and then it will give me more happiness than it has ever done before."

"Oh, it is beautiful, beautiful," sighed Molly beneath her breath, and then went to the little cracked mirror in the corner and held the diamond first to her ear and then against her hair. "They suit me," she said at last, opening the bosom of her wrapper and trying it on her pretty throat; "they would make me look so splendid. Oh, if I'd only had a lover who could give me things like this!"

Maria, watching her, felt her heart contract suddenly with a pang of remembrance. Jewels had been the one thing which Jack Wyndham had given her, for of the finer gifts of the spirit he had been beggared long before she knew him. In the first months of his infatuation he had showered her with diamonds, and she had grown presently to see a winking mockery in each bauble that he tossed her. Before the first year was ended she had felt her pride broken by the oppressiveness of the jewels that bedecked her body, like the mystic princess who was killed at last by the material weight of the golden crown upon her brow.

"They could never make you happy, Molly. How could they? Come back and lie down, and let me put the ring away. Perhaps I'd better take it to town myself." But Molly would not open her closed hand on which the diamond shone; and long after Maria had cooked supper and gone back to the Hall the girl lay motionless, holding the ring against the light. When Will came in from milking she showed it to him with a burst of joy.

"Look! Oh, look! Isn't it like the sun?"

He eyed it critically.

"By Jove! It must have cost cool hundreds! I'll take it to town to-morrow and bring back the things you need. It will get the baby clothes, too, so you won't have to bother about the sewing."

"You shan't! You shan't!" cried Molly in a passion of sobs. "It's mine. She gave it to me, and you shan't take it away. I don't want the medicine: it never does me any good; and I can make the baby clothes out of my old things. I'll never, never give it up!"

For an instant Will stared at her as if she had lost her senses.

"Well, she was a fool to let you get it," he said, as he flung himself out of the room.

CHAPTER IV. In Which Mrs. Blake's Eyes are Opened

Before the beauty of Maria's high magnanimity Christopher had felt himself thrust further into the abasement of his self-contempt. Had she met his confession with reproach, with righteous aversion, with the horror he had half expected, it is possible that his heart might have recoiled into a last expression of defiance. But there had been none of these things. In his memory her face shone moonlike from its cloud of dark hair, and he saw upon it only the look of a great and sorrowful passion. His wretchedness had drawn her closer, not put her further away, and he had felt the quiet of her tolerance not less gratefully than he had felt the fervour of her love. Her forgiveness had been of the grandeur of her own nature, and its height and breadth had appealed, even apart from her emotion, to a mind that was accustomed to dwell daily on long reaches of unbroken space. He had been bred on large things from his birth—large horizons, large stretches of field and sky, large impulses, and large powers of hating, and he found now that a woman's presence filled to overflowing the empty vastness of his moods.

Reaching the yard, he saw Tucker sitting placidly on his bench, and, crossing the long grass, he flung himself down beside him with a sigh of pleasure in the beauty of the scene.

"You're right, Uncle Tucker; it's all wonderful. I never saw such a sunset in my life."

"Ah, but you haven't seen it yet," said Tucker. "I've been looking at it since it first caught that pile of clouds, and it grows more splendid every instant. I'm not an overreligious body, I reckon, and I've always held that the best compliment you can pay God Almighty is to let Him go His own gait and quit advising Him; but, I declare, as I sat here just now I couldn't help being impertinent enough to pray that I might live to see another."

"Well, it's a first-rate one; that's so. It seems to shake a body out of the muck, somehow."

"I shouldn't wonder if it did; and that's what I told two young fools who were up here just now asking me to patch up their first married quarrel. 'For heaven's sake, stop playing with mud and sit down and watch that sunset,' I said to 'em, and if you'll believe it, the girl actually dropped her jaws and replied she had to hurry back to shell her beans while the light lasted. Beans! Why, they'll make beans enough of their marriage, and so I told 'em."

Tapping his crutch gently on the ground, he paused and sat smiling broadly at the sunset.

For a time Christopher watched with him while the gold- and-crimson glory flamed beyond the twisted boughs of the old pine; then, turning his troubled face on Tucker's cheerful one, he asked deliberately:

"Do you sometimes regret that you never married, Uncle Tucker?"

"Regret?" repeated Tucker softly. "Why, no. I haven't time for it—there's too much else to think about. Regret is a dangerous thing, my boy; you let a little one no bigger than a mustard seed into your heart, and before you know it you've hatched out a whole brood. Why, if I began to regret that, heaven knows where I should stop. I'd regret my leg and arm next, the pictures I might have painted, and the four years' war which we might have won. No, no. I'd change nothing, I tell you—not a day; not an hour; not a single sin nor a single virtue. They're all woven into the pattern of the whole, and I reckon the Lord knew the figure He had in mind."

"Well, I'd like to pull a thread or two out of it," returned Christopher moodily, squinting his eyes at the approaching form of Susan Spade, who came from the afterglow through the whitewashed gate. "Why, what's bringing her, I wonder?" he asked with evident displeasure.

To this inquiry Susan herself presently made answer as she walked with her determined tread across the little yard.

"I've a bit of news for you, Mr. Christopher, an' I reckon you'd ruther have it from my mouth than from Bill Fletcher's. His back's up agin, the Lord knows why, an' he's gone an' moved his pasture fence so as to take in yo' old field that lies beside it. He swars it's his, too, but Tom's ready to match him with a bigger oath that it's yours an' always has been."

"Of course it's mine," said Christopher coolly. "The meadow brook marks the boundary, and the field is on this side. I can prove it by Tom or Jacob Weatherby tomorrow."

"Well, he's took it " rejoined Mrs. Spade flatly.

"He won't keep it long, I reckon, ma'am," said Tucker, in his pleasant manner; "and I must say it seems to me that Bill Fletcher is straining at a gnat. Why, he has near two thousand acres, hasn't he? And what under heaven does he want with that old field the sheep have nibbled bare? There's no sense in it."

"It ain't sense, it's nature," returned Mrs. Spade, sitting squarely down on the bench from which Christopher had risen; "an' that's what I've had ag'in men folks from the start—thar's too much natur in 'em. You kin skeer it out of a woman, an' you kin beat it out of a dog, an' thar're times when you kin even spank it out of a baby, but if you oust it from a man thar ain't nothin' but skin an' bones left behind. An' natur's a ticklish thing to handle without gloves, bless yo' soul, suh. It's like a hive of bees: you give it a little poke to start it, an' the first thing you know it's swarmin' all over both yo' hands. It's a skeery thing, suh, an' Bill Fletcher's got his share of it, sho's you're born."

"It has its way with him pretty thoroughly, I think," responded Tucker, chuckling; "but if I were you, Christopher, I'd stick up for my rights in that old field. Bill Fletcher may need exercise, but there's no reason he should get it by trampling over you."

"Oh, I'll throw his fence down, never fear," answered Christopher indifferently. "He knew it, I dare say, when he put it up."

"It's a fuss he wants, suh, an' nothing else," declared Mrs. Spade, smoothing down the starched fold of her gingham apron; "an' if he doesn't git it, po' creetur, he's goin' to be laid up in bed befo' the week is out. He's bilin' hot inside, I can see that in his face, an' if the steam don't work out one way it will another. When a man ain't got a wife or child to nag at he's mighty sho' to turn right round an' begin naggin' at his neighbours, an' that's why it's the bounden duty of every decent woman to marry an' save the peace. Why, if Tom hadn't had me to worry on, I reckon he'd be the biggest blusterer in this county or the next."

Leaving her still talking, Christopher went from her into the house, where he lingered an instant with drawn breath before his mother's door. The old lady was sleeping tranquilly, and, treading softly in his heavy boots, he passed out to the friendly faces of the horses and the cool dusk of the stable.

As the days went on, drawing gradually toward summer, Mrs. Blake's life began peacefully to flicker out, like a candle that has burned into the socket. There were hours when her mind was quite clear, and at such times she would talk unceasingly in her old sprightly fashion, with her animated gestures and her arch and fascinating smile. But following these sanguine periods there would come whole days when she lay unconscious and barely taking breath, while her features grew sharp and wan under the pallid skin.

It was when she had just passed through one of these states that Lila came out on a Sunday afternoon to find Christopher at the woodpile, and told him, with a burst of tears, that she thought the end had come.

"She's quite herself and wants us all," she said, sobbing. "And she's even asked for the house servants, every one—for Phyllis, and Tobias, and so many of them who have been away for years. It's just as if she knew that she was dying and wanted to say good-by."

Throwing the axe hurriedly aside, Christopher followed her into the house, and then entering the old lady's room, stopped short beside the threshold in a grief that was not unmixed with wonder.

The sunshine fell straight through the window on the high white pillows, and among them Mrs. Blake was sitting rigidly, her blind eyes sparkling with the last fitful return of her intelligence. She was speaking, as he entered, in a natural and lively tone, which brought back to him his earliest memories of her engaging brightness.

"Are the servants all there, Cynthia? Then let them come and stand inside the door—a few at a time."

"They are here, mother," replied Cynthia, choking; and Christopher, glancing round, saw several decrepit Negroes leaning against the wall—Uncle Boaz, Docia (pressing her weak heart), and blear-eyed Aunt Polly, already in her dotage.

"I wish to tell you good-by while my mind is clear," pursued the old lady in her high, sweet voice. "You have been good servants to me for a long time, and I hope you will live many years to serve my children as faithfully. Always remember, Christopher—is Christopher there?"

"I am here, dear mother."

"Always remember that a man's first duty is to his wife and children, and his second to his slaves. The Lord has placed them in your hands, and you must answer to Him how you fulfill the trust. And now, Boaz—where is Boaz?"

"I'm yer, ole miss; I'm right yer."

"You may shake my hand, Boaz, for it is a long good-by. I've always promised you your freedom, and I haven't forgotten it, though you asked for it almost fifty years ago. You did something that I praised you for—I can't quite remember what it was—and when I asked you what you would like as a reward, you answered: 'Don't give me nothin' now, ole miss, but let the gift grow and set me free when you come to die.' It is a long time, Boaz, fifty years, but I give you your freedom now, as I promised, though it is very foolish of you to want it, and I'm sure you'll find it nothing but a burden and a trouble. Christopher, will you remember that Boaz is free?"

Christopher crossed the room, and, catching her hands in his own, sought to force her back upon the pillows, but with an effort that showed in every tense line of her face she pushed him from her and sat erect and unsupported.

"Let me dismiss them first," she said with her stately manner. "Good-by, Phyllis and Polly—and—and—all the rest of you. You may go now. I am a little tired, and I will lie down."

