Book IV, The
by Ellen Glasgow
Romance of the
LIST OF CHARACTERS
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
JIM WEATHERBY, his son
SOL PETERKIN, another tobacco-grower
MOLLY PETERKIN, daughter of Sol
Tom SPADE, a country storekeeper
SUSAN, his wife
UNCLE BOAZ, a Negro
CHAPTER I. The Unforeseen
The road was steep, and Christopher, descending from the big,
lumbering cart, left the oxen to crawl slowly up the incline. It was
a windy afternoon in March, and he was returning from a trip to
Farrar's mill, which was reached by a lane that branched off a
half-mile or so from the cross-roads. A blue sky shone brightly
through the leafless boughs above him, and along the little wayside
path tufts of dandelion were blooming in the red dust. The wind, which
blew straight toward him from the opening beyond the strip of wood in
which he walked, brought the fresh scent of the upturned fields and of
the swelling buds putting out with the warm sunshine. In his own veins
he felt also that the blood had stirred, and that strange, quickening
impulse, which comes with the rising sap alike to a man and to a tree,
worked restlessly in his limbs at the touch of spring. Nature was
alive again, and he felt vaguely that in the resurrection surrounding
him he must have his part—that in him as well as in the earth the
spirit of life must move and put forth in gladness. A flock of
swallows passed suddenly like a streak of smoke on the blue sky
overhead, and as his eyes followed them the old roving instinct pulled
at his heart. To be up and away, to drink life to its dregs and come
home for rest, were among the impulses which awoke with the return of
The oxen moved behind him at a leisurely pace, and outstripping
them in a little while, he had turned at a sudden opening in the
trees into the main road, when, to his surprise, he saw a woman in
black, followed by a small yellow dog, walking in front of him along
the grassy path. As he caught sight of her a strong gust of wind swept
down the road, wrapping her skirt closely about her and whirling a
last year's leaf into her face. For a moment she paused and, throwing
back her head, drank the air like water; then, holding firmly to her
hat, she started on again at her rapid pace. In the ease with which
she moved against the wind, in the self-possession of her carriage,
and most of all in the grace with which she lifted her long black
skirt, made, he could see, after the fashion of the outside world, he
realised at once that she was a stranger to the neighbourhood. No
woman whom he had known—not even Lila—had this same light yet
energetic walk—a walk in which every line in her body moved in accord
with the buoyant impulse that controlled her step. As he watched her
he recalled instantly the flight of a swallow in the air, for her
passage over the ground was as direct and beautiful as a bird's.
When he neared her she turned suddenly, and, as she flung back her
short veil, he saw to his amazement that he faced Maria Fletcher.
"So you have forgotten me?" she said, with a smile. "Or have I
changed so greatly that my old friends do not know me?"
She held out her hand, and while a tremor ran through him, he kept
her bared palm for an instant in his own.
"You dropped from the sky," he answered, steadying his voice with
an effort. "You have taken my breath away and I cannot speak."
Then letting her hand fall, he stood looking at her in a wonder
that shone in his face, for to the Maria whom he had known the woman
before him now bore only the resemblance that the finished portrait
bears to the charcoal sketch; and the years which had so changed and
softened her had given her girlish figure a nobility that belonged to
the maturity she had not reached. It was not that she had grown
beautiful—when he sought for physical changes he found only that her
cheek was rounder, her bosom fuller; but if she still lacked the ruddy
attraction of mere flesh-and-blood loveliness, she had gained the
deeper fascination which is the outward accompaniment of a fervent
spirit. Her eyes, her voice, her gestures were all attuned to the
inner harmony which he recognised also in the smile with which she met
his words; and the charm that she irradiated was that rarest of all
physical gifts, the power of the flesh to express the soul that it
The wind or the meeting with himself had brought a faint flush to
her cheek, but without lowering her eyes she stood regarding him with
her warm, grave smile. The pale oval of her face, framed in the
loosened waves of her black hair, had for him all the remoteness that
surrounded her memory; and yet, though he knew it not, the appeal she
made to him now, and had made long ago, was that he recognised in her,
however dumbly, a creature born, like himself, with the power to
experience the fulness of joy or grief.
"So I have taken your breath away," she said; "and you have
"Agag?" he turned with a question and followed her glance in the
direction of the dog. "It is the brute you saved?"
"Only he is not a brute—I have seen many men who were more of
one. Look! He recognises you. He has followed me everywhere, but he
doesn't like Europe, and if you could have seen his joy when we got
out at the cross-roads and he smelt the familiar country! It was
almost as great as mine."
"As yours? Then you no longer hate it?"
"I have learned to love it in the last six years," she answered,
"as I have learned to love many things that I once hated. Oh, this
wind is good when it blows over the ploughed fields, and yet between
city streets it would bring only dust and discomfort."
She threw back her head, looking up into the sky, where a bird
"Will you get into the cart now?" he asked after a moment, vaguely
troubled by the silence and by the gentleness of her upward look, "or
do you wish to walk to the top of the hill?"
She turned and moved quickly on again.
"It is such a little way, let us walk," she replied, and then with
a laugh she offered an explanation of her presence. "I wrote twice,
but I had no answer," she said; "then I decided to come, and
telegraphed, but they handed me my telegram and my last letter at the
cross-roads. Can something have happened, do you think? or is it
merely carelessness that keeps them from sending for the mail?"
"I hardly know; but they are all alive, at least. You have come
"From abroad. I lived there for six years, first in one place,
then in another—chiefly in Italy. My husband died eighteen months
ago, but I stayed on with his people. It seemed then that they needed
me most, but one can never tell, and I may have made a mistake in not
coming home sooner."
"I think you did," he said quietly, running the end of his long
whip through his fingers.
She flashed a disturbed glance at him.
"Is it possible that you are keeping something from me? Is any one
"Not that I have heard of, but I never see any of them, you know,
except your brother."
"And he is married. They told me so at the cross-roads. I can't
understand why they did not let me know."
"It was very sudden—they went to Washington."
"How queer! Who is the girl, I wonder?"
"Her name was Molly Peterkin—old Sol's daughter; you may remember
She shook her head. "No; I've lived here so little, you see. What
is she like?"
"A beauty, with blue eyes and yellow hair."
"Indeed? And are they happy?" He laughed. "They are in love—or
were, six months ago."
"You are cynical. But do they live at the Hall?"
"Not yet. Your grandfather has not spoken to Will since the
marriage, and that was last August."
"Where, under heaven, do they live, then?"
"On a little farm he has given them adjoining Sol's. I believe he
means that they shall raise tobacco for a living."
She made a gesture of distress. "Oh, I ought to have come home
"What difference would that have made: you could have done
nothing. A thunderbolt falling at his feet doesn't sober a man when
he is in love."
"I might have helped—one never knows. At least I should have been
at my post, for, after all, the ties of blood are the strongest claims
"Why should they be?" he questioned, with sudden bitterness. "You
are more like that swallow flying up there than you are like any
Fletcher that ever lived."
She smiled. "I thought so once," she answered, "but now I know
better. The likeness must be there, and I am going to find it."
"You will never find it," he insisted, "for there is nothing of
them in you—nothing."
"You don't like them, I remember."
"Nor do you."
A laugh broke from her and humour rippled in her eyes.
"So you still persist in the truth, and in the plain truth!" she
"Then it is so, you confess it?"
"No, no, no," she protested. "Why, I love them all—all, do you
hear, and I love Will more than the rest of them put together."
He looked away from her, and then, turning, waited for the oxen to
reach the summit of the hill.
"You'd better get in now, I think," he said; "there is a long walk
ahead of us, and if my team is slow it is sure also."
As he brought the oxen to a halt, she laid her hand for an instant
on his arm, and, mounting lightly upon the wheel, stepped into the
"Now give me Agag," she said, and he handed her the little dog
before he took up the ropes and settled himself beside her on the
driver's seat. "You look like one of the disinherited princesses in
the old stories mother tells," he observed.
A puzzled wonder was in her face as she turned toward him.
"Who are you? And what has Blake Hall to do with your family?" she
"Only that it was named after us. We used to live there."
"Within your recollection?"
He nodded, with his eyes on the slow oxen.
"Then you have not always been a farmer?"
"Ever since I was ten years old."
"I can't understand, I can't understand," she said, perplexed.
"You are like no one about here; you are like no one I have ever
"Then I must be like you," he returned bluntly.
"Like me? Oh, heavens, no; you would make three of me—body,
brain, and soul. I believe, when I think of it, that you are the
biggest man I've ever known—and by that I don't mean in height— for
I have seen men with a greater number of physical inches. Inches,
somehow, have very little to do with the impression—and so has
muscle, strong as yours is. It is simple bigness that I am talking
about, and it was the first thing I noticed in you—"
"At the cross-roads?" he asked, and instantly regretted his words.
"No; not at the cross-roads," she answered, smiling. "You have a
good memory; but mine is better. I saw you once on a June morning,
when I was riding along the road with the chestnuts and you were
standing out in the field."
"I did not see you or I should have remembered," he said quietly.
Silence fell between them, and he was conscious in every fiber of
his body—that he had never been so close to her before—had never
felt the touch of her arm upon his own, nor the folds of her skirt
brushing against his knees. A gust of wind whipped the end of her veil
into his face, and when she turned to recapture it he felt her warm
breath on his cheek. The sense of her nearness pervaded him from head
to foot, and an unrest like that produced by the spring wind troubled
his heart. He did not look at her, and yet he saw her full dark eyes
and the curve of her white throat more distinctly than he beheld the
blue sky at which he gazed. Was it possible that she, too, shared his
disquietude? he wondered, or was the silence that she kept as
undisturbed as her tranquil pose?