Cynthia put the weeping servants from the room, and, filling a glass with brandy, held it with a shaking hand to her mother's lips.

"Take this, dear, and lie down," she said.

Mrs. Blake sipped the brandy obediently, but as she felt her strength revive from the strong spirit the animation reawoke in her face, and, turning toward Christopher, she stretched out her hand with an appealing gesture.

"There is so much to say and I haven't the space to say it in, my son. There is so much advice I want to give you, but the time is short."

"I understand, mother; I understand. Don't let it trouble you."

"I have had a fortunate life, my child," resumed the old lady, waving him to silence with a gesture in which there was still a feeble sprightliness, "and when one has lived happily far into the seventies one learns a great deal of wisdom, and there is much good advice that one ought to leave behind. You have been an affectionate son to me, Christopher, and I have not yet given up the hope that you may live to be a worthy husband to another woman. If you do marry—and God grant that you may—remember that the chief consideration should be family connection, and the next personal attractiveness. Wealth counts for very little beside good birth, and after this I regard a small foot and hand as most essential. They have always been a mark of our breeding, Christopher, and I should not like the family to lose through you one of its most distinguished characteristics."

"It is not likely I shall marry, mother. I was cut out for different ends."

"One never knows, my son, and at least I am only doing my duty in speaking to you thus. I am a very old woman, and I am not afraid to die, for I have never to my knowledge done anything that was unbecoming in a lady. Remember to be a gentleman, and you will find that that embraces all morality and a good deal of religion."

He kissed her hand, watching anxiously the mounting excitement in her face.

"And if you do marry, Christopher," she went on, harping fitfully on her favourite string, "remember that keeping in love is as much the profession for a man as it is the art for a woman, and that love feeds on little delicacies rather than on meat and drink. Don't forget the little things, dear, and the big ones will take care of themselves. I have seen much of men and manners in my life, and they have taught me that it is the small failings, not the big faults, which are deadliest to love. Why, I've seen a romantic passion survive shame, and treachery, and even blows, and another wither out of existence before the first touch of bad breeding. 'A man's table manners are a part of his morality,' your Great-grandfather Bolivar used to say."

She laughed softly while her hand played with the white fringe on the counterpane.

"I can recall now the sympathy I felt for Matty Gordon," she pursued, "a great belle and beauty who ran off and married that scamp, Aleck Douglas. He turned into a perfect rascal, they said, though I must admit that he made a very amiable husband, and never stinted her, even if he stole from other people. Well, she stuck to him through good and evil report, and was really from all appearances a most contented woman. When he died at last, people said that it was just in time to escape the penitentiary, but to see Matty you would have thought she had lost nothing short of pure perfection. Poor old Bishop Deane, who always would speak his mind, in the pulpit or out of it, went to call on her, he told me, and took occasion to reprove her for such excessive grief over so unworthy an object. 'He was not an upright man, Matty, and you know it,' he began quite boldly; 'he was a libertine, and a gambler, and an open scoffer at religion.' But Matty went on sobbing harder than ever, and at last, getting angry, he said sternly: 'And more than this, ma'am, he was, as you know, a faithless and disloyal husband!' Then the poor girl drew out a pocket handkerchief with a three-inch black border and mopped her pretty blue eyes. 'Ah, but, Bishop, I had so much to be thankful for!' she said. 'He never chewed tobacco!' Well, well, she may have been a fool, as the Bishop insisted, but he was a man, in spite of his cloth, and could never learn to understand a woman's sensibilities."

She finished, and, turning, touched him gently on the hand.

"It is the little things that count in marriage, Christopher," and after a moment she added thoughtfully: "Promise me that you will always use an ash-tray."

"Anything, dear mother; I promise anything."

With a contented sigh she closed her eyes, and, still holding his hand, fell into a broken and troubled sleep, from which she awoke presently in a gentle delirium. Her lost youth had returned to her, and with it something of her old gaiety of manner. Suddenly he felt a strange thrill pass through her, and raising herself with a last great endeavour, she sat erect, staring into the blue sky that showed through the window.

"I am engaged for this set, sir," she said in her winning voice, while a girlish smile transfigured her wan face, "but if it pleases you, you may put your name down for the next."

Rising, he bent quickly over her, but before he touched her she had fallen back upon the pillows and lay with her arch smile frozen upon her face.

CHAPTER V. Christopher Plants by Moonlight

At midnight they left him to watch alone in her chamber, and while he sat in the shadow beside the tester bed his thoughts encircled the still form on the white counterpane. On the mantel two candles burned dimly, and the melted tallow dripped slowly down into the tall brass candlesticks. The dimity curtains of the bed fluttered softly in the breeze that blew through the open window, and in his nostrils there was the scent of the single rose standing in a glass vase upon the table. Tucker had brought her the rose that morning and she had held it for a pleased moment in her trembling fingers. Everything in the room around him was ready for her use—her nightcap lay on the bureau, and in the china tray beside it he saw her brush and comb, in which a long strand of white hair was still twisted. On her hands, folded quietly upon her breast, he caught the flash of Docia's piece of purple glass, and he remembered with a throb of pain that she had asked that her betrothal ring might be buried with her.

"Well, she knows all now," he thought in bitterness. "She knows the theft of the diamond, and the deception that lasted nearly thirty years." In the midst of his sorrow a sudden shame possessed him, and he felt all at once that his heart was pierced by the unearthly keenness of the dead eyes. "She knows all now," he repeated, and there was a passionate defiance in his acknowledgment. "She knows all that I have hidden from her, as well as much that has been hidden from me. Her blind eyes are open, and she sees at last my failure and my sin, and the agony that I have known. For years I have shielded her, but she cannot shield me now, for all her wider vision. She can avert my fate no more than I could hold her back from hers. We are each alone—she, and I, and Maria, and the boy whom I have ruined—and there is no love that can keep a man from living and dying to himself."

It seemed to him, sitting there in the shadow, that he felt as he had felt before in grave moments—the revolutions of the wheel on which he was bound. And with that strange mystic insight which comes to those who lead brooding and isolated lives close to Nature, he asked himself if, after all, these things had not had their beginning in the dawn of his existence so many million years ago. "Has it not all happened before as it happens now—my shame and my degradation, the kiss I placed on Maria's lips, and the watch I keep by the deathbed of my mother? It is all familiar to me, and when the end comes, that will be familiar, too."

A night moth entered, wheeling in dizzy circles about the candle, but when it went so near as to scorch its wings he caught it gently in his hollowed palms and released it into the darkness of the yard. As he leaned out he saw the light shining clear in Maria's window, and while he gazed upon it he felt a curious kinship with the moth that had flown in from the night and hovered about the flame.

As the days went on, the emptiness in the house became to him like that of the grave, and he learned presently that the peevish and exacting old lady who had not stirred for years from her sick-bed had left a vacancy larger than all the rest of them could fill. Cynthia, who had borne most of the burden, began now to bear, in its place, the heavier share of the loss. Released from her daily sacrifice and her patient drudgery, she looked about her with dazed eyes, like one whose future has been suddenly swept away. There was nothing for her to do any longer —no risings in the gray dawn to prepare the day's stealthy work, no running on aching feet to answer unreasonable complaints, no numberless small lies to plan in secret, no stinting of herself that her mother might have her little luxuries. Her work was over, and she pined away in the first freedom of her life. The very fact that deception was no longer necessary seemed to sweep her accustomed moorings from beneath her feet. She had lied so long that lying had become at last a second nature to her, and to her surprise she found almost an indecency in the aspect of the naked truth.

"I don't know how it is, Uncle Tucker," she said one day toward the end of June, when the deadly drought which had kept back the transplanting of the tobacco had ended in three days of heavy rain—"I don't know how it is, but the thing I miss most—and I miss her every minute—is the lying I had to do. It gave me something to think about, somehow. I used to stay awake at night and plan all sorts of pleasant lies that I could tell about the house and the garden, and the way the war ended, and the Presidents of the Confederacy—I made up all their names—and the fuss with which each one was inaugurated, and the dresses their wives and daughters wore. It's all so dull when you have to stop pretending and begin to face things just as they are. I've lied for almost thirty years, and I reckon I've lost my taste for the truth."

"Well, it will come back, dear," responded Tucker reassuringly; "but I think you need a change if a woman ever did. What about that week you're to spend with the Weatherbys?"

"I'm going to-morrow," answered Cynthia shortly. "Lila is sick with a cold and wants me; but how you and Christopher will manage to get on is more than I can say."

"Oh, we'll worry along with Docia, never fear," replied Tucker, hobbling into his seat at the supper table, as Christopher came in from the woods with the heavy moisture dripping from his clothes.

"It's cleared off fine and there's to be a full moon tonight," said the young man, hanging up his hat. "If the rain had come a week later the tobacco would have been ruined. I've just been taking it up out of the plant-bed."

"You'll begin setting it out to-morrow, I reckon, then," observed Tucker, watching Cynthia as she cut up his food.

"Oh, I'm afraid to wait—the ground dries so quickly. Jacob Weatherby is going to set his out to-night, and I think I'll do the same. There's a fine moon, and I shouldn't wonder if every farmer in the county was in the fields till daybreak."

He ate his supper hurriedly, and then, taking down his hat, went out to resume his work. At the door he had left his big split basket of plants, and, slipping his arm through the handle, he crossed the yard in the direction of the field. As he turned into the little path which trailed in wet grass along the "worm" fence, Jacob Weatherby came stepping briskly through the mud in the road and stopped to ask him if he had got his ground ready for the setting out. "I've been lookin' for hands myself," added the old man in his cheery voice, "for I could find work for a dozen men to-night, but to save my life I can't scrape up more'n a nigger here an' thar. Bill Fletcher has been out ahead of me, it seems."

"Well, I'll be able to help you to-morrow, I think," answered Christopher. "I hope to get my own work done to-night." Then he asked. with a trifling hesitation: "How is Lila's cold?"

A sudden light broke over old Jacob's face, and he nodded in his genial fashion.

"Ah, bless her pretty eyes, I sometimes think she's too good to put her foot down on this here common earth," he said, "an' to think that only this mornin' she was wantin' to help Sarah wipe the dishes. Why, I reckon Sarah would ruther work her fingers to the bone than have that gal take a single dishcloth in her hand. Oh, we know how to value her, Mr. Christopher, never fear. Her word's law in our house, and always will be."

He passed on with his hearty chuckle, and Christopher followed the wet path and began planting his tobacco plants in the small holes he bored in the moist earth.

It was the most solemn hour of day, when the division between light and darkness seems less a gradation than a sudden blur. A faint yellow line still lingered across the western horizon, and against it the belt of pines rose like an advancing army. The wind, which blew toward him from the woods, filled his nostrils with a spicy tang.

Slowly the moon rose higher, flooding the hollows and the low green hills with light. In the outlying fields around the Hall he saw Fletcher's planters at work in the tobacco, each man so closely followed by his shadow that it was impossible at a little distance to distinguish the living labourer from his airy double. All the harsh irregularities of the landscape were submerged in a general softness of tone, and the shapes of hill and meadow, of road and tree, of shrub and rock, were dissolved in a magical and enchanting beauty.

Several hours had passed, and he had stopped to rest a moment from his planting, when Maria came in the moonlight along the road and paused breathlessly to lean upon the fence beneath the locust tree.

"It is the first time I've been out for two weeks," she said, panting softly. "I twisted my ankle, and the worst part was that I didn't even dare to send you word. What must you have thought?"

"No harm of you," he answered, and threw down the fence-rails that she might cross. "Come over to me, Maria."

Putting her hands in his, she passed over the lowered fence, and then stood at arm's length looking into his face, which the moonlight had softened to a beauty that brought to her mind a carving in old ivory.

"I still limp a little," she went on, smiling, "and I had to steal out like a thief and run through the shadows. To find me with you would be the death of grandfather, I believe. Something has occurred to put him in a fresh rage with you."

"It was the field by the pasture," he told her frankly. "You know it belongs to me, and pure justice made me throw down his fence; but if you wish it I will put it up again. I'll do anything you wish."

She thought for a moment with that complete detachment of judgment from emotion which is so rarely a part of a woman's intellect.

"No, no," she said; "it is right that you should take it down. I would not have you submit to any further injustice, not even a little one like that."

"And this will go on forever! Oh, Maria, how will it end?"

"We must wait and hope, dear; you see that."

"I see nothing but that I love you and am most miserable," he answered desperately.

A smile curved her lips. "Oh, blind and faithless, I see only you!"

He was still holding her hands, but, dropping them as she spoke, he threw his arms wide open and stood waiting.

"Then come to me, my dearest; come to me."

His voice rang out in command rather than entreaty, and he stood smiling gravely as, hesitating a breathless instant, she regarded him with eyes that struggled to be calm. Then slowly the radiance which was less the warmth of colour than of expression flooded her face, and she bent toward him as if impelled by some strong outside force. The next moment the storm swept her roughly from her feet and crushed back her pleading hands upon her bosom; bewildered, flushed, and trembling, she lay upon his breast while their lips clung together. "Oh, my friend, my lover," she murmured faintly.

He felt her resistance dissolve within his arms, and it was a part of the tragedy of their love that there should come to him no surprise when he found her mouth salt from her tears. The shadow of a great evil, of a secret anguish, still divided them, and it was this that gave to their embraces the sorrowful passion which he drew from her despairing kiss.

"You cannot love me, Maria. How can it be true?"

Releasing herself, she put her hand upon his lips to silence him.

"You have made your confession," she said earnestly, with the serene dignity which had impressed him in the first moment of their meeting, "and now I will make mine. You must not stop me; you must not look at me until I finish. Promise."

"I promise to keep silent," he answered, with his gaze upon her.

She drew away from him, keeping her eyes full on his, and holding him at arm's length with the tips of her fingers. He felt that she was still shaken by his embrace—that she was still in a quiver from his kisses; but to all outward seeming she had regained the noble composure of her bearing.

"No, no. Ah, listen, my friend, and do not touch me. What I must tell you is this, and you must hear me patiently to the end. I have loved you always—from the first day; since the beginning. There has never been any one else, and there has never been a moment in my life when I would not have followed you had you lifted a finger anywhere. At first I did not know—I did not believe it. It was but a passing fancy, I thought, that you had murdered. I taught myself to believe that I was cold, inhuman, because I did not warm to other men. Oh, I did not know then that I was not stone, but ice, which would melt at the first touch of the true flame ."

"Maria!" he burst out in a cry of anguish.

"Hush! Hush! Remember your promise. It was not until afterward," she went on in the same quiet voice; "it was not until my marriage—not until my soul shuddered back from his embraces and I dreamed of you, that I began to see—to understand."

"Oh, Maria, my beloved, if I had known!"

She still held him from her with her outstretched arm.

"It was the knowledge of this that made me feel that I had wronged him—that I had defrauded him of the soul of love and given him only the poor flesh. It was this that held me to him all those wretched years—that kept me with him till the end, even through his madness. At last I buried your memory, told myself that I had forgotten."

"We will let the world go, dearest," he said passionately. "Come to me."

But she shook her head, and, still smiling, held him at a distance.

"It will never go," she answered, "for it is not the world's way. But whatever comes to us, there is one thing you must remember—that you must never forget for one instant while you live. In good or evil, in life or death, there is no height so high nor any depth so low that I will not follow you."

Then waving him from her with a decisive gesture, she turned from him and went swiftly home across the moonlit fields.

CHAPTER VI. Treats of the Tragedy Which Wears a Comic Mask

As she hastened on, Christopher's presence was still with her—his arm still enveloped her, his voice still spoke in her ears; and so rapt was the ecstasy in which she moved that it was with a positive shock that she found herself presently before the little area which led into the brick kitchen in the basement of the Hall. Here from the darkness her name was spoken in a stifled voice, while a hand reached out and clutched her by the shoulder.

"I say, Maria, I've been waiting hours to speak to you."

Forcing back the cry upon her lips, she opened the door and stole softly into the kitchen. Then, turning, she faced Will with a frightened gesture.

"How reckless—how very reckless!" she exclaimed in a whisper.

He closed the door that led up into the house, and coming over to the stove, where the remains of a fire still smouldered in a deep red glow, stood looking at her with nervous twitches of his reddened eyelids. There was a wildness in his face before which she fell back appalled, and his whole appearance, from the damp hair lying in streaks upon his forehead to his restless feet which he shuffled continually as he talked, betrayed an agitation so extreme as to cause her a renewed pang of foreboding.

"Oh, Will, you have been drinking again!" she said, in the same frightened whisper.

"And why not?" he demanded, throwing out his words between thick breaths. "What business is it of yours or of anybody else's if I have been? A pretty sister you are—aren't you?—to let a fellow rot away on a tobacco farm while you wear diamonds on your fingers."

She looked at him steadily for a moment, and his shifting glance fell slowly to the floor.

"If you are in any fresh trouble you may as well tell me at once," she said. "It is a mere waste of time and breath to reproach me. You can't possibly make me angry to-night, for I wear an armour of which you do not dream, and so little a thing as abuse does not even touch me. Besides, grandfather may hear us and come down at any moment. So speak quickly."

Her coolness sobered him instantly, as if a splash of icewater had been thrown into his face, and his tone lost its aggressiveness and sank into a whimpering complaint.

It was the same old thing, he went on, only worse and worse. Molly had been ill again, and the doctor ordered medicine he couldn't buy. Yes, he had tried to take the diamond from her, but she flew into hysterics at the mere mention of selling it. Once he had dragged it off her finger, and had given it back again because her wildness frightened him, "Why on earth did you ever let her have it?" he finished querulously.

"Well, I never imagined she would be quite so silly," returned Maria, distressed by what she heard. "But it may be that jewels are really her passion, and the bravest of us, I suppose, are those who sacrifice most for their dearest desire. I really don't see what is to be done, Will. I haven't any money, and I don't dare ask grandfather, for he makes me keep a strict account of every cent I spend. Only yesterday he told me he couldn't allow me but two postage stamps a week, and yet I believe that he is worth considerably more than half a million dollars. Sometimes I think it is nothing short of pure insanity, he grows so miserly about little things. Aunt Saidie and I have both noticed that he would rather spend a hundred dollars—though it is like drawing out an eyetooth—than keep a pound of fresh butter from the market."

"And yet he likes you?"

"Oh, he tolerates me, as far as that goes; but I don't believe he likes anything on earth except his money. It's his great passion, just as Molly's love of jewelry is hers. There is something so tremendous about it that one can't help respect it. As for me, he only bears with my presence so long as I ask him for absolutely nothing. He knows I have my little property, and we had a dreadful scene when I refused to let him keep my check-book. I gave you all the interest of the last six months, you know, and the other isn't due until November. If he finds out that it goes to you, heaven help us!"

"And there's not the faintest hope of his coming to his senses? Have you spoken of me again?"

"I've mentioned your name twice, that was all. He rose and stamped out of the room, and didn't speak for days. Aunt Saidie and I have planned to bring the baby over when it comes. That may soften him—especially if it should be a boy."

"Oh, the bottom will drop out of things by that time," he returned savagely, tearing pieces of straw from his worn hat-brim. "If this keeps up much longer, Maria, I warn you now I'll run away. I'll go off some day on a freight train and hide my head until he dies; then I'll come back to enjoy his precious money."

She sighed, thinking hopelessly of the altered will.

"And Molly?" she questioned, for lack of a more effectual argument.

"I can't stop to think of Molly: it drives me mad. What use am I to her, anyway, I'd like to know? She'd be quite as well off without me, for we do nothing but quarrel now night and day; and yet I love her—I love her awfully," he added in a drunken whimper.

"Oh, Will, Will, be a man for her sake!"

"I can't; I can't," he protested, his voice rising in anger. "I can't stand the squalor of this life; it's killing me. Why, look at the way I was brought up, never stopping an instant to ask whether I could have a thing I wanted. He had no right to accustom me to luxuries till I couldn't do without them and then throw me out upon the world like this!"

"Hush! Hush! Your voice is too loud. It will bring him down."

"I'll be hanged if I care!" he retorted, but involuntarily he lowered his tone.

"You mustn't stay here five minutes longer," urged Maria. "I'll give you a diamond brooch I still have left, and you may take it to town yourself and sell it. Only promise me on your honour that you will spend the money on the things Molly needs."

"Oh, I promise," he replied roughly. "Where is it?"

"In my room. I must get it now. Be perfectly quiet until I return."

Opening the door and closing it carefully behind her, she stole noiselessly up the dark staircase, while Will, twitching nervously, paced restlessly up and down the brick floor. A pile of walnuts which Miss Saidie had been shelling for cake lay on the hearth, and, picking up the heavy old hammer she had used, he cracked a nut and ate it hurriedly. Hungry as he was—for he had not been home to supper—he found difficulty in swallowing, and, laying the hammer down upon the bricks, he rose and stood waiting beside the stove. Though the night was warm, a shiver ran suddenly through him, and, stirring the fading embers with a splinter of resinous pine, he held out his shaking hands to the blaze.

In a moment Maria entered and handed him the brooch in a little box.