"I should not have forgotten it," he repeated presently, turning
to meet her glance.
She started and looked away from the landscape. "You have long
memories in this county, I know," she said. "So few things happen
that it becomes a religion to cherish the little incidents. It may be
that I, too, have inherited something of this, for I remember very
clearly the few months I spent here."
"You remembered them even while you were away?"
"Why not?" she asked. "It is not the moving about, the strange
places one sees, nor the people one meets, that really count in life,
"What is it?" he questioned abruptly.
She hesitated as if trying to put her thoughts more clearly into
"I think it is the things one learns," she said; "the places in
which we take root and grow, and the people who teach us what is
really worth while—patience, and charity, and the beauty there is in
the simplest and most common lives when they are lived close to
"In driving the plough or in picking the suckers from a tobacco
plant," he added scornfully.
"In those things, yes; and in any life that is good, and true, and
"Well, I have lived near enough to Nature to hate her with all my
might," he answered, not without bitterness. "Why, there are times
when I'd like to kick every ploughed field I see out into eternity.
Tobacco-growing is one of the natural things, I suppose, but if you
want to see any beauty in it you must watch it from a shady road. When
you get in the midst of it you'll find it coarse and sticky, and given
over generally to worms. I have spent my whole life working on it, and
to this day I never look at a plant nor smell a pipe without a shiver
of disgust. The things I want are over there," he finished, pointing
with his whip-handle to the clear horizon. "I want the excitement that
makes one's blood run like wine."
"Battle, murder, and all that, I suppose?" she said, smiling.
"War, and fame, and love," he corrected.
Her face had grown grave, and in the thoughtful look she turned
upon him it seemed to him that he saw a purpose slowly take form. So
earnest was her gaze that at last his own fell before it, at which she
murmured a confused apology, like one forcibly awakened from a dream.
"I was wondering what that other life would have made of you," she
said; "the life that I have known and wearied of—a life of petty
shams, of sham love, of sham hate, of sham religion. It is all little,
you know, and it takes a little soul to keep alive in it. I craved it
once myself, and it took six years of artifice to teach me that I
loved a plain truth better than a pretty lie."
He had been looking at the strong white hand lying in her lap, and
now, with a laugh, he held out his own bronzed and roughened one.
"There is the difference," he said; "do you see it?"
A wave of sympathy swept over her expressive face, and with one of
her impulsive gestures, which seemed always to convey some spiritual
significance, she touched his outstretched palm with her fingers. "How
full of meaning it is," she replied, "for it tells of quiet days in
the fields, and of a courage that has not faltered before the thing it
hates. When I look at it it makes me feel very humble—and yet very
proud, too, that some day I may be your friend."
He shook his head, with his eyes on the sun, which was slowly
"That is out of the question," he answered. "You cannot be my
friend except for this single day. If I meet you to-morrow I shall
not know you."
"Because I am a Fletcher?" she asked, wondering.
"Because you are a Fletcher, and because you would find me worse
than a Fletcher."
"Riddles, riddles," she protested, laughing; "and I was always
dull at guessing—but I may as well warn you now that I have come
home determined to make a friend of every mortal in the county, man
"You'll do it," he answered seriously. "I'm the only thing about
here that will resist you. You'll be everybody's friend but mine."
She caught and held his gaze. "Let us see," she responded quietly.
For a time they were silent, and spreading out her skirt, she made
a place for the dog upon it. The noise of the heavy wheels on the
rocky bed of the road grew suddenly louder in his ears, and he
realised with a pang that every jolt of the cart carried him nearer
the end. With the thought there came to him a wish that life might
pause at the instant—that the earth might be arrested in its passage
and leave him forever aware of the warm contact that thrilled through
him. They had already passed Weatherby's lane, and presently the
chimneys of Blake Hall appeared above the distant trees. When they
reached the abandoned ice-pond Christopher spoke with an attempted
"It would perhaps be better for you to walk the rest of the way,"
he said. "Trouble might be made in the beginning if your grandfather
were to know that I brought you over."
"You're right, I think," she said, and rising as the cart stopped,
she followed him down into the road. Then with a word or two of
thanks, she smiled brightly, and, calling the dog, passed rapidly into
the twilight which stretched between him and a single shining window
that was visible in the Hall.
After she had quite disappeared he still stood motionless by the
ice-pond, staring into the dusk that had swallowed her up from his
gaze. So long did he remain there that at last the oxen tired of
waiting and began to move slowly on along the sunken road. Then
starting abruptly from his meditation, he picked up the ropes that
trailed before him on the ground and fell into his accustomed walk
beside the cart. At the moment it seemed to him that his whole life
was shattered into pieces by the event of a single instant. Something
stronger than himself had shaken the foundations of his nature, and he
was not the man that he had been before. He was like one born blind,
who, when his eyes are opened, is ignorant that the light which
dazzles him is merely the shining of the sun.
When he came into the house, after putting up the oxen, Cynthia
commented upon the dazed look that he wore.
"You must have fallen asleep on the way home," she remarked.
"It is the glare of the lamp," he answered. "I have just come out
of the darkness," and before sitting down to his supper, he opened
the door and listened for the sound of his mother's voice.
"She is asleep, then?" he said, coming back again. "Has she
recognised either of you to-day?"
"No; she wanders again. The present is nothing to her any
longer—it is all blotted out with everything that Fletcher told her.
She asks for father constantly, and the only thing that interested her
was when Jim went in and talked to her about farming. She is quite
rational except that she has entirely forgotten the last twenty years,
and just before falling asleep she laughed heartily over some old
stories of Grandpa Bolivar's."
"Then I may see her for a minute?"
"If you wish it—yes."
Passing along the hall, he entered the little chamber where the
old lady lay asleep in her tester bed. Her fine white hair was
brushed over the pillow, and her drawn and yellowed face wore a
placid and childlike look. As he paused beside her a faint smile
flickered about her mouth and her delicate hand trembled slightly
upon the counterpane. Her dreams had evidently brought her happiness,
and as he stood looking down upon her the wish entered his heart that
he might change his young life for her old one— that he might become,
in her place, half dead, and done with all that the future could bring
of either joy or grief.
CHAPTER II. Maria Returns to the Hall
Through the grove of oaks a single lighted window glimmered now
red, now yellow, as lamplight struggled with firelight inside, and
Maria, walking rapidly through the dark, felt that the comfortable
warmth shining on the panes was her first welcome home. The night had
grown chilly, and she gathered her wraps closely together as she
hastened along the gravelled drive and ran up the broad stone steps to
the closed door. There was no answer to her knock, and, finding that
the big silver handle of the door turned easily, she entered the hall
and passed cautiously through the dusk that enveloped the great
staircase. Her foot was on the first step, when a stream of light
issued suddenly from the dining-room, and, turning, she stood for an
instant hesitating upon the threshold. A lamp burned dimly in the
center of the old mahogany table, where a scant supper for two had
been hastily laid. In the fireplace a single hickory log sent out a
shower of fine sparks, which hovered a moment in the air before they
were sucked up by the big stone chimney. The room was just as Maria
had left it six years before, and yet in some unaccountable fashion it
seemed to have lost the dignity which she remembered as its one
redeeming feature. Nothing was changed that she could see—the
furniture stood in the same places, the same hard engravings hung on
the discoloured walls—but as she glanced wonderingly about her she
was aware of a shock greater than the one she had nerved herself to
withstand. It was, after all, the atmosphere that depressed her, she
concluded with her next thought—the general air of slovenly
unrefinement revealed in the details of the room and of the carelessly
While she still hesitated uncertainly on the threshold, the pantry
door opened noiselessly and Miss Saidie appeared, carrying a glass
dish filled with preserved watermelon rind. At sight of Maria she gave
a start and a little scream, and the dish fell from her hands and
crashed upon the floor.
"Sakes alive! Is that you, Maria?"
Hastily crossing the room, Maria caught the little woman in her
arms and kissed her twice.
"Why, you poor thing! I've frightened you to death," she said,
with a laugh.
"You did give me a turn; that's so," replied Miss Saidie, as she
wiped the moisture from her crimson face. "It's been so long since
anybody's come here that Malindy—she's the only servant we've got
now—was actually afraid to answer your knock. Then when I came in and
saw you standing by the door, I declare it almost took my breath clean
away. I thought for a moment you were a ghost, you looked so dead
white in that long, black dress."
"Oh, I'm flesh and blood, never fear," Maria assured her. "Much
more flesh and blood, too, than I was when I went away—but I've made
you spill all your preserves. What a shame!"
Miss Saidie glanced down a little nervously. "I must wipe it up
before Brother Bill comes in," she said; "it frets him so to see a
Picking up a dust-cloth she had left on a chair, she got down on
her knees and began mopping up the sticky syrup which trickled along
the floor. "He hates so to throw away anything," she pursued, panting
softly from her exertions, "that if he were to see this I believe it
would upset him for a week. Oh, he didn't use to be like that, I
know," she added, meeting Maria's amazed look; "and it does seem
strange, for I'm sure he gets richer and richer every day—but it's
the gospel truth that every cent he makes he hugs closer than he did
the last. I declare, I've seen him haggle for an hour over the price
of salt, and it turns him positively sick to see anything but specked
potatoes on the table. He kinder thinks his money is all he's got, I
reckon, so he holds on to it like grim death."
"But it isn't all he has. Where's Will?"