"Try to keep up courage, Will," she said, pushing him into the area under the back steps; "and above all things, do not come here again. It is so unsafe."

He promised lightly that he would not, and then told her good-by with an affectionate pat upon the arm.

"Well, you are a bully good chap, after all," he added, as he stepped out into the night.

For a while Maria stood looking after him across the moonlit fields, and then, even as she turned to enter the house, the last troubled hour was blotted from her consciousness, and she lived over again the moment of Christopher's embrace. With that peculiar power to revive and hold within the memory an instant's emotion which is possessed by ardent and imaginative women, she experienced again all the throbbing exhilaration, all the fulness of being, which had seemed to crowd the heartbeats of so many ordinary years into the single minute that was packed with life. That minute was hers now for all time; it was a possession of which no material loss, no untoward fate could defraud her; and as she felt her steps softly up the dark staircase, it seemed to her that she saw her way by the light of the lamp that was burning in her bosom.

To her surprise, as she reached the dining-room a candle was thrust out before her, and, illuminated by the trembling flame, she saw the face of Fletcher, hairy, bloated, sinister, with the shadow of evil impulses worked into the mouth and eyes. For a moment he wagged at her in silence, and in the flickering radiance she saw each swollen vein, each gloomy furrow, with exaggerated distinctness. He reminded her vaguely of some hideous gargoyle she had seen hanging from an early Gothic cathedral.

"So you've taken to gallivanting, like the rest," he observed with coarse pleasantry. "I'd thought you were a staid and sober-minded woman for your years, but it seems that you are of a bunch with all the others."

"I've been out in the moonlight," answered Maria, while a sensation of sickness stole over her.

"It is as bright as day, but I thought you were in bed long ago."

"Thar's not much sleep for me during tobacco planting, I kin tell you," rejoined Fletcher; "but as for you, I reckon thar's more beneath your words than you like to own to. You've been over to see that young scamp, ain't you?"

"I saw him, but I did not go out for that purpose."

"It's the truth, I reckon, for I've never known you to lie, and I'll be hanged if it ain't that I like about you, after all. You're the only person I kin spot, man or woman, who speaks the truth jest for the darn love of it."

"And yet I lived a lie for five years," returned Maria quietly.

"Maybe so, maybe so; but it set on you like the burr on a chestnut, somehow, and when it rolled off thar you were, as clean as ever. Well, you're an honest and spunky woman, and I can't help your traipsing over thar even if I wanted to. But thar's one thing I tell you now right flat—if that young rascal wants to keep a whole skin he'd better stay off this place. I'd shoot him down as soon as I would a sheep-killing hound."

"Oh, he won't come here," said Maria faintly; and, going into the dining-room, she dropped into a chair and lay with her arms outstretched upon the table. The second shock to her emotional ecstasy had been too much, and the furniture and Fletcher's face and the glare of the candle all spun before her in a sickening confusion.

After looking at her anxiously an instant, Fletcher poured out a glass of water and begged her to take a swallow. "Thar, thar, I didn't mean to skeer you," he said kindly. "You mustn't mind my rough-and-ready ways, for I'm a plain man, God knows. If you are sure you feel fainty," he added, "I'll git you a sip of whisky, but it's a pity to waste it unless you have a turn."

"Oh, I'm all right," answered Maria, sitting up, and returning his inquiring gaze with a shake of the head. "My ankle is still weak, you know, and I felt a sudden twinge from standing on it. What were you looking for at this hour?"

"Well, I've been out in the air sense supper, and I feel kind of gone. I thought I'd like a bite of something—maybe a scrap of that cold jowl we had for dinner. But I can't find it. Do you reckon Saidie is such a blamed fool as to throw the scraps away?"

"There's Malindy, you know; she must eat."

"I'd like to see one nigger eat up half a jowl," grumbled Fletcher, rooting among the dishes in the sideboard. "Thar was a good big hunk of it left, for you didn't touch it. You don't seem to thrive on our victuals," he added bluntly, turning to peer into her face.

"I'm a small eater; it makes little difference."

"Well, we mustn't starve you," he said, as he went back to his search; "and if it's a matter of a pound of fresh butter, or a spring chicken, even, I won't let it stand in your way. Why, what's this, I wonder?"

Ripping out an oath with an angry snort, he drew forth Miss Saidie's walnut cake and held it squarely before the candle. "I declar, if she ain't been making walnut cake agin, and I told her last week I wan't going to have her wasting all my eggs. Look at it, will you? If she's beat up one egg in that cake she's beat up a dozen, to say nothing of the sugar!"

"Don't scold her, grandfather. She has a sweet tooth, you know, and it's so hard for her not to make desserts."

"Pish! Tush! I don't reckon her tooth's any sweeter than mine. I've a powerful taste for trash myself, and always had since the time I overate ripe honey-shucks when I was six months old; but the taste don't make me throw away good money. I'll have no more of this, I tell you, and I've said my say. She can bake a bit of cake once a week if she'll stint herself to an egg or two, but when it comes to mixing up a dozen at a time, I'll be darned if I'll allow it."

Lifting the plate in one hand, he stood surveying the big cake with disapproving yet admiring eyes. "It would serve her right if I was to eat up every precious crumb," he remarked at last.

"Suppose you try it," suggested Maria pleasantly. "It would please Aunt Saidie."

"It ain't to please her," sourly responded Fletcher, as he drove the knife with a lunge into the yellow loaf. "She's a thriftless, no-account housekeeper, and I'll tell her so tomorrow."

Still holding the knife in his clenched fist, he sat munching the cake with a relish which brought a smile to Maria's tired eves.

"Yes, I've a powerful sweet tooth myself," he added, as he cut another slice.

CHAPTER VII. Will Faces Desperation and Stands at Bay

Rising at daybreak next morning, Will's eyes lighted in his first glance from the window on Christopher's blue-clad figure commanding the ploughed field on the left of the house. In the distance towered the black pines, and against them the solitary worker was relieved in the slanting sunbeams which seemed to arrest and hold his majestic outline. The split basket of plants was on his arm, and he was busily engaged in "setting out" Will's neglected crop of tobacco.

Leaving Molly still asleep, Will dressed himself hurriedly, and, putting the diamond brooch in his pocket, ran out to where Christopher was standing midway of the bare field.

"So you're doing my work again," he said, not ungratefully.

"If I didn't I'd like to know who would," responded Christopher with rough kindliness, as he dropped a wilted plant into a hole. "You're up early this morning. Where are you off to?"

Will drew the brooch from his pocket and held it up with a laugh.

"Maria gave me this," he explained, "and I'm going to town to turn it into money."

"Well, I'll keep an eye on the place while you are away," returned Christopher, without looking at the trinket. "Go about your business, and for heaven's sake don't stop to drink. Some men can stand liquor; you can't. It makes a beast of you."

"And not of you, eh?"

"It never gets the chance. I know when to stop. That's the difference between us."

"Of course that's the difference," rejoined Will a little doggedly. "I never know when to stop about anything, I'll be hanged if I do. It's my cursed luck to go at a headlong gait."

"And some day you'll get your neck broken. Well, be off now, or you'll most likely miss the stage."

He turned away to sort the young plants in his basket, while Will started at a brisk pace for the cross-roads.

The planting was tedious work, and it was almost evening before Christopher reached the end of the field and started home along the little winding lane. He had eaten a scant dinner with Molly, who had worried him by tearful complaints across the turnip salad. She had never looked prettier than in her thin white blouse, with her disordered curls shadowing her blue eyes, and he had never found her more frankly selfish. Her shallow-rooted nature awakened in him a feeling that was akin to repulsion, and he saw in imagination the gallant resolution with which Maria would have battled against such sordid miseries. At the first touch of her heroic spirit they would have been sordid no longer, for into the most squalid suffering her golden nature would have shed something of its sunshine. Beauty would have surrounded her, in Will's cabin as surely as in Blake Hall. And with the thought there came to him the knowledge, wrung from experience, that there are souls which do not yield to events, but bend and shape them into the likeness of themselves. No favouring circumstance could have evolved Maria out of Molly, nor could any crushing one have formed Molly from Maria's substance. The two women were as far asunder as the poles, united only by a certain softness of sex he found in them both.

The sun had dropped behind the pines and a gray mist was floating slowly across the level landscape. The fields were still in daylight, while dusk already enshrouded the leafy road, and it was from out the gloom that obscured the first short bend that he saw presently emerge the figure of a man who appeared to walk unsteadily and with an effort.

For an instant Christopher stopped short in the lane; then he went forward at a single impetuous stride.

"Will!" he cried in a voice of thunder.

Will looked up with dazed eyes, and, seeing who had called him, burst into a loud and boisterous laugh.

"So you'll begin with your darn preaching," he remarked, gaping.

For reply, Christopher reached out, and, seizing him by the shoulder, shook him roughly to his senses.

"What's the meaning of this tomfoolery?" he demanded. "Do you mean to say you've made a beast of yourself, after all?"

Partly sobered by the shock, Will gazed back at him with a dogged misery which gave his face the colour of extreme old age.

"I'm not so drunk as I look," he responded bitterly. "I wish to Heaven I were! There are worse things than being drunk, though you won't believe it. I say," he added, in a sudden, hysterical exclamation, "you're the only friend I have on earth!"

"Nonsense. What have you been doing?"

"Oh, I couldn't help it—it wasn't my fault, I'll be blamed if it was! I did sell the breastpin and get the money, and wrapped it in the list of things that Molly wanted. I put them in my pocket," he finished, touching his coat, "the money and the list together."

"And where is it?"

For a moment Will did not reply, but stood shaking like a blade of grass in a high wind. Then removing his hat, he mopped feebly at the beads of sweat upon his forehead. His eyes had the dumb appeal of a frightened animal's. "I haven't had a morsel all day," he whimpered, "and the effect of the whisky has all worn off."

"Speak up, man," said Christopher kindly. "I can't eat you."

"Oh, it's not you," returned Will desperately; "it's Molly. I'm afraid to go home and look Molly in the face."

"Pish! She doesn't bite."

"She does worse; she cries."

"Then, for God's sake, out with the trouble," urged Christopher, losing patience. "You've lost the money, I take it; but how?"

"There was a fair," groaned Will, his voice breaking. "I met Fred Turner and a strange man who owned horses, and they asked me to come and watch the racing. Then we had drinks and began to bet, and somehow I always lost after the first time. Before I knew it the money was all gone, every single cent, and I owed Fred Turner a hundred and fifty dollars."

Christopher's gaze travelled slowly up and down the slight figure before him and he swore softly beneath his breath.

"Well, you have made a mess of it!" he exclaimed with a laugh.

"I knew you'd say so, and you're the only friend I have on earth. As for Molly—oh, I'm afraid to go home, that's all. Do you know, I've half a mind to run away for good?"

"Pshaw! Accidents will happen, and there's nothing in all this to take the pluck out of a man. I've been through worse things myself."

"But Fred Turner!" groaned Will. "I promised him I'd pay him in two days."

"Then you'll do it. I'll undertake to see to that."

"You!" exclaimed the other, with so abject a reliance upon the spoken word that it brought a laugh from Christopher's lips. "How will you manage it?"

Oh, somehow—mortgage the farm, I reckon. At any rate, in two days you shall be clear of your debt to Fred Turner; there's my word. All I hope is that you'll learn a lesson from the fright."

"Oh, I will, I will; and by Jove! you are a bully chap!"

"Then go home and make your peace with Molly. Mind you, if you get in liquor again I warn you I won't lift a hand."

With a last cheery "good night" he swung on along the road, dismissing the thought of Will to invoke that of Maria, and meeting again in fancy the rich promise of her upturned lips. Body and soul she was his now, flame and clay, true brain and true heart. "I will follow you, for the lifting of a finger, anywhere," she had said, and the words reeled madly in his thoughts. Her impassioned look returned to him, and he closed his eyes as a man does in the face of an emotion which proclaims him craven.

When Christopher's footsteps had faded in the distance, Will, who had been looking wistfully after him, shook together his dissolving courage and started with a strengthened purpose to bear the bad news to Molly. A light streamed through the broken shutters of her window, and when he laid his hand upon the door it shot open and she stood before him.

"So you're back at last," she said sharply; "and late again."

"I couldn't help it," he answered with assumed indifference, entering and passing quickly under the fire of her questioning look. "I was kept."

"What kept you?"

"Oh, business."

"I'd like to know what business you have!" she retorted querulously; and a minute later: "Have you brought the medicine?"

He went over to the table and stood looking gloomily down upon the scattered remains of supper upon the sloppy oilcloth, the cracked earthenware teapot, and the plate half filled with soppy bread. "Give me something to eat. I'm almost starved," he pleaded.

A flash shot from her blue eyes, while the anger he had feared worked threateningly in the features of her pretty face. There was no temperateness about Molly; she was all storm or sunshine, he had once said in the poetic days of courtship.

"If you've brought the things, where are they?" she demanded, driving him squarely into a corner from which there was no escape by subterfuge.

A sullen defiance showed in his aspect, and he turned upon her with a muttered curse. "I haven't them, if you want the truth," he snarled. "I meant to buy them, but Fred Turner got me to drinking and we bet on the races. I lost the money."

"To Fred Turner!" cried Molly. "Oh, you fool!"

He made an angry movement toward her; then checking himself, laughed bitterly.

"You're as bad as grandfather," he said, "and it's like jumping from the frying-pan into the fire. I'll be hanged if I knew you were a shrew when I married you!"

Molly's eyes fairly blazed, and as she shook her head with an enraged gesture, her hair, tumbling upon her shoulders, flooded her with light. Even in the midst of his fury his ready senses responded to the appeal of her dishevelled loveliness.

"And I'll be—anything if I knew you were a drunkard!" she retorted, pressing her hand upon her panting breast.

"Well, you ought to have known it," he sneered, "for I was one. Christopher Blake could have told you so. But if I remember rightly, you weren't so precious particular at the time. You were glad enough to get anybody, as it happened!"

"How—how dare you?" wailed Molly, in the helplessness of her rage, and throwing herself upon the lounge, she beat her hands upon the wooden sides and burst into despairing sobs. "Why, oh, why did I marry you?" she moaned between choking gasps.

"Some said it was because Fred Turner threw you over," returned Will savagely, and having hurled his last envenomed dart, he seized his hat and rushed out into the night.

The scene had worked like madness on his nerves, and in the darkness of the lane, where the trees kept out the moonbeams, he still saw the flickering lights that he had left behind him in the room. He had eaten nothing all day, and his empty stomach oppressed him with a sensation of nausea. His head spun like a top, and as he walked the road rocked in long seesaws beneath his feet. Yet his one craving was for drink, drink, more drink.

Running rather than walking, he reached the store at last, and went back to the little smoky room where Tom Spade was drawing beer from the big keg in one corner.

"Give me something to eat, Tom; I'm starving," he said; "and whisky. I must have whisky or I'll die."

"It's my belief that you'll die if you do have it," responded Tom. "As for bread and meat, however, Susan will give you a bite an' welcome." Nevertheless, he poured out the whisky, and, leaving it upon one of the dirty tables, went hastily out in search of Mrs. Spade.

Lifting the glass with a shaking hand, Will drained it at a single swallow, feeling his depleted courage revive as the raw spirit burned his throat. A sudden heat invaded him; his eyes saw clearer, and the tips of his fingers were endowed with a new quality of touch. As his hands travelled slowly over his face he became aware that he was looking through his finger ends, and he noted distinctly his haggard features and the short growth of beard which made him appear jaded and unwashed. Then almost instantly the quickness died out of his perception, and he felt the old numbness creeping back.

"Another glass—I must have another glass," he called out irritably to the empty room. His hands hung stone dead again at his sides, and his head dropped limply forward upon his breast. He had forgotten his quarrel with Molly; he had forgotten everything except his own miserable bodily condition.

When Susan Spade came in with a plate of bread and ham, he roused himself with a nervous start and inhaled quickly the strong odour of the meat, endeavouring through the sense of smell to reawaken the pang of hunger he had felt earlier in the evening. But in place of the gnawing emptiness there had come now a deadly nausea, and after the first mouthful or two he pushed the food away and called hoarsely for more whisky. His head ached in loud, reverberating throbs, and a queer fancy possessed him that the sound must be as audible to others as to himself. With the thought, he glanced about suspiciously, but Tom Spade was stopping the keg that he had tapped, and Susan was wiping off the table with energetic sweeps of her checked apron. Relieved by their impassiveness, he braced himself with the determination to drink to the dead-line of unconsciousness and then lie down somewhere in the darkness to sleep off the effects.

"Whisky—give me more whisky," he repeated angrily.

But Mrs. Spade, true to her nature, saw fit to intervene between him and destruction.

"Not another drop, Mr. Will," she said decisively. "Not another drop shall you have in this room if it's the last mortal word I speak. An' if you'd had me by you in the beginning, I'm not afeard to say, things would have held up a long sight sooner than this."

"Don't you see I'm in downright agony?" groaned Will, rapping the glass upon the table. "My head is splitting, I tell you, and I must have it."

"Not another drop, suh," replied Mrs. Spade with adamantine firmness of tone. "I ain't a weak woman, thank the Lord, an' as far as that goes, you might split to pieces inside and out right here befo' my eyes an' I wouldn't be a party to sendin' you a step nearer damnation. I ain't afeard of seein' folks suffer. Tom will tell you that."

"That she ain't, suh," agreed Tom with pride. "If I do say it who shouldn't, thar never was a woman who could stand mo' pain in other people than can Susan. Mo' than that, Mr. Will, she's right, though I'd be sayin' so even if she wasn't—seein' that the only rule for makin' a woman think yo' way is always to think hers. But she's right, and that's the truth. You've had too much."

"Oh, you're driving me mad between you!" cried Will in desperation. "I'm in awful trouble, and there's nothing under heaven will make me forget it except drink. One glass more—just one. That can't hurt me."

"May he have one glass, Susan?" asked Tom, appealing to his wife.

"Not another drop, suh," returned Mrs. Spade, immovable as a rock.

"Not another drop, she says," repeated the big storekeeper in a sinking voice. Then he laid his hand sympathetically on Will's shoulder. "To be sure, I know you're in trouble," he said, "an' I'll swear it's an out-an'-out shame, I don't care who hears me. Yes, I'll stand to it in the very face of Bill Fletcher himself."

"Oh, he's a devil!" cried Will, stung by the name he hated.

"I ain't sayin' you've been all you should have been," pursued Tom in his friendly tones, "but as I told Susan yestiddy, a body can't sow wild oats in one generation without havin' a volunteer crop spring up in the next. Now, yo' wild oats were sown long befo' you were born. Ain't that so, Susan?"

Mrs. Spade planted her hands squarely upon her hips and stood her ground with a solidity which was as impressive in its way as dignity.

"I've spoken my mind to Bill Fletcher," she said, "an' I'll speak it again. 'How's that boy goin' to live, suh?' That's what I asked, an' 'twas after he told me to shut my mouth, that it was. Right or wrong, that's what I told him. You've gone an' made the meanest will this county has ever seen."

"What?" cried Will, springing to his feet, while the room whirled round him.

"Thar, thar, Susan, you've talked too much," interposed Tom, a little frightened. "What she means is just some foolishness yo' grandpa's been lettin' out," he added; "but he'll live long enough yet to change his mind an' his will, too."

"What is it about? Speak louder, will you? My ears buzz so I can't hear thunder."

Tom coughed reproachfully at Susan.

"Well, he was talkin' down here last night about havin' changed his will," he said apologetically. "He's tied it up, it seems, so you can't get it, an' he's gone an' left the bulk of it to Mrs. Wyndham."

"To Maria!" repeated Will, and saw scarlet.

"That's what he says; but he'll last to change his mind yet, never fear. Anger doesn't live as long as a man—eh, Susan?"

But Will had risen and was walking quite steadily toward the door. His face was dead white, and there were deep blue circles about his eyes, which sparkled brilliantly. When he turned for a moment before going out, he sucked in his under lip with a hissing sound.

"So this was Maria's trick all along," he said hoarsely.

CHAPTER VIII. How Christopher Comes Into His Revenge

"So this was Maria's trick all along," he repeated, as he lurched out into the road. "This was what she had schemed for from the beginning—this was what her palavering and her protestations meant. Oh, it had been a deep game from the first, only he had been too much of a blind fool to see the truth." A hundred facts arose to drive in the discovery; a hundred trivial details now bristled with importance. Why had she been so willing—so eager, even—to give away her little property, unless she intended to divert him with the crumbs while she reached for the whole loaf? Why, again, had she shrunk so from mentioning him to his grandfather? And why, still further, had she always fearfully postponed a meeting between the two? He remembered suddenly that she had once drawn Molly behind the trees when the old man passed along the road. Poor, defrauded Molly! Forgetting his bitter quarrel with her, he was ready to fall upon her neck in maudlin sympathy.

Yes, it was all plain now—as clear as day. He saw one by one each devilish move that she had made, and he meant to pay her back for all before the night was over. He would tell her what he thought of her, freely, fully, in words that she would never forget. The names that he would use, the curses he would utter, spun deliriously in his head, and as he went on he found himself speaking his phrases aloud to the darkness, trying upon the silence the effect of each blighting sentence.