Miss Saidie shook her head, with a glance in the direction of the
"Don't mention him if you want any peace," she said, rising with
difficulty to her feet. "Your grandpa has never so much as laid eyes
on him sence he gave him that little worn-out place side by side with
Sol Peterkin—and told him he'd shoot him if he ever caught sight of
him at the Hall. You've come home to awful worry, thar's no doubt of
"Oh, oh, oh," sighed Maria, and, tossing her hat upon the sofa,
pressed her fingers on her temples. With the firelight thrown full on
the ivory pallor of her face, the effect she produced was almost
unreal in its intensity of black and white—an absence of colour which
had in it all the warmth and the animation we are used to associate
with brilliant hues. A peculiar mellowness of temperament, the
expression of a passionate nature confirmed in sympathy, shone in the
softened fervour of her look as she bent her eyes thoughtfully upon
"Something must be done for Will," she said, turning presently.
"This can't go on another day."
Miss Saidie caught her breath sharply, and hastened to the head of
the table, as Fletcher's heavy footsteps crossed the hall.
"For heaven's sake, be careful," she whispered warningly, jerking
her head nervously from side to side.
Fletcher entered with a black look, slamming the door heavily
behind him, then, suddenly catching sight of Maria, he stopped short
on the threshold and stared at her with hanging jaws.
"I'll be blessed if it ain't Maria!" he broke out at last.
Maria went toward him and held out her cheek for his kiss.
"I've surprised you almost as much as I did Aunt Saidie," she
said, with her cheerful laugh, which floated a little strangely on
the sullen atmosphere.
Catching her by the shoulder, Fletcher drew her into the circle of
the lamplight, where he stood regarding her in gloomy silence.
"You've filled out considerable," he remarked, as he released her
at the end of his long scrutiny. "But thar was room for it, heaven
knows. You'll never be the sort that a man smacks his lips over, I
reckon, but you're a plum sight better looking than you were when you
Maria winced quickly as if he had struck her; then, regaining her
composure almost instantly, she drew back her chair with a casual
"But I didn't come home to set the county afire," she said. "Why,
Aunt Saidie, what queer, coarse china! What's become of the
white-and-gold set I used to like?"
A purple flush mounted, slowly to Miss Saidie's forehead.
"I was afraid it would chip, so I packed it away," she explained.
"Me and Brother Bill ain't used to any better than this, so we don't
notice. Things will have to be mighty fine now, I reckon, since you've
got back. You were always particular about looks, I remember."
"Was I?" asked Maria curiously, glancing down into the plate
before her. For the last few years she had schooled herself to
despise what she called the "silly luxuries of living," and yet the
heavy white cup which Miss Saidie handed her, and the sound of
Fletcher drinking his coffee, aroused in her the old poignant disgust.
"I don't think I'm over particular now," she added pleasantly,
"but we may as well get out the other china tomorrow, I think."
"You won't find many fancy ways here—eh, Saidie?" inquired
Fletcher, with a chuckle. "Thar's been a precious waste of victuals
on this place, but it's got to stop. I ain't so sure you did a wise
thing in coming back," he finished abruptly, turning his bloodshot
eyes on his granddaughter.
"You aren't? Well, I am," laughed Maria; "and I promise you that
you shan't find me troublesome except in the matter of china."
"Then you must have changed your skin, I reckon."
"Changed? Why, I have, of course. Six years isn't a day, you know,
and I've been in many places." Then, as a hint of interest awoke in
his eyes, she talked on rapidly, describing her years abroad and the
strange cities in which she had lived. Before she had finished,
Fletcher had pushed his plate away and sat listening with the ghost of
a smile upon his face.
"Well, you'll do, I reckon," he said at the end, and, pushing back
his chair, he rose from his place and stamped out into the hall.
When he had gone into his sitting-room and closed the door behind
him, Miss Saidie nodded smilingly, as she measured out the servant's
sugar in a cracked saucer. "He's brighter than I've seen him for
days," she said; "and now, if you want to go upstairs, Malindy has
jest lighted your fire. She had to carry the wood up while we were at
supper, so Brother Bill wouldn't see it. He hates even to burn a log,
though they are strewn round loose all over the place."
Maria, was feeding Agag on the hearth, and she waited until he had
finished before she took up her hat and wraps and went toward the
door. "Oh, you needn't bother to light me," she said, waving Miss
Saidie back when she would have followed. "Why, I could find my way
over this house at midnight without a candle." Then, with a cheerful
"Goodnight," she called Agag and went up the dusky staircase.
A wood fire was burning in her room, and she stood for a moment
looking pensively into the flames, a faint smile sketched about her
mouth. Then throwing off her black dress in the desire for freedom,
she clasped her hands above her head and paced slowly up and down the
shadowy length of the room. In the flowing measure of her walk; in the
free, almost defiant, movement of her upraised arms; and in the ample
lines of her throat and bosom, which melted gradually into the low
curves of her hips, she might have stood for an incarnation of vital
force. One felt instinctively that her personality would be active
rather than passive—that the events which she attracted to herself
would be profoundly emotional in their fulfilment.
Notwithstanding the depressing hour she had just passed, and the
old vulgarity which had shocked her with a new violence, she was
conscious, moving to and fro in the shadows, of a strange
happiness—of a warmth of feeling which pervaded her from head to
foot, which fluttered in her temples and burned like firelight in her
open palms. The place was home to her, she realised at last, and the
surroundings of her married life—the foreign towns and the enchanting
Italian scenery—showed in her memory with a distant and alien beauty.
Here was what she loved, for here was her right, her heritage—the
desolate red roads, the luxuriant tobacco fields, the primitive and
ignorant people. In her heart there was no regret for any past that
she had known, for over the wild country stretching about her now
there hung a romantic and mysterious haze.
A little later she was aroused from her reverie by Miss Saidie,
who came in with a lighted lamp in her hand.
"Don't you need a light, Maria? I never could abide to sit in the
"Oh, yes; bring it in. There, put it on the bureau and sit down by
the fire, for I want to talk to you. No, I'm not a bit tired; I am
only trying to fit myself again in this room. Why, I don't believe
you've changed a pin in the pincushion since I went away."
Miss Saidie dusted the top of the bureau with her apron before she
placed the tall glass lamp upon it.
"Thar warn't anybody to stay in it," she answered, as she sat down
in a deep, cretonne-covered chair and pushed back the hickory log with
her foot. "I declare, Maria, I don't see what you want to traipse
around with that little poor-folksy yaller dog for. He puts me in mind
of the one that old blind nigger up the road used to have."
"Does he?" asked Maria absently, in the voice of one whose
thoughts are hopelessly astray.
She was standing by the window, holding aside the curtain of
flowered chintz, and after a moment she added curiously: "There's a
light in the fields, Aunt Saidie. What does it mean?"
Crossing the room, Miss Saidie followed the gesture with which
Maria pointed into the night.
"That's on the Blake place," she said; "it must be Mr. Christopher
moving about with his lantern."
"You call him Mr. Christopher?"
"Oh, it slipped out. His father's name was Christopher before him,
and I used to open the gate for him when I was a child. Many and many
a time the old gentleman's given me candy out of his pocket, or a
quarter to buy a present, and one Christmas he brought me a real wax
doll from the city. He wasn't old then, I can tell you, and he was as
handsome as if he had stepped out of a fashion plate. Why, young Mr.
Christopher can't hold a candle to him for looks."
"He was a gentleman, then? I mean the old man."
"Who? Mr. Christopher's father? I don't reckon thar was a freer or
a finer between here and London."
Maria's gaze was still on the point of light which twinkled
faintly here and there in the distant field.
"Then how, in heaven's name, did he come to this?" she asked, in a
voice that was hardly louder than a whisper.
"I never knew; I never knew," protested Miss Saidie, going back to
her chair beside the hearth. "Brother Bill and he hate each other
worse than death, and it was Will's fancy for Mr. Christopher that
brought on this awful trouble. For a time, I declare it looked as if
the boy was really bewitched, and they were together morning, noon,
and night. Your grandpa never got over it, and I believe he blames Mr.
Christopher for every last thing that's happened—Molly Peterkin and
"Molly Peterkin?" repeated Maria inquiringly. "Why, how absurd!
And, after all, what is the matter with the girl?" Dropping the
curtain, she came over to the fire, and sat listening attentively
while Miss Saidie told, in spasmodic jerks and pauses, the foolish
story of Will's marriage.
"Your grandpa will never forgive him—never, never. He has turned
him out for good and all, and he talks now of leaving every cent of
his money to foreign missions."
"Well, we'll see," said Maria soothingly. "I'll go over there to-
morrow and talk with Will, and then I'll try to bring grandfather to
some kind of reason. He can't let them starve, rich as he is, there's
no sense in that—and if the worst comes, I can at least share the
little I have with them. It may supply them with bread, if Molly will
undertake to churn her own butter."
"Then your money went, too?"
"The greater part of it. Jack was fond of wild schemes, you know.
I left it in his hands." She had pronounced the dead man's name so
composedly that Miss Saidie, after an instant's hesitation, brought
herself to an allusion to the girl's loss.
"How you must miss him, dear," she ventured timidly; "even if he
wasn't everything he should have been to you, he was still your
"Yes, he was my husband," assented Maria quietly.
"You were so brave and so patient, and you stuck by him to the
last, as a wife ought to do. Then thar's not even a child left to you
Maria turned slowly toward her and then looked away again into the
fire. The charred end of a lightwood knot had fallen on the stones,
and, picking it up, she threw it back into the flames. "For a year
before his death his mind was quite gone," she said in a voice that
quivered slightly; "he had to be taken to an asylum, but I went with
him and nursed him till he died. There were times when he would allow
no one else to enter his room or even bring him his meals. I have sat
by him for two days and nights without sleeping, and though he did not
recognise me, he would not let me stir from my place."
"And yet he treated you very badly—even his family said so."
"That is all over now, and we were both to blame. I owed him
reparation, and I made it, thank God, at the last."