The lights of the Hall twinkled presently among the trees, and, crossing the lawn, he crept into the little area under the back steps. If Maria was not in the kitchen, the servant would be, he argued, and he would send up a peremptory summons which would bring her down upon the instant. It was not late enough for her to be in bed, at least, and he chuckled over the thought of the sleepless night which she would spend.

Pushing back the door cautiously on its old, rusty hinges, he entered on tip-toe and glanced suspiciously around. The room was empty, but a lamp with a smoked chimney burned upon the table, and there were the glimmering embers of a wood fire in the stove. It was just as he had left it the evening before, and this aroused in him a feeling of surprise, so long a stretch appeared to cover the last twenty-four hours. The same basket of chicken feathers was in the sagging split-bottomed chair, the same pile of black walnuts lay on the hearth, and the rusted hammer was still lying where he had dropped it upon the bricks. Even the smell was the same—a mixture of baked bread and burned feathers.

Going to the door that led into the house, he opened it and looked up the dark staircase; then a sound reached him from the dining-room, and with nervous shiver he turned away and came back to the stove. A dread paralysed him lest the meeting with Maria should be delayed until his courage oozed out of him, and to nerve himself for the encounter he summoned to mind all the evidence, which gathered in a cloud of witnesses, to prove her treachery. Once it occurred to him that after a few minutes of waiting he might tighten the screw upon his nerves and so pluck up the audacity, if not the resolution, to ascend the stair boldly and denounce her in the presence of his grandfather. But the memory of Fletcher's face wagged before him, and, quaking with terror, he huddled with open palms above the stove. Then, pacing slowly up and down the room, he set to work frantically to lash himself into the drunken bravado which he miscalled courage.

Of a sudden his hunger assailed him, violent, convulsive, and, going over to the tin safe, he rummaged among the cold scraps he found there, devouring greedily the food which lead been set by for the hounds. A bottle of Miss Saidie's raspberry vinegar was hidden in one corner, and he tore the paper label from the cork and drank like a man who perishes from thirst. His energy, which had evaporated from fatigue and hunger, surged back in spasms of anger, and as he turned away, invigorated, from the safe, he realised as he had never done before the full measure of his rage against Maria. At the moment, had she come in upon him, he felt that he could have struck her in the face.

But she did not come, and the slow minutes fretted him in their passage. A flame shot up in the stove, and, catching a knot of resinous pine, burned steadily, licking patiently about the fading embers. The air became charged again with the odour of burned feathers, and he saw that a handful, with the dried blood of the fowl still adhering to them, had been scattered upon the ashes. As he idly noted the colours of red and black, he remembered with bitterness that he had raised game-cocks once when he was a boy at the Hall, and that Maria had smashed a nestful of his eggs in a fit of passion. The incident swelled to enormous proportions in his thoughts, and he determined that he would remind her of it in the interview that was before them.

The door into the house creaked suddenly behind him; he wheeled about nervously, and then stood with hanging jaws staring into the face of Fletcher.

"So it is you, is it?" said the old man, raising the stick he carried. "So it is you, as I suspected—you darn rascal!"

But the power of speech had departed from Will in the presence that he dreaded, and he stood clutching tightly to his harvest hat, and shaking his head as if to deny the obvious fact of his own identity.

"I thought it was you," pursued Fletcher, licking his dry lips. "I heard a noise, and I picked up my stick, thinking it was you. I'll have no thieving beggars on my place, I tell you, so the quicker you git off the better. When were you here last, I'd like to know?"

"Yesterday," answered Will, speaking the truth from sheer physical inability to frame a lie. "I came to see Maria. She's cheated me—she's cheated me all along."

"Then she lied," said Fletcher softly. "Then she lied and I didn't know it."

"She's cheated me," insisted Will hoarsely. "It's been all a scheme of hers from the very beginning. She's cheated me about the will, grandpa; I swear she has."

"Eh? What's that?" responded the old man, shaking back his heavy eyebrows. "Say your say right now, for in five minutes you go off this place with every hound in the pack yelping at your heels. I'll not have you here—I'll not have you here!"

The words ended in a snarl, and a fleck of foam dropped on his gray beard.

"But it was all Maria's doing," urged Will passionately. "She has been against me from the first; I see that now. She's plotted to oust me from the very start."

"Well, she might have spared herself the trouble," was Fletcher's sharp rejoinder.

"Let me explain—let me explain," pleaded the other, in a desperate effort to gain time; "just a word or two—I only want a word."

But when his grandfather drew back and stood glowering upon him in silence, the speech he had wished to utter withered upon his lips, blighted by a panic terror, and he stood mumbling incoherently beneath his breath.

"Give me a word—a word is all I want," he reiterated wildly.

"Then out with your damned word and begone!" roared Fletcher.

Will's eyes travelled helplessly around the room, seeking in vain some inspiration from the objects his gaze encountered. The tin safe, the basket of feathers, the pile of walnuts on the hearth, each arrested his wandering attention for an instant, and he beheld all the details with amazing vividness.

A mouse came out into the room, gliding like a shadow along the wall to the pile of walnuts, and his eyes followed it as if drawn by an invisible thread.

"It's Maria—it's all Maria," he stuttered, and could think of nothing further. His brain seemed suddenly paralysed, and he found himself tugging hopelessly at the most commonplace word which would not come. All his swaggering bravado had scampered off at the first wag of the old man's head.

"If that's what you've got to say, you might as well be gone," returned Fletcher, moving toward him. "I warn you now that the next time I find you here you won't git off so easy. Maria or no Maria, you ain't goin' to lounge about this place so long as my name is Bill Fletcher. The farther you keep yourself and your yaller-headed huzzy out of my sight the better. Thar, now, be off or you'll git a licking."

"But I tell you Maria's cheated me—she's cheated me," returned Will, his voice rising shrilly as he was goaded into revolt. "She's been scheming to get the place all along; that's her trick."

"Pish! Tush!" responded Fletcher. "Are you going or are you not?"

Will's eyes burned like coals, and an observer, noting the two men as they stood glaring at each other, would have been struck by their resemblance in attitude and expression rather than in feature. Both leaned slightly forward, with their chins thrust out and their jaws dropped, and there was a ceaseless twitching of the small muscles in both faces. The beast in each had sprung violently to the surface and recognised the likeness at which he snarled.

"You've left me to starve!" cried Will, strangling a sob of anger. "It's not fair! You have no right. The money ought to be mine—I swear it ought!"

"Oh, it ought, ought it?" sneered the old man, with an ugly laugh.

At the sound of the laugh, Will shrank back and shivered as if from the stroke of a whip. The spirit of rage worked in his blood like the spirit of drink, and he felt his disordered nerves respond in a sudden frenzy.

"It ought to be mine, you devil, and you know it!" he cried.

"I do, do I?" retorted Fletcher, still cackling. "Well, jest grin at me a minute longer like that brazen wench your mother and I'll lay my stick across your shoulders for good and all. As for my money, it's mine, I reckon, and, living or dead, I'll look to it that not one red cent gits to you. Blast you! Stop your grinning!"

He raised the stick and made a long swerve sideways, but the other, picking up the hammer from the hearth, jerked it above his head and stood braced for the assault. In the silence of the room Will heard the thumping of his own heart, and the sound inspired him like the drums of battle. He was in a quiver from head to foot, but it was a quiver of rage, not of fear, and a glow of pride possessed him that he could lift his eyes and look Fletcher squarely in the face.

"You're a devil—a devil! a devil!" he cried shrilly, sticking out his tongue like a pert and vulgar little boy. "Christopher Blake was right—you're a devil!"

As the name struck him between the eyes the old man lurched back against the stove; then recovering himself, he made a swift movement forward and brought his stick down with all his force on the boy's shoulder.

"Take that, you lying varmint!" he shouted, choking.

The next instant his weapon had dropped from his hand, and he reached out blindly, grappling with the air, for Will had turned upon him with the spring of a wild beast and sent the hammer crushing into his temple.

There was a muffled thud, and Fletcher went down in a huddled heap upon the floor, while the other stood over him in the weakness which had succeeded his drunken frenzy.

"I told you to let me alone. I told you I'd do it," said Will doggedly, and a moment later: "I told you I'd do it."

The hammer was still in his hand, and, lifting it, he examined it with a morbid curiosity. A red fleck stained the iron, and glancing down he saw that there was a splotch of blood on Fletcher's temple. "I told him I'd do it," he repeated, speaking this time to himself.

Then instantly the silence in the room stopped his heartbeats and set him quaking in a superstitious terror through every fiber. He heard the stir of the mouse in the pile of walnuts, the hissing of the flame above the embers, and the sudden breaking of the smoked chimney of the lamp. Then as he leaned down he heard something else—the steady ticking of the big silver watch in Fletcher's pocket.

A horror of great darkness fell over him, and, turning, he reeled like a drunken man out into the night.

CHAPTER IX. The Fulfilling of the Law

Christopher had helped Tucker upstairs to bed and had gone into his own room to undress, when a sharp and persistent rattle upon the closed shutters brought him in alarm to his feet. Looking out, he saw a man's figure outlined in the moonlight on the walk, and, at once taking it to be Will, he ran hastily down and unbarred the door.

"Come in quietly," he said. "Uncle Tucker is asleep upstairs. What in thunder is the trouble now?"

Stepping back, he led the way into what so short a time ago had been Mrs. Blake's parlour, and then pausing in the center of the floor, stood waiting with knitted brows for an explanation of the visit. But Will, who had shrunk dazzled from the flash of the lamp, now lingered to put up the bar with shaking hands.

"For God's sake, what is it?" questioned Christopher, and a start shook through him at sight of the other's face. "Have you had a fit?"

Closing the parlour door behind him, Will crossed the room and caught at the mantel for support. "I told you I'd do it some day—I told you I'd do it," he said incoherently, in a frantic effort to shift the burden of responsibility upon stronger shoulders.

"You might have known all along that I'd do it some day."

"Do what?" demanded Christopher, while he felt the current of his blood grow weak. "Out with it, now. Speak up. You're as white as a sheet."

"He struck me—he struck me first. The bruise is here," resumed Will, in the same eager attempt at self justification. "Then I hit him on the head with a hammer and his skull gave way. I didn't hit hard. I swear it was a little blow; but he's dead. I left him stone dead in the kitchen. "

"My God, man!" exclaimed Christopher, and touched him on the shoulder.

With a groan, Will put up his hands and covered his bloodshot eyes. "I didn't mean to do it—I swear I didn't," he protested. "Who'd have thought his head would crush in like that at the first little blow—just a tap with an old hammer? Why, it would hardly have cracked a walnut! And what was the hammer doing there, anyway? They have no business to leave such things lying about on the hearth. It was all their fault—they ought to have put the hammer away."

A convulsive shudder ran through him, ending in his hands and feet, which jerked wildly. His face was gray and old—so old that he might have been taken, at the first glance, for a man of eighty, and in the intervals between his words he sucked in his breath with a hissing noise. Meeting Christopher's look, he broke into a spasm of frightened sobs, whimpering like a child that has been whipped.

"I told you not to drink again," said Christopher sharply as he struggled to collect his thoughts. "I told you liquor would make a beast of you."

"I'll never touch another drop. I swear I'll never touch another drop," groaned Will, still sobbing. "I didn't mean to kill him, I tell you. It wasn't as if I really meant to kill him; you see that. It was all the fault of that accursed hammer they left lying on the hearth. A man must have a lot of courage to murder anybody—mustn't he?" he added, with a feeble smile; "and I'm a coward—you know I've always been a coward; haven't I—haven't I?" he persisted, and Christopher nodded an agreement.

"You see, I wasn't to blame, after all; but he flew into such a rage—he always flew into a rage when he heard your name."

"So you brought my name in?" asked Christopher carelessly.

"Oh, it was that that did it; it was your name," replied Will breathlessly. "I told him you said he was a devil—you did say so, you know. Christopher Blake was right; he called you 'a devil,' that was it. Then he ran at me with his stick, and I jerked up the hammer, and Oh, my God, they mustn't hang me!"

"Nonsense!" retorted Christopher roughly, for the other had dropped upon the floor and was grovelling in drunken hysterics at his feet. "It makes me sick to see a man act like an ass."

"Get me out of this and I'll never touch a drop," moaned Will. "Take me away from here—hide me anywhere. I'll go anywhere, I'll promise anything, only they mustn't find me. If they find me I'll go mad—I'll go mad in gaol."

"Shut up!" rejoined Christopher, listening with irritation to the sound of the other's hissing breath. "Stop your infernal racket a minute and let me think. Here, get up. Are you too drunk to stand on your feet?"

"I'm sober—I'm perfectly sober," protested Will, and, rising obediently, he stood clutching at the chimney-piece. "Get me out of this—only get me out of this," he repeated, with a desperate reliance on the other's power to avert the consequences of his deed. "I've always been a good friend to you," he went on passionately. "The quarrel first started about you, and I stood up for you to the last. I never let him say anything against you—I never did!"

"I'm much obliged to you," returned Christopher, and felt that he might as well have wasted his irony on a beaten hound. Turning away from the wild entreaty of Will's eyes, he walked slowly up and down the room, taking care to step lightly lest the boards should creak and awaken Tucker.

The parlour was just as Mrs. Blake had left it; her highbacked Elizabethan chair, filled with cushions, stood on the hearth; the dried grasses in the two tall vases shed their ashy pollen down upon the bricks. Even the yellow cat, grown old and sluggish, dozed in her favourite spot beside the embroidered ottoman.

On the whitewashed walls the old Blake portraits still presided, and he found, for the first time, an artless humour in the formality of the ancestral attitude—in the splendid pose which they had handed down like an heirloom through the centuries. Among them he saw the comely, high-coloured features of that gallant cynic, Bolivar, the man who had stamped his beauty upon threegenerations, and his gaze lingered with a gentle ridicule on the blithe candour in the eyes and the characteristic touch of brutality about the mouth. Then he passed to his father, portly, impressive, a high liver, a generous young blood, and then to the classic Saint—Memin profile of Aunt Susannah, limned delicately against a background of faded pink. And from her he went on to his mother's portrait, painted in shimmering brocade under rose garlands held by smiling Loves.

He looked at them all steadily for a while, seeking from the changeless lips of each an answer to the question which he felt knocking at his own heart. In every limb, in every feature, in every fiber he was plainly born to be one of themselves, and yet from their elegant remoteness they stared down upon the rustic labourer who was their descendant. Degraded, coarsened, disinherited, the last Blake stood before them, with his poverty and ignorance illumined only at long intervals by the flame of a soul which, though darkened, was still unquenched.

The night dragged slowly on, while he paced the floor with his thoughts and Will moaned and tossed, a shivering heap, upon the sofa.

"Stop your everlasting cackle!" Christopher had once shouted angrily, forgetting Tucker, and for the space of a few minutes the other had lain silent, choking back the strangling sobs. But presently the shattered nerves revolted against restraint, and Will burst out afresh into wild crying. The yellow cat, grown suddenly restless, crossed the room and jumped upon the sofa, where she stood clawing at the cover, and he clung to her with a pathetic recognition of dumb sympathy—the sympathy which he could not wring from the careless indifference of Christopher's look.

"Speak to me—say something," he pleaded at last, stretching out his hands. "If this keeps up I'll go mad before morning."

At this Christopher came toward him, and, stopping in his walk, frowned down upon the sofa.

"You deserve everything you'd get;" he said angrily. "You're as big a fool as ever trod this earth, and there's no reason under heaven why I should lift my hand to help you. There's no reason —there's no reason," he repeated in furious tones.

"But you'll do it—you'll get me out of it!" cried Will, grasping the other's knees.

"And two weeks later you'd be in another scrape."

"Not a single drop—I'll never touch a drop again. Before God I swear it!"

"Pshaw! I've heard that oath before."

Strangling a scream, Will caught him by the arm, dragging himself slowly into a sitting posture. "I'll hang myself if you let them get me," he urged hysterically. " I'll hang myself in gaol rather than let them do it. I can't face it all I can't—I can't. It isn't grandpa I mind; I'm not afraid of him. He was a devil. But it's the rest—the rest."

Roughly shaking him off, Christopher left him huddled upon the floor and resumed his steady walk up and down the room. In his ears the incoherent phrases grew presently fainter, and after a time he lost entirely their frenzied drift. "A little blow—just a little blow," ended finally in muffled sounds of weeping.

The habit of outward composure which always came to him in moments of swift experience possessed him so perfectly now that Will, lifting miserable eyes to his face, lowered them, appalled by its unfeeling gravity.

"I've been a good friend to you—a deuced good friend to you," urged the younger man in a last passionate appeal for the aid whose direction he had not yet defined.

"What is this thought which I cannot get rid of?" asked Christopher moodily of himself. "And what business is it of mine, anyway? What am I to the boy or the boy to me?" But even with the words he remembered the morning more than five years ago when he had gone out to the gate with his bird gun on his shoulder and found Will Fletcher and the spotted foxhound puppies awaiting him in the road. He saw again the boy's face, with the sunlight full upon it—eager, alert, a little petulant, full of good impulses readily turned adrift. There had been no evil upon it then—only weakness and a pathetic absence of determination. His own damnable intention was thrust back upon him, and he heard again the words of Carraway which had reechoed in his thoughts. "The way to touch the man, then, is through the boy." So it was the way, after all .

He almost laughed aloud at his prophetic insight. He had touched the man vitally enough at last, and it was through the boy. He had murdered Bill Fletcher, and he had done it through the only thing Bill Fletcher had ever loved. From this he returned again to the memory of the deliberate purpose of that day—to the ribald jests, the coarse profanities, the brutal oaths. Then to the night when he had forced the first drink down Will's throat, and so on through the five years of his revenge to the present moment. Well, his triumph had come at last, the summit was put upon his life's work, and he was—he must be—content.

Will raised his head and looked at him in reviving hope.

"You're the only friend I have on earth," he muttered between his teeth.

The first streak of dawn entered suddenly, flooding the room with a thin gray light in which the familiar objects appeared robbed of all atmospheric values. With a last feeble flicker the lamp shot up and went out, and the ashen wash of daybreak seemed the fit medium for the crude ugliness of life.

Towering almost grotesquely in the pallid dawn, Christopher came and leaned above the sofa to which Will had dragged himself again.

"You must get out of this," he said, "and quickly, for we've wasted the whole night wrangling. Have you any money?"

Will fumbled in his pocket and brought out a few cents, which he held in his open palm, while the other unlocked the drawer of the old secretary and handed him a roll of banknotes.

"Take this and buy a ticket somewhere. It's the money I scraped up to pay Fred Turner."

"To pay Fred Turner?" echoed Will, as if in that lay the significance of the remark.

"Take it and buy a ticket, and when you get where you're going, sit still and keep your mouth shut. If you wear a bold face you will go scot—free; remember that; but everything depends upon your keeping a stiff front. And now go—through the back door and past the kitchen to the piece of woods beyond the pasture. Cut through them to Tanner's Station and take the train there, mind, for the North."

With a short laugh he held out his big, knotted hand.

"Good—by," he said, " and don't be a damned fool."

"Good—by," answered Will, clinging desperately to his outstretched arm. Then an ashen pallor overspread his face, and he slunk nervously toward the kitchen, for there was the sound of footsteps on the little porch outside, followed by a brisk rap on the front door.

"Go!" whispered Christopher, hardly taking breath, and he stood waiting while Will ran along the wooden platform and past the stable toward the pasture.

The rap came again, and he turned quickly. "Quit your racket and let me get on my clothes!" he shouted, and hesitated a little longer.

As he stood alone there in the center of the room, his eyes, traversing the walls, fell on the portrait of Bolivar Blake, and with one of the fantastic tricks of memory there shot into his head the dying phrase of that gay sinner: "I may not sit with the saints, but I shall stand among the gentlemen."

"Precious old ass!" he muttered, and unbarred the door.

As he flung it open the first rays of sunlight splashed across the threshold, and he was conscious, all at once, of a strange exhilaration, as if he were breasting one of the big waves of life.

"This is a pretty way to wake up a fellow who has been planting tobacco till he's stiff," he grumbled. "Is that you, Tom?" He glanced carelessly round, nodding with a kind of friendly condescension to each man of the little group. "How are you, Matthew? Hello, Fred!"

Tom drew back, coughing, and scraped the heel of his boot on the topmost step.

"We didn't mean to git you out of bed, Mr. Christopher," he explained apologetically, "but the truth is we want Will Fletcher an' he ain't at home. The old man's murdered, suh."

"Murdered, is he?" exclaimed Christopher, with a long whistle, "and you want Will Fletcher—which shows what a very pretty sheriff you would make. Well, if you're so strong on his scent that you can't turn aside, most likely you'll find him sleeping off his drunk under my haystack. But if you're looking for the man who killed Bill Fletcher, then that's a different matter,°" he added, taking down his hat, "and I reckon, boys, I'm about ready to come along."