As she raised her bare arms to the cushioned back of her chair
Miss Saidie caught a glimpse of a deep white scar which ran in a
jagged line above her elbow.
"Oh, it is nothing, nothing," said Maria hastily, clasping her
hands again upon her knees. "That part of my life is over and done
with and may rest in peace. I forgave him then, and he forgives me
now. One always forgives when one understands, you know, and we both
understand to-day—he no less than I. The chief thing was that we made
a huge, irretrievable mistake—the mistake that two people make when
they think that love can be coddled and nursed like a domestic
pet—when they forget that it goes wild and free and comes at no man's
call. Folly like that is its own punishment, I suppose."
"My dear, my dear," gasped Miss Saidie, in awe-stricken sympathy
before the wild remorse in Maria's voice.
"I did my duty, as you call it; I even clung to it desperately,
and, much as I hated it, I never rebelled for a single instant. The
nearest I came to loving him, I think, was when, after our terrible
life together, he lay helpless for a year and I was with him day and
night. If I could have given him my strength then, brain and body, I
would have done it gladly, and that agonised compassion was the
strongest feeling I ever had for him." She broke off for a long
breath, and sat looking earnestly at the amazed little woman across
from her. "You could never understand!" she exclaimed impetuously,
"but I must tell you—I must tell you because I can't live with you
day after day and know that there is an old dead lie between us. I
hate lies, I have had so many of them, and I shall speak the truth
hereafter, no matter what comes of it. Anything is better than a long,
wearing falsehood, or than those hideous little shams that we were
always afraid to touch for fear they would melt and show us our own
nakedness. That is what I loathe about my life, and that is what I've
done with now forever. I am myself now for the first time since I was
born, and at last I shall let my own nature teach me how to live."
Her intense pallor was illumined suddenly by a white flame,
whether from the leaping of some inner emotion or from the sinking
firelight which blazed up fitfully Miss Saidie could not tell. As she
turned her head with an impatient movement her black hair slipped its
heavy coil and spread in a shadowy mass upon her bared shoulders.
"I'm sure I don't know how it is," said Miss Saidie, wiping her
eyes. "But I can't see that it makes any difference whether you were
what they call in love or not, so long as you were a good,
well-behaved wife. I don't think a man troubles himself much about a
woman's heart after he's put his wedding ring on her finger; and
though I know, of course, that thar's a lot of nonsense spoken in
courtship, it seems to me they mostly take it out in talking. The
wives that I've seen are generally as anxious about thar setting hens
as they are about thar husband's hearts, and I reckon things are
mighty near the same the world over."
Without noticing her, Maria went on feverishly, speaking so low at
times that the other almost lost the words.
"It is such a relief to let it all out," she said, with a long,
sighing breath, "and oh! if I had loved him it would have been so
different—so different. Then I might have saved him; for what evil
is strong enough to contend against a love which would have borne all
things, have covered all things?"
Rising from her chair, she walked rapidly up and down, and pausing
at last beside the window, lifted the curtain and looked out into the
"I might have saved him; I know it now," she repeated slowly: "or
had it been otherwise, even in madness I would not have loosened my
arms, and my service would have been the one passionate delight left
in my life. They could never have torn him from my bosom then, and yet
as it was—as it was—" She turned quickly, and, coming back, laid her
hand on Miss Saidie's arm. "It is such a comfort to talk, dear Aunt
Saidie," she added, "even though you don't understand half that I say.
But you are good—so good; and now if you'll lend me a nightgown I'll
go to bed and sleep until my trunks come in the morning." Her voice
had regained its old composure, and Miss Saidie, looking back as she
went for the gown, saw that she had begun quietly to braid her hair.
CHAPTER III. The Day Afterward
When Maria awoke, the sun was full in her eyes, and somewhere on
the lawn outside the first bluebird was whistling. With a start, she
sprang out of bed and dressed quickly by the wood fire which Malindy
had lighted. Then, before going downstairs, she raised the window and
leaned out into the freshness of the morning, where a white mist
glimmered in the hollows of the March landscape. In the distance she
saw the smoking chimneys of the Blake cottage, very faint among the
leafless trees, and nearer at hand men were moving back and forth in
her grandfather's fields. Six years ago she would have found little
beauty in so grave and colourless a scene, but to-day as she looked
upon it a peace such as she had never known possessed her thoughts.
The wisdom of experience was hers now, and with it she had gained
something of the deeper insight into nature which comes to the soul
that is reconciled with the unknown laws which it obeys.
Going down a few moments later, she found that breakfast was
already over, and that Miss Saidie was washing the tea things at the
head of the bared table.
"Why, it seems but a moment since I fell asleep," said Maria, as
she drew back her chair. "How long has grandfather been up?"
"Since before daybreak. He is just starting to town, and he's in a
terrible temper because the last batch of butter ain't up to the mark,
he says. I'm sure I don't see why it ain't, for I worked every pound
of it with my own hands—but thar ain't no rule for pleasing men, and
never will be till God Almighty sets the universe rolling upside down.
That's the wagon you hear now. Thank heaven, he won't be back till
With a gesture of relief Maria applied herself to the buttered
waffles before her, prepared evidently in her honour, and then after
a short silence, in which she appeared to weigh carefully her
unuttered words, she announced her intention of paying immediately her
visit to Will and Molly.
"Oh, you can't, you can't," groaned Miss Saidie, nervously mopping
out the inside of a cup. "For heaven's sake, don't raise another cloud
of dust jest as we're beginning to see clear again."
"Now don't tell me I can't when I must," responded Maria, pushing
away her plate and rising from the table; "there's no such word as
'can't' when one has to, you know. I'll be back in two hours at the
most, and oh! with so much to tell you!"
After tying on her hat in the hall, she looked in again to lighten
Miss Saidie's foreboding by a tempting bait of news; but when she had
descended the steps and walked slowly along the drive under the oaks,
the assumed brightness of her look faded as rapidly as the morning
sunshine on the clay road before her. It was almost with dismay that
she found herself covering the ground between the Hall and Will's home
and saw the shaded lane stretching to the little farm adjoining Sol
As she passed the store, Mrs. Spade, who was selling white china
buttons to Eliza Field, leaned over the counter and stared in
amazement through the open window.
"Bless my soul an' body, if thar ain't old Fletcher's
granddaughter come back!" she exclaimed—"holdin' her head as high as
ever, jest as if her husband hadn't beat her black an' blue. Well,
well, times have slid down hill sence I was a gal, an' the women of
to-day ain't got the modesty they used to be born with. Why, I
remember the time when old Mrs. Beale in the next county used to go to
bed for shame, with a mustard plaster, every time her husband took a
drop too much, which he did every blessed Saturday that he lived. It
tided him over the Sabbath mighty well, he used to say, for he never
could abide the sermons of Mr. Grant."
Eliza dropped the buttons she had picked up and turned, craning
her neck in the direction of Maria's vanishing figure.
"What on earth has she gone down Sol Peterkin's lane for?" she
"The Lord knows; if it's to visit her brother, I may say it's a
long ways mo'n I'd do."
"She was always a queer gal even befo' her marriage—so strange
an' far-away lookin' that I declar' it used to scare me half to death
to meet her all alone at dusk. I never could help feelin' that she
could bewitch a body, if she wanted to, with those solemn black eyes."
"She ain't bewitched me," returned Mrs. Spade decisively "an'
what's mo', she's had too many misfortune come to her to make me
believe she ain't done somethin' to deserve 'em. Thar's mighty few
folks gets worse than they deserve in this world, an' when you see a
whole flock of troubles settle on a person's head you may rest right
sartain thar's a long score of misbehaviours up agin 'em. Yes, ma'am;
when I hear of a big misfortune happenin' to anybody that I know, the
first question that pops into my head is: 'I wonder if they've broke
the sixth this time or jest the common seventh?' The best rule to
follow, accordin' to my way of thinkin', is to make up yo' mind right
firm that no matter what evil falls upon a person it ain't nearly so
bad as the good Lord ought to have made it."
"That's a real pious way of lookin' at things, I reckon," sighed
Eliza deferentially, as she fished five cents from the deep pocket of
her purple calico and slapped it down upon the counter; "but we ain't
all such good church-goers as you, the mo's the pity."
"Oh, I'm moral, an' I make no secret of it, "replied Mrs. Spade.
"It's writ plain all over me, an' it has been ever sence the day that
I was born. 'That's as moral lookin' a baby as ever I saw,' was what
Doctor Pierson said to ma when I wan't mo'n two hours old. It was so
then, an' it's been so ever sence. 'Virtue may not take the place of
beaux,' my po' ma used to say, 'but it will ease her along mighty well
without 'em'—Yes, the buttons are five cents. To be sure, I'll watch
out and let you hear if she comes this way again."
Maria, meanwhile, happily unconscious of the judgment of her
neighbours, walked thoughtfully along the lane until she came in
sight of the small tumbled-down cottage which had been Fletcher's
wedding gift to his grandson. A man in blue jean clothes was
ploughing the field on the left of the road, and it was only when
something vaguely familiar in his dejected attitude caused her to
turn for a second glance that she realised, with a pang, that he was
At her startled cry he looked up from the horses he was driving,
and then, letting the ropes fall, came slowly toward her across the
faint purple furrows. All the boyish jauntiness she remembered was
gone from his appearance; his reversion to the family type had been
complete, and it came to her with a shock that held her motionless
that he stood to-day where her grandfather had stood fifty years
"Will!" she gasped, with an impulsive, motherly movement of her
arms. Rejecting her caress with an impatient shrug, he stood kicking
nervously at a clod of earth, his eyes wavering in a dispirited survey
of her face.
"Well, it seems that we have both made a blamed mess of things,"
he said at last.
Maria shook her head, smiling hopefully. "Not too bad a mess to
straighten out, dear," she answered. "We must set to work at once and
begin to mend matters. Ah, if you had only written me how things
"What was the use?" asked Will doggedly. "It was all grandpa—he
turned out the devil himself, and there was no putting up with him.
He'll live forever, too; that's the worst of it!"
"But you did anger him very much, Will—and you might so easily
have waited. Surely, you were both young enough."
"Oh, it wasn't all about Molly, you know, when it comes to that.
Long before I married he had made my life a burden to me. It all
began with his insane jealousy of Christopher Blake—"
"Of Christopher Blake?" repeated Maria, and fell a step away from
"Blake has been a deuced good friend to me," insisted Will;
"that's what the old man hates—what he's hated steadily all along.
The whole trouble started when I wouldn't choose my friends to please
him; and when at last I undertook to pick out my own wife there was
hell to pay."
Maria's gaze wandered inquiringly in the direction of the house,
which had a disordered and thriftless air.
"Is she here?" she asked, not without a slight nervousness in her
Will followed her glance, and, taking off his big straw hat,
pulled at the shoestring tied tightly around the crown.
"Not now; but you'll see her some day, when she's dressed up, and
I tell you she'll be worth your looking at. All she needs is a little
money to turn her into the most tearing beauty you ever saw."
"And she's not at home?"
"Not now," he replied impatiently; "her mother has just come over
and taken her off. I say, Maria," he lowered his voice, and an eager
look came into his irresolute face, which already showed the effects
of heavy drinking, "this can't keep up, you know; it really can't. We
must have money, for there's a child coming in the autumn."
"A child!" exclaimed Maria, startled. "Oh, Will! Will!" She
glanced round again at the barren landscape and the squalid little
house; "then something must be done at once—there's no time to lose.
I'll speak to grandfather about it this very night."
"At least, there's no harm in trying," said Will, catching
desperately at the suggestion. "Even if you don't make things better,
there's a kind of comfort in the thought that you can't make them
worse. We're at the bottom of the hill already. So, if you don't pull
us up, at least you won't push us any farther down."
"Oh, I'll pull you up, never fear; but you must give me time."
"Your own affairs are in rather a muddle I reckon, by now?"
"Hopeless, it seems; but I'll share with you the few hundreds I
still have. I brought this to-day, thinking you might be in immediate
As she drew the little roll of bills from her pocket, Will reached
out eagerly, and, seizing it from her, counted it greedily in her
presence. "Well, you're a downright brick, Maria," he remarked, as he
thrust it hastily into his shirt.
Disappointment had chilled Maria's enthusiasm a little, but the
next instant she dismissed the feeling as ungenerous, and slipped her
hand affectionately through his arm as he walked back with her into
"I wish I could see Molly," she said again, her eyes on the house,
where she caught a glimpse of a bright head withdrawn from one of the
"She is over at her mother's, I told you," returned Will
irritably, and then, stooping to kiss her hurriedly, he added in a
persuasive voice: "Bring the old man to reason, Maria; it's life or
"I'll do my best, Will; I'll go on my knees to him to-night."
"Does he dislike you as much as ever?"
"No; he rather fancies me, I think. Last evening he grew almost
amiable, and this morning Aunt Saidie told me he left me a pound of
fresh butter from the market jar. If you only knew how fond he's grown
of his money you would realise what it means."
"Well, keep it up, for God's sake. Humour him for all he's worth.
Coddle and coax him into doing something for us, or dying and leaving
us his money."
Maria's face grew grave. "That's the serious part, Will; he talks
of leaving every penny he has to foreign missions."
"The devil!" cried Will furiously. "If he does, I hope he'll land
in hell. Don't let him, Maria. It all rests with you. Why, if he did,
you'd starve along with us, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, you needn't think of me—I could always teach, you know, and
a little money buys a great deal of happiness with me. I have learned
that great wealth is almost as much of an evil as great poverty."
"I'd take the risk of it, every time; and he is beastly rich,
isn't he, Maria?"
"One of the very richest men in the State, they told me at the
"Yet he has the insolence to cut me off without a dollar. Look at
this petered-out little farm he's given me. Why, it doesn't bring in
enough to feed a darkey!"
"We'll hope for better things, dear; but you must learn to be
patient—very patient. His anger has been smothered so long that it
has grown almost as settled as hate. Aunt Saidie doesn't dare mention
your name to him, and she tells me that if I so much as speak of you
he'll turn me out of doors."
"Then it's even worse than I thought."
"Perhaps. I can't say, for I haven't approached the subject even
remotely as yet. Keep your courage, however, and I promise you to do
She kissed him again, and then, turning her face homeward, started
at a rapid walk down the lane. The interview with Will had disturbed
her more than she liked to admit, and it was with a positive throb of
pain that she forced herself at last to compare the boy of five years
ago with the broken and dispirited man from whom she had just parted.
Was this tragedy the end of the young ambition which Fletcher had
nursed so fondly, this—a nervous, overworked tobacco-grower, with
bloodshot eyes, and features already inflamed by reckless drinking?
The tears sprang to her lashes, and, throwing up her hands with a
pathetic gesture of protest, she hastened on homeward as if to escape
the terror that pursued her.
She had turned from the lane into the main road, and was just
approaching the great chestnuts which grew near the abandoned
ice-pond, when, looking up suddenly at the call of a bird above her
head, she saw Christopher Blake standing beside the rail fence and
watching her with a strong and steady gaze. Involuntarily she
slackened her pace and waited, smiling for him to cross the fence;
but, to her amazement, after an instant in which his eyes held her as
if rooted to the spot, he turned hastily away and walked rapidly in
the opposite direction. For a breath she stood motionless, gazing
blankly into space; then, as she went on again, she knew that she
carried with her not the wonder at his sudden flight, but the clear
memory of that one moment's look into his eyes. A century of
experience, with its tears and its laughter, its joy and its anguish,
its desire and its fulfilment, seemed crowded into the single instant
that held her immovable in the road.
CHAPTER IV. The Meeting in the Night
When Christopher turned so abruptly from Maria's gaze he was
conscious only of a desperate impulse of flight. At the instant his
strength seemed to fail him utterly, and he realised that for the
first time in his life he feared to trust himself to face the imminent
moment. His one thought was to escape quickly from her presence, and
in the suddenness of his retreat he did not weigh the possible effect
upon her of his rudeness. A little later, however, when he had put the
field between him and her haunting eyes, he found himself returning
with remorse to his imaginings of what her scattered impressions must
Between regret and perplexity the day dragged through, and he met
his mother's exacting humours and Cynthia's wistful inquiries with a
curious detachment of mind. He had reached that middle state of any
powerful emotion when even the external objects among which one moves
seem affected by the inward struggle between reason and desire—the
field in which he worked, the distant landscape, the familiar faces in
the house, and those frail, pathetic gestures of his mother's hands,
all expressed in outward forms something of the passion which he felt
stirring in his own breast. It was in his nature to dare risks
blindly—to hesitate at no experience offered him in his narrow life,
and there were moments during this long day when he found himself
questioning if one might not, after all, plunge headlong into the
As he rose from the supper table, where he had pushed his untasted
food impatiently away, he remembered that he had promised in the
morning to meet Will Fletcher at the store, and, lighting his lantern,
he started out to keep the appointment he had almost forgotten. He
found Will overflowing with his domestic troubles, and it was after
ten o'clock before they both came out upon the road and turned into
opposite ways at the beginning of Sol Peterkin's lane.
"I'll help you with the ploughing, of course," Christopher said,
as they lingered together a moment before parting; "make your mind
quite easy about that. I'll be over at sunrise on Monday and put in a
whole day's job."
Then, as he fell back into his own road, he found something like
satisfaction in the prospect of driving Will Fletcher's plough. The
easy indifference with which he was accustomed to lend a hand in a
neighbour's difficulty had always marked his association with the man
whose ruin, he still assured himself, he had wrought.
It was a dark, moonless night, with only a faint, nebulous
whiteness where the clouded stars shone overhead. His lantern,
swinging lightly from his hand, cast a shining yellow circle on the
ground before him, and it was by this illumination that he saw
presently, as he neared the sunken road into which he was about to
turn, a portion of the shadow by the ice-pond detach itself from the
surrounding blackness and drift rapidly to meet him. In his first
start of surprise, he raised the lantern quickly above his head and
waited breathlessly while the advancing shape assumed gradually a
woman's form. The old ghost stories of his childhood thronged
confusedly into his brain, and then, before the thrilling certainty of
the figure before him, he uttered a single joyous exclamation:
The light flashed full upon Maria's face, which gave back to him a
white and tired look. Her eyes were heavy, and there was a strange
solemnity about them—something that appealed vaguely to his religious
"What in heaven's name has happened?" he asked, and his voice
escaped his control and trembled with emotion.
With a tired little laugh, she screened her eyes from the lantern.
"I had a talk with grandfather about Will," she answered, "and he
got so angry that he locked me out of doors. He had had a worrying
day in town, and I think he hardly knew what he was doing—but he has
put up the bars and turned out the lights, and there's really no way
of getting in."
He thought for a moment. "Will you go on to your brother's, or is
it too far?"
"At first I started there, but that must have been hours ago, and
it was so dark I got lost by the ice-pond. After all, it would only
make matters worse if I saw Will again; so the question is, Where am I
"At Tom Spade's, then—or—" he hesitated an instant, "if you care
to come to us, my sister will gladly find room for you."
She shook her head. "No, no; you are very kind, but I can't do
that. It is best that I shouldn't leave the place, perhaps, and when
the servant comes over at sunrise I can slip up into my room. If
you'll lend me your lantern I'll make myself some kind of a bed in the
barn. Fortunately, grandfather forgot to lock the door."