CHAPTER X. The Wheel of Life

Throughout the trial he wore the sullen reserve which closed over him like a visor when he approached one of the crises of life. He had made his confession and he stood to it. "I killed Bill Fletcher" he gave out flatly enough. What he could not give was an explanation of his unaccountable presence at the Hall so nearly upon midnight. When the question was first put to him he sneered and shrugged his shoulders with the hereditary gesture of the Blakes. "Why was he there? Well, why wasn't he there?" That was all. And Carraway, who had stood by his side since the day of the arrest, retired at last before an attitude which he characterised as one of defiant arrogance.

It was this attitude, people said presently, rather than the murder of Bill Fletcher, which brought him the sentence he heard with so insolent an indifference.

"Five years wasn't much for killin' a man, maybe," Tom Spade observed, "but it was a good deal, when you come to think of it, for a Blake to pay jest for gettin' even with a Fletcher. Why, he might have brained Bill Fletcher an' welcome," the storekeeper added a little wistfully, "if only he hadn't put on such a nasty manner afterward."

But it was behind this impregnable reserve that Christopher retreated as into a walled fortress. There had been no sentiment in his act, he told himself; he had not even felt the romantic fervour of the sacrifice. A certain staunch justice was all he saw in it, relieved doubtless by a share of his hereditary love of desperate hopes—of the hot—headed clinging to that last shifting foothold on which a man might still make his fight against the power of circumstance. And so, with that strange mixture of rustic crudeness and aristocratic arrogance, he turned his face from his friends and went stubbornly through the cross-questioning of the court.

>From first to last he had not wavered in his refusal to see Maria, and there had been an angry vehemence in the resistance he had made to her passionate entreaty for a meeting. When by the early autumn he went from the little town gaol to serve his five years in the State prison, his most vivid memory of her was as she looked with the moonlight on her face in the open field. As the months went on, this gradually grew remote and dim in his remembrance, like a bright star over which the clouds thicken, and his thoughts declined, almost without an upward inspiration, upon the brutal level of his daily life. Mere physical disgust was his first violent recoil from what had seemed a curious deadness of his whole nature, and the awakening of the senses preceded by many months the final resurrection of the more spiritual emotions. The sources of health were still abundant in him, he admitted, if the vile air, the fetid smells, the closeness as of huddled animals, the filth, the obscenity, the insufferable bestial humanity could arouse in him a bodily nausea so nearly resembling disease. There were moments when he felt capable of any crime from sheer frenzied loathing of his surroundings—when for the sake of the clean space of the tobacco fields and the pure water of the little spring he would have murdered Bill Fletcher a dozen times. As for the old man's death in itself, it had never caused him so much as a quiver of the conscience. Bill Fletcher deserved to die, and the world was well rid of him—that was all.

But his own misery! This was with him always, and there was no escape from the moral wretchedness which seemed to follow so closely upon crime. Fresh from the open country and the keen winds that blow over level spaces, he seemed mentally and physically to wither in the change of air—to shrink slowly to the perishing root, like a plant that has been brought from a rich meadow to the aridity of the close—packed city. And with the growing of this strange form of homesickness he would be driven, at times, into an almost delirious cruelty toward those who were weaker than himself, for there were summer nights when he would brutally knock smaller men from the single window of the cell and cling, panting for breath, to the iron bars. As the year went on, his grim silence, too, became for those around him as the inevitable shadow of the prison, and he went about his daily work in a churlish loneliness which caused even the convicts among whom he lived to shrink back from his presence.

Then with the closing of the second winter his superb physical strength snapped suddenly like a cord that has stood too tight a strain, and for weeks he lingered between life and death in the hospital, into which he was carried while yet unconscious. With his returning health, when the abatement of the fever left him strangely shaken and the unearthly pallor still clung to his face and hands, he awoke for the first time to a knowledge that his illness had altered for the period of his convalescence, at least the vision through which he had grown to regard the world.

A change had come to him, in that mysterious borderland so near the grave, and the bare places in his soul had burst suddenly into fulfilment. Sitting one Sunday morning in the open court of the prison, with his thin white hands hanging between his knees and his head, cropped now of its thick, fair hair, raised to the sunshine, it seemed to him that, like Tucker on the old bench, he had learned at last how to be happy. The warm sun in his face, the blue sky straight overhead, the spouting fountain from which a sparrow drank, produced in him a recognition, wholly passionless, of the abundant physical beauty of the earth—of a beauty in the blue sky and in the clear sunshine falling upon the prison court.

A month ago he had wondered almost hopefully if his was to be one of those pathetic sunken graves, marked for so brief a time by wooden headboards the graves of the men who had died within the walls—and now there pulsed through him, sitting there alone, a quiet satisfaction in the thought that he might still breathe the air and look into men's faces and see the blue sky overhead. The sky in itself! That was enough to fill one's memory to overflowing, Tucker had said.

A tall, lean convict, newly released from the hospital, crossed the court at a stumbling pace and stood for a moment at his side.

"I reckon you're hankerin', he remarked. "I was sent down here from the mountains, an' I hanker terrible for the sight of the old Humpback Knob."

"And I'd like to see a level sweep—hardly a hill, just a clean stretch for the wind to blow over the tobacco."

"You're from the tobaccy belt, then, ain't you? What are you here for?"

"Killing a man. And you?"

"Killin' two."

He limped off at his feeble step, and Christopher rubbed his hands in the warm sunshine and wondered how it would feel to bask on one of the old logs by the roadside.

That afternoon Jim Weatherby came to see him, bringing the news that Lila's baby had come and that she had named it Christopher. "It's the living image of you, she says," he added, smiling; "but I confess I can't quite see it. The funny part is, you know, that Cynthia is just as crazy about it as Lila is, and she looks ten years younger since the little chap came."

"And Uncle Tucker?"

"His old wounds trouble him, but he sent you word he was waiting to go till you came back again."

A blur swam before Christopher's eyes, and he saw in fancy the old soldier waiting for him on the bench beside the damask rose-bush.

"And the others—and Maria Wyndham?" he asked, swallowing the lump in his throat.

Jim reached out and laid his hand on the broad stripes across the other's shoulder.

"She was with Mr. Tucker when he said that," he replied; "they are always together now; and she added; Tell him we shall wait together till he comes."

The tears which had blinded Christopher's eyes fell down upon his clasped hands.

"My God! Let me live to go back!" he cried out in his weakness.

>From this time the element of hope entered into his life, and like its shadow there came the brooding fear that he should not live to see the year of his release. With his declining health he had been given lighter work in the prison factory, but the small tasks seemed to him heavier than the large ones he remembered. There was no disease, the physician in the hospital assured him; it was only his unusual form of homesickness feeding upon his weakened frame. Let him return once more to the outdoor life and the fresh air of the tobacco fields and within six months his old physical hardihood would revive.

It was noticeable at this time that the quiet tolerance which had grown upon him in his convalescence drew to him the sympathy which he had at first repulsed. The interest awakened in the beginning by some rare force of attraction in his mere bodily presence became now, when he had fallen away to what seemed the shadow of himself, a friendly and almost affectionate curiosity concerning his earlier history. With this there grew slowly a rough companionship between him and the men among whom he lived, and he found presently to his surprise that there was hardly one of them but had some soft spot in his character—some particular virtue which was still alive. The knowledge of good and evil thrust upon him in these months was not without effect in developing a certain largeness of outlook upon humanity—a kind of generous philosophy which remained with him afterward in the form of a peculiar mellowness of temperament.

The autumn of his third year was already closing when, being sent for one morning from the office of the superintendent, he went in to find Cynthia awaiting him with his pardon in her hand. "I've come for you, Christopher," she said, weeping at sight of his wasted figure. "The whole county has been working to get you out, and you are free at last."

"Free at last?" he repeated mechanically, and was conscious of a disappointment in the fact that he experienced no elation with the words. What was this freedom, that had meant so much to him a month ago?

"Somebody in Europe wrote back to Maria," she added, while her dry sobs rattled in her bosom, "that the boy had confessed it to a priest who made him write it home. Oh, Christopher! Christopher! I can't understand!"

"No, you can't understand," returned Christopher, shaking his head. They would not understand, he knew, none of them—neither the world, nor Cynthia, nor his mother who was dead, nor Maria who was living. They would not understand, and even to himself the mystery was still unsolved. He had acted according to the law of his own nature; this was all that was clear to him; and the destiny of character had controlled him from the beginning. The wheel had turned and he with it, and being as blind as fate itself he could see nothing further.

Back once more in the familiar country, fresh from the strong grasp of friendly hands, and driving at sunset along the red road beneath half-bared honey-locusts, he was conscious, with a dull throb of regret, that the placid contentment he felt creeping over him failed in emotional resemblance to the happiness he had associated with his return. Had the sap really gone dry within him, and would he go on forever with this curious numbness at his heart?

"Maria wanted you to go straight to the Hall," said Cynthia, turning suddenly, "but I told her I'd better take you home and put you to bed at once. It was she who went to the Governor and got your pardon," she added after a moment, "but when I begged her to come with me to take it to you she would not do it. She would not see you until you were back in your own place, she said."

He smiled faintly, and, leaning back among the rugs Cynthia had brought, watched the white mist creeping over the ploughed fields. The thought of Maria no longer stirred his pulses, and when presently they reached the whitewashed cottage, and he sat with Tucker before the wood fire in his mother's parlour, he found himself gazing with a dull impersonal curiosity at the portraits smiling so coldly down upon the hearth. The memory of his mother left him as immovable as did the many trivial associations which thronged through his brain at sight of the room which had been hers. A little later, lying in her tester bed, the fall of the acorns on the shingled roof above sent him into a profound and untroubled sleep.

With the first sunlight he awoke, and, noiselessly slipping into his clothes, went out for a daylight view of the country which had dwelt for so long a happy vision in his thoughts. The dew was thick on the grass, and, crossing to the old bench, he sat down in the pale sunshine beside the damask rosebush, on which a single flower blossomed out of season. Beyond the cedars in the graveyard the sunrise flamed golden upon a violet background, and across the field of lifeeverlasting there ran a sparkling path of fire. The air was strong with autumn scents, and as he drank it in with deep drafts it seemed to him that he began to breathe anew the spirit of life. With a single bound of the heart the sense of freedom came to him, and with it the happiness that he had missed the evening before pulsed through his veins. Much yet remained to him—the earth with its untold miracles, the sky with its infinity of space, his own soul—and Maria!

With her name he sprang to his feet in the ardour of his impatience, and it was then that, looking up, he saw her coming to him across the sunbeams.


Back to the Index Page