"In the barn?" he echoed, surprised.
"Oh, I went there first, but after I lay down I suddenly
remembered the mice and got up and came away. I'm mortally afraid of
mice in the dark; but your lantern will keep them off, will it not?"
She smiled at him from the shining circle which surrounded her
like a halo, and for a moment he forgot her words in the wonderful
sense of her nearness. Around them the night stretched like a cloak,
enclosing them in an emotional intimacy which had all the warmth of a
caress. As she leaned back against the body of a tree, and he drew
forward that he might hold the lantern above her head, the situation
was resolved, in spite of the effort that he made, into the eternal
problem of the man and the woman. He was aware that his blood worked
rapidly in his veins, and as her glance reached upward from the light
to meet his in the shadow he realised with the swiftness of intuition
that in her also the appeal of the silence was faced with a struggle.
They would ignore it, he knew, and yet it shone in their eyes,
quivered in their voices, and trembled in their divided hands; and to
them both its presence was alive and evident in the space between
them. He saw her bosom rise and fall, her lips part slightly, and a
tremor disturb the high serenity of her self-control, and there came
to him the memory of their first meeting at the cross-roads and of the
mystery and the rapture of his boyish love. He had found her then the
lady of his dreams, and now, after all the violence of his revolt
against her, she was still to him as he had first seen her—the woman
whose soul looked at him from her face.
For a breathless moment—for a single heart-beat—it seemed to him
that he had but to lean down and gather her eyes and lips and hands to
his embrace, to feel her awaken to life within his arms and her warm
blood leap up beneath his mouth. Then the madness left him as suddenly
as it had come, and she grew strangely white, and distant, and almost
unreal, in the spiritual beauty of her look. He caught his breath
sharply, and lowered his gaze to the yellow circle that trembled on
"But you will be afraid even with the light," he said, in a voice
which had grown almost expressionless.
As if awaking suddenly from sleep, she passed her hand slowly
across her eyes.
"No, I shall not be afraid with the light," she answered, and
moved out into the road.
"Then let me hold it for you—the hill is very rocky."
She assented silently, and quickened her steps down the long
incline; then, as she stumbled in the darkness, he threw the lantern
over upon her side. "If you will lean on me I think I can steady you,"
he suggested, waiting until she turned and laid her hand upon his arm.
"That's better now; go slowly and leave the road to me. How in thunder
did you come over it in the pitch dark?"
"I fell several times," she replied, with a little unsteady laugh,
"and my feet are oh! so hurt and bruised. Tomorrow I shall go on
"A bad night's work, then."
"But not so bad as it might have been," she added cheerfully.
"You mean if I had not found you it would have been worse. Well,
I'm glad that much good has come out of it. I have spared you a
cold—so that goes down to my credit; otherwise—But what difference
does it make?" he finished impatiently. "We must have met sooner or
later even if I had run across the world instead of merely across a
tobacco field. After all, the world is no bigger than a tobacco field,
when it comes to destiny."
"To destiny?" she looked up, startled. "Then there are fatalists
even among tobacco-growers?"
He met her question with a laugh. "But I wasn't always a tobacco-
grower, and there were poets before Homer, who is about the only one
I've ever read. It's true I've tried to lose the little education I
ever had—that I've done my best to come down to the level of my own
cattle; but I'm not an ox, after all, except in strength, and one has
plenty of time to think when one works in the field all day. Why, the
fancies I've had would positively turn your head."
"About life and death and the things one wants and can never get.
I dream dreams and plot unimaginable evil—"
"Not evil," she protested.
"Whole crops of it; and harvest them, too."
"For pure pleasure—for sheer beastly love of the devilment I
She shook her head, treating his words as a jest.
"There was never evil that held its head so high."
"That's pride, you know."
"Nor that wore so frank a face."
"And that's hypocrisy."
"Nor that dared to be so rude."
He caught up her laugh.
"You have me there, I grant you. What a brute I must have seemed
"You were certainly not a Chesterfield—nor a Bolivar Blake."
With a start he looked down upon her. "Then you, too, are aware of
the old chap?" he asked.
"Of Bolivar Blake—why, who isn't? I used to be taught one of his
maxims as a child—'If you can't tell a polite lie, don't tell any.'"
"Good manners, but rather bad morality, eh?" he inquired.
"Unfortunately, the two things seem to run together," she replied;
"which encourages me to hope that you will prove to be a pattern of
"Don't hope too hard. I may merely have lost the one trait without
developing the other."
"At least, it does no harm to believe the best," she returned in
the same careless tone. Ahead of them, where the great oaks were
massed darkly against the sky, he saw the steep road splotched into
the surrounding blackness. Her soft breathing came to him from the
obscurity at his side, and he felt his arm burn beneath the light
pressure of her hand. For the first time in his lonely and isolated
life he knew the quickened emotion, the fulness of experience, which
came to him with the touch of the woman whom, he still told himself,
he could never love. Not to love her had been so long for him a point
of pride as well as of honour that even while the wonderful glow
pervaded his thoughts, while his pulses drummed madly in his temples,
he held himself doggedly to the illusion that the appeal she made
would vanish with the morning. It was a delirium of the senses, he
still reasoned, and knew even as the lie was spoken that the charm
which drew him to her was, above all things, the spirit speaking
through the flesh.
"I fear I have been a great bother to you," said Maria, after a
moment, "but you will probably solace yourself with the reflection
that destiny would have prepared an equal nuisance had you gone along
"Perhaps," he answered, smiling; "but philosophy sometimes fails a
body, doesn't it?"
"It may be. I knew a man once who said he leaned upon two
crutches, philosophy and religion. When one broke under him he threw
his whole weight on the other—and lo! that gave way."
"Then he went down, I suppose."
"I never heard the end—but if it wasn't quite so dark, you would
find me really covered with confusion. I have not only brought you a
good mile out of your road, but I am now prepared to rob you of your
light. Can you possibly find your way home in the dark?"
As she looked up, the lantern shone in his face, and she saw that
he wore a whimsical smile.
"I have been in the dark all my life," he answered, "until to-
"Until now—this very minute. For the first time for ten years I
begin to see my road at this instant—to see where I have been
walking all along."
"And where did it lead you?"
He laughed at the seriousness in her voice.
"Through a muck-heap—in the steps of my own cattle. I am sunk
over the neck in it already."
Her tone caught the lightness of his and carried it off with
"But there is a way out. Have you found it?"
"There is none. I've wallowed so long in the filth that it has
"Surely it will rub off," she said.
For a moment the lantern's flash rested upon his brow and eyes,
relieving them against the obscurity which still enveloped his mouth.
The high-bred lines of his profile stood out clear and fine as
those of an ivory carving, and their very beauty saddened the look
she turned upon him. Then the light fell suddenly lower and revealed
the coarsened jaw, with the almost insolent strength of the closed
lips. The whole effect was one of reckless power, and she caught her
breath with the thought that so compelling a force might serve equally
the agencies of good or evil.
They had reached the lawn, and as he responded to her hurried
gesture of silence they passed the house quickly and entered the
great open door of the barn. Here he hung the lantern from a nail,
and then, pulling down some straw from a pile in one corner, arranged
it into the rude likeness of a pallet.
"I don't think the mice will trouble you," he said at last, as he
turned to go, "but if they do—why, just call out and I'll come to
"You won't go home, then?" she asked, amazed.
He nodded carelessly.
"Not till daybreak. Remember, if you feel frightened, that I'm
Then, before she could protest or detain him for an explanation,
he turned from her and went out into the darkness.
CHAPTER V. Maria Stands on
A broad yellow beam sliding under the door brought Maria into
sudden consciousness, and rising hastily from the straw, where her
figure had shaped an almost perfect outline, she crossed the dusky
floor smelling of trodden grain and went out into the early sunshine,
which slanted over the gray fields. A man trundling a wheelbarrow from
the market garden, and a milkmaid crossing the lawn with a bucket of
fresh milk, were the only moving figures in the landscape, and after a
single hurried glance about her she followed the straight road to the
house and entered the rear door, which Malindy had unlocked.
Meeting Fletcher a little later at breakfast, she found, to her
surprise, that he accepted her presence without question and made
absolutely no allusion to the heated conversation of the evening
before. He looked sullen and dirty, as if he had slept all night in
his clothes, and he responded to Maria's few good-humoured remarks
with a single abrupt nod over his coffee-cup. As she watched him a
feeling of pity for his loneliness moved her heart, and when he rose
hastily at last and strode out into the hall she followed him and
spoke gently while he paused to take down his hat from one of the old
antlers near the door.
"If I could only be of some use to you, grandfather," she said;
"are you sure there is nothing I can do?"
With his hand still outstretched, he hesitated an instant and
stood looking down upon her, his heavy features wrinkling into a
"I've nothing against you as a woman," he responded, "but when you
set up and begin to charge like a judge, I'll be hanged if I can stand
"Then I won't charge any more. I only want to help you and to do
what is best. If you would but let me make myself of some account."
He laughed not unkindly, and flecked with his stubby forefinger at
some crumbs which had lodged in the folds of his cravat.
"Then I reckon you'd better mix a batch of dough and feed the
turkeys," he replied, and touching her shoulder with his hat- brim,
he went hurriedly out of doors.
When he had disappeared beyond the last clump of shrubbery
bordering the drive, she remembered the lantern she had left hanging
in the barn, and, going to look for it, carried it upstairs to her
room. In the afternoon, however, it occurred to her that Christopher
would probably need the light by evening, and swinging the handle over
her arm, she set out across the newly ploughed fields toward the Blake
cottage. The stubborn rustic pride which would keep him from returning
to the Hall aroused in her a frank, almost tender amusement. She had
long ago wearied of the trivial worldliness of life; in the last few
years the shallowness of passion had seemed its crowning insult, and
over the absolute sincerity of her own nature the primal emotion she
had heard in Christopher's voice exerted a compelling charm. The
makeshift of a conventional marriage had failed her utterly; her soul
had rejected the woman's usual cheap compromise with externals; and in
her almost puritan scorn of the vanities by which she was surrounded
she had attained the moral elevation which comes to those who live by
an inner standard of purity rather than by outward forms. In the
largeness of her nature there had been small room for regret or for
wasted passion, and until her meeting with Christopher on the day of
her homecoming he had existed in her imagination only as a bright and
impossible memory. Now, as she went rapidly forward along the little
path that edged the field, she found herself wondering if, after all,
she had worn unconsciously his ideal as an armour against the petty
temptations and the sudden melancholies of the last six years.
As she neared the fence that divided the two farms she saw him
walking slowly along a newly turned furrow, and when he looked up she
lifted the lantern and waved it in the air. Quickening his steps, he
swung himself over the rail fence with a single bound, and came to
where she stood amid a dried fringe of last summer's yarrow.
"So you are none the worse for the night in the barn?" he asked
"Why, I dreamed the most beautiful dreams," she replied, "and I
had the most perfect sleep in the world."
"Then the mice kept away?"
"At least they didn't wake me."
"I stayed within call until sunrise," he said quietly. "You were
Her rare smile shone suddenly upon him, illumining the delicate
pallor of her face. "I knew that you were there," she answered.
For a moment he gazed steadily into her eyes, then with a decisive
movement he took the lantern from her hand and turned as though about
to go back to his work.
"It was very kind of you to bring this over," he said, pausing
beside the fence.
"Kind? Why, what did you expect? I knew it might hang there
forever, but you would not come for it."
"No, I should not have come for it," he replied, swinging the
lantern against the rails with such force that the glass shattered
and fell in pieces to the ground.
"Why, what a shame!" said Maria; "and it is all my fault."
A smile was on his face as he looked at her.
"You are right—it is all your fault," he repeated, while his gaze
dropped to the level of her lips and hung there for a breathless
With an effort she broke the spell which had fallen over her, and,
turning from him, pointed to the old Blake graveyard on the little
"Those black cedars have tempted me for days," she said. "Will you
tell me what dust they guard so faithfully?"
He followed her gesture with a frown.
"I will show you, if you like," he answered. "It is the only spot
on earth where I may offer you hospitality."
"Your people are buried there?"
"For two hundred years. Will you come?"
While she hesitated, he tossed the lantern over into his field and
came closer to her side. "Come," he repeated gently, and at his voice
a faint flush spread slowly from her throat to the loosened hair upon
her forehead. The steady glow gave her face a light, a radiance, that
he had never seen there until to-day.
"Yes, I will come if you wish it," she responded quietly.
Together they went slowly up the low, brown incline over the clods
of upturned earth. When they reached the bricked-up wall, which had
crumbled away in places, he climbed over into the bed of periwinkle
and then held out his hands to assist her in descending. "Here, step
into that hollow," he said, "and don't jump till I tell you. Ah,
that's it; now, I'm ready."
At his words, she made a sudden. spring forward, her dress caught
on the wall, and she slipped lightly into his outstretched arms. For
the half of a second he held her against his breast; then, as she
released herself, he drew back and lifted his eves to meet the serene
composure of her expression. He was conscious that his own face flamed
red hot, but to all outward seeming she had not noticed the incident
which had so moved him. The calm distinction of her bearing struck him
as forcibly as it had done at their first meeting. "What a solemn
place," she said, lowering her voice as she looked about her.
For answer he drew aside the screening boughs of a cedar and
motioned to the discoloured marble slabs strewn thickly under the
"Here are my people," he returned gravely. "And here is my
Pausing, she glanced down on his father's grave, reading with
difficulty the inscription beneath the dry dust from the cedars.
"He lived to be very old," she said, after a moment.
"Seventy years. He lived exactly ten years too long."
"Those last ten years wrecked him. Had he died at sixty he would
have died happy."
He turned from her, throwing himself upon the carpet of
periwinkle, and coming to where he lay, she sat down on a granite
slab at his side.
"One must believe that there is a purpose in it," she responded,
raising a handful of fine dust and sifting it through her fingers,
"or one would go mad over the mystery of things."
"Well, I dare say the purpose was to make me a tobacco-grower," he
replied grimly, "and if so, it has fulfilled itself in a precious way.
Why, there's never been a time since I was ten years old when I
wouldn't have changed places, and said 'thank you,' too, with any one
of those old fellows over there. They were jolly chaps, I tell you,
and led jolly lives. It used to be said of them that they never won a
penny nor missed a kiss."
"Nor learned a lesson, evidently. Well, may they rest in peace;
but I'm not sure that their wisdom would carry far. There are better
things than gaming and kissing, when all is said."
"Better things? Perhaps."
"Have you not found them?"
"Not yet; but then, I can't judge anything except tobacco, you
For a long pause she looked down into his upturned face.
"After all, it isn't the way we live nor the work we do that
matters," she said slowly, "but the ideal we put into it. Is there
any work too sordid, too prosaic, to yield a return of beauty?"
"Do you think so?" he asked, and glanced down the hill to his
ploughshare lying in the ripped-up field. "But it is not beauty that
some of us want, you see—it's success, action, happiness, call it
what you will."
"Surely they are not the same. I have known many successful
people, and the only three perfectly happy ones I ever met were what
the world calls failures."
"Failures?" he echoed, and remembered Tucker.
Her face softened, and she looked beyond him to the blue sky,
shining through the interlacing branches of bared trees.
"Two were women," she pursued, clasping and unclasping the quiet
hands in her lap, "and one was a Catholic priest who had been reared
in a foundling asylum and educated by charity. When I knew him he was
on his way to a leper island in the South Seas, where he would be
buried alive for the remainder of his life. All he had was an ideal,
but it flooded his soul with light. Another was a Russian Nihilist, a
girl in years and yet an atheist and a revolutionist in thought, and
her unbelief was in its way as beautiful as the religion of my priest.
To return to Russia meant death; she knew, and yet she went back,
devoted and exalted, to lay down her life for an illusion. So it
seems, when one looks about the world, that faith and doubt are dry
and inanimate forms until we pour forth our heart's blood, which
She fell silent, and he started and touched softly the hem of her
"And the other?" he asked.
"The other had a stranger and a longer story, but if you will
listen I'll tell it to you. She was an Italian, of a very old and
proud family, and as she possessed rare loveliness and charm, a
marriage was arranged for her with a wealthy nobleman, who had fallen
in love with her before she left her convent. She was a rebellious
soul, it seems, for the day before her wedding, just after she had
patiently tried on her veil and orange blossoms, she slipped into the
dress of her waiting-maid and ran off with a music-teacher—a beggarly
fanatic, they told me—a man of red republican views, who put
dangerous ideas into the heads of the peasantry. From that moment,
they said, her life was over; her family shut their doors upon her,
and she fell finally so low as to be seen one evening singing in the
public streets. Her story touched me when I heard it: it seemed a
pitiable thing that a woman should be wrecked so hopelessly by a
single moment of mistaken courage; and after months of searching I at
last found the place she lived in, and went one May evening up the
long winding staircase to her apartment—two clean, plain rooms which
looked on a little balcony where there were pots of sweet basil and
many pigeons. At my knock the door opened, and I knew her at once in
the beautiful white face and hands of the woman who stood a little
back in the shadow. Her forty years had not coarsened her as they do
most Italian women, and her eyes still held the unshaken confidence of
extreme youth. Her husband was sleeping in the next room, she said; he
had but a few days more to live, and he had been steadily dying for a
year. Then, at my gesture of sympathy, she shook her head and smiled.
"I have had twenty years," she said, "and I have been perfectly
happy. Think of that when so many women die without having even a
single day of life. Why, but for the one instant of courage that
saved me, I myself might have known the world only as a vegetable
knows the garden in which it fattens. My soul has lived, and though I
have been hungry and cold and poorly clad, I have never sunk to the
level of what they would have made me. He is a dreamer," she finished
gently, "and though his dreams were nourished upon air, and never came
true except in our thoughts, still they have touched even the most
common things with beauty." While she talked, he awoke and called her,
and we went in to see him. He complained a little fretfully that his
feet were cold, and she knelt down and warmed them in the shawl upon
her bosom. The mark of death was on him, and I doubt if even in the
fulness of his strength he were worthy of the passion he inspired—but
that, after all, makes little difference. It was a great love, which
is the next best thing to a great faith."
As she ended, he raised his eyes slowly, catching the fervour of
"It was more than that—it was a great deliverance," he said.
Then, as she rose, he followed her from the graveyard, and they
descended the low brown hill together.
CHAPTER VI. The Growing Light
By the end of the week a long rain had set in, and while it lasted
Christopher took down the tobacco hanging in the roof of the log barn
and laid it in smooth piles, pressed down by boards on the ground. The
tobacco was still soft from the moist season when Jim Weatherby, who
had sold his earlier in the year, came over to help pack the large
casks for market, bringing at the same time a piece of news concerning
"It seems Will met the old man somewhere on the road and they came
to downright blows," he said. "Fletcher broke a hickory stick over the
Christopher carefully sorted a pile of plants, and then, selecting
the finest six leaves, wrapped them together by means of a smaller one
which he twisted tightly about the stems.
"Ah, is that so?" he returned, with a troubled look.
"It's a pretty kettle of fish, sure enough," pursued Jim. "Of
course, Will has made a fool of himself, and gone to the dogs and all
that, but I must say it does seem a shame, when you think that old
Fletcher can't take his money with him to the next world. As for pure
stinginess, I don't believe he'd find his match if he scoured the
country. Why, they say his granddaughter barely gets enough to eat.
Look here! What are you putting in that bad leaf for. It's worm-eaten
"So it is," admitted Christopher, examining it with a laugh. "My
eyesight must be failing me. But what good under heaven does his
money do Fletcher, after all?"
"Oh, he's saving it up to leave to foreign missions, Tom Spade
says. Mr. Carraway is coming down next week to draw up a new will."
"And his grandchildren come in for nothing?"
"It looks that way—but you can't see through Bill Fletcher, so
nobody knows. The funny part is that he has taken rather a liking to
Mrs. Wyndham, I hear, and she has even persuaded him to raise the
wages of his hands. It's a pity she can't patch up a peace with
Will—the quarrel seems to distress her very much."
"You have seen her, then?"
"Yesterday, for a minute. She stopped me near the store and asked
for news of Will. There was nothing I could tell her except that they
dragged along somehow with Sol Peterkin's help. That's a fine woman,
Fletcher or no Fletcher."
"Well, she can't help that—it's merely a question of name.
There's Cynthia calling us to dinner. We'll have to fill the
hogsheads later on."
But when the meal was over and he was returning to his work,
Cynthia followed him with a message from his mother.
"She has asked for you all the morning, Christopher; there's
something on her mind, though she seems quite herself and in a very
lively humour. It is impossible to get her away from the subject of
marriage—she harps on it continually."
He had turned to enter the house at her first words, but now his
face clouded, and he hung back before the door.
"Do you think I'd better go in?" he asked, hesitating.
"There's no getting out of it without making her feel neglected,
and perhaps your visit may divert her thoughts. I'm sure I don't see
what she has left to say on the subject."
"All right, I'll go," he said cheerfully; "but for heaven's sake,
help me drum up some fresh topics."
Mrs. Blake was sitting up in bed, sipping a glass of port wine,
and at Christopher's step she turned her groping gaze helplessly in
"What a heavy tramp you have, my son; you must be almost as large
as your father."
Crossing the room as lightly as his rude boots permitted,
Christopher stooped to kiss the cheek she held toward him. The old
lady had wasted gradually to the shadow of herself, and the firelight
from the hearth shone through the unearthly pallor of her face and
hands. Her beautiful white hair was still arranged, over a high
cushion, in an elaborate fashion, and her gown of fine embroidered
linen was pinned together with a delicate cameo brooch.
"I have been talking very seriously to Lila," she began at once,
as he sat down by the bedside. "My age is great, you know, and it is
hardly probable that the good Lord will see fit to leave me much
longer to enjoy the pleasures of this world. Now, what troubles me
more than all else is that I am to die feeling that the family will
pass utterly away. Is it possible that both Lila and yourself persist
in your absurd and selfish determination to remain unmarried?"
"Oh, mother! mother!" groaned Lila from the fireplace.
"You needn't interrupt me, Lila; you know quite well that a family
is looked at askance when all of its members remain single. Surely one
old maid—and I am quite reconciled to poor Cynthia's spinsterhood—is
enough to leaven things, as your father used to say—"
Her memory slipped from her for a moment; she caught at it
painfully, and a peevish expression crossed her face.
"What was I saying, Lila? I grow so forgetful."
"About father, dear."
"No, no; I remember now—it was about your marrying. Well, well,
as I said before, I fear your attitude is the result of some
sentimental fancies you have found in books. My child, there was
never a book yet that held a sensible view of love, and I hope you
will pay no attention to what they say. As for waiting until you can't
live without a man before you marry him—tut-tut! the only necessary
question is to ascertain if you can possibly live with him. There is a
great deal of sentiment talked in life, my dear, and very little
lived—and my experience of the world has shown me that one man is
likely to make quite as good a husband as another—provided he remains
a gentleman and you don't expect him to become a saint. I've had a
long marriage, my children, and a happy one. Your father fell in love
with me at his first glance, and he did not hate me at his last,
though the period covered an association of thirty years. We were an
ideal couple, all things considered, and he was a very devoted
husband; but to this day I have not ceased to be thankful that he was
never placed in the position where he had to choose between me and his
dinner. Honestly, I may as well confess among us three, it makes me
nervous when I think of the result of such a pass."
"Oh, mother," protested Lila reproachfully; "if I listened to you
I should never want to marry any man."
"I'm sure I don't see why, my dear. I have always urged it as a
duty, not advised it as a pleasure. As far as that goes, I hold to
this day the highest opinion of matrimony and of men, though I admit,
when I consider the attention they require, I sometimes feel that
women might select a better object. When the last word is said, a man
is not half so satisfactory a domestic pet as a cat, and far less neat
in his habits. Your poor father would throw his cigar ashes on the
floor to the day of his death, and I could never persuade him to use
an ash-tray, though I gave him one regularly every Christmas that he
lived. Do you smoke cigars, Christopher? I detect a strong odour of
tobacco about you, and I hope you haven't let Tucker persuade you into
using anything so vulgar as a pipe. The worst effect of a war, I am
inclined to believe, is the excuse it offers every man who fought in
it to fall into bad habits."
"Oh, it's Uncle Tucker's pipe you smell," replied Christopher,
with a laugh, as he rose from his chair. "I detest the stuff and
"I suppose I ought to be thankful for it," said Mrs. Blake,
detaining him by a gesture, "but I can't help recalling a speech of
Micajah Blair's, who said that a woman who didn't flirt and a man who
didn't smoke were unsexed creatures. It is a commendable eccentricity,
I suppose, but an eccentricity, good or bad, is equally to be
deplored. Your grandfather always said that the man who was better
than his neighbours was quite as unfortunate as the man who was worse.
Who knows but that your dislike of tobacco and your aversion to
marriage may result from the same peculiar quirk in your brain?"
"Well, it's there and I can't alter it, even to please you,
mother," declared Christopher from the door. "I've set my face square
against them both, and there it stands."
He went out laughing, and Mrs. Blake resigned herself with a sigh
to her old port.
The rain fell heavily, whipping up foaming puddles in the muddy
road and beating down the old rosebushes in the yard.
As Christopher paused for a moment in the doorway before going to
the barn he drew with delight the taste of the dampness into his
mouth and the odour of the moist earth into his nostrils. The world
had taken on a new and appealing beauty, and yet the colourless
landscape was touched with a sadness which he had never seen in
external things until to-day.
His ears were now opened suddenly, his eyes unbandaged, and he
heard the rhythmical fall of the rain and saw the charm of the brown
fields with a vividness that he had never found in his enjoyment of a
summer's day. Human life also moved him to responsive sympathy, and he
felt a great aching tenderness for his blind mother and for his
sisters, with their narrowed and empty lives. His own share in the
world, he realised, was but that of a small, insignificant failure; he
had been crushed down like a weed in his tobacco field, and for a new
springing-up he found neither place nor purpose. The facts of his own
life were not altered by so much as a shadow, yet on the outside life
that was not his own he beheld a wonderful illumination.
His powerful figure filled the doorway, and Cynthia, coming up
behind him, raised herself on tiptoe to touch his bared head.
"Your hair is quite wet, Christopher; be sure to put on your hat
and fasten the oilcloth over your shoulders when you go back to the
barn. You are so reckless that you make me uneasy. Why, the rain has
soaked entirely through your shirt."
"Oh, I'm a pine knot; you needn't worry."
She sighed impatiently and went back to the kitchen, while his
gaze travelled slowly along the wet gray road to the abandoned
ice-pond, and he thought of his meeting with Maria in the darkness
and of the light of the lantern shining on her face. He remembered her
white hands against her black dress, her fervent eyes under the grave
pallor of her brow, her passionate, kind voice, and her mouth with the
faint smile which seemed never to fade utterly away. Love, which is
revealed usually as a pleasant disturbing sentiment resulting from the
ordinary purposes of life, had come to him in the form of a great
regenerating force, destroying but that it might rebuild anew.
CHAPTER VII. In Which Carraway
Speaks the Truth to Maria
During the first week in April Carraway appeared at the Hall in
answer to an urgent request from Fletcher that he should, without
delay, put the new will into proper form.
On the morning after his arrival, Carraway had a long conversation
with the old man in his sitting-room, and when it was over he came out
with an anxious frown upon his brow and went upstairs to the library
which Maria had fitted up in the spare room next her chamber. It was
the pleasantest spot in the house, he had concluded last evening, and
the impression returned to him as he entered now and saw the light
from the wood fire falling on the shining floor, which reflected the
stately old furniture, and the cushions, and the window curtains of
faded green. Books were everywhere, and he noticed at once that they
were not the kind read by the women whom he knew—big leather volumes
on philosophy, yellow-covered French novels, and curled edges of what
he took to be the classic poets. It was almost with relief that he
noticed a dainty feminine touch here and there—a work- bag of
flowered silk upon the sofa, a bowl of crocuses among the papers on
the old mahogany desk, and clinging to each bit of well-worn drapery
in the room a faint and delicate fragrance.
Maria was lying drowsily in a low chair before the fire, and as he
entered she looked up with a smile and motioned to a comfortable seat
across the hearth. A book was on her knees, but she had not been
reading, for her fingers were playing carelessly with the uncut
leaves. Against her soft black dress the whiteness of her face and
hands showed almost too intense a contrast, and yet there was no hint
of fragility in her appearance. From head to foot she was abounding
with energy, throbbing with life, and though Carraway would still,
perhaps, have hesitated to call her beautiful, his eyes dwelt with
pleasure on the noble lines of her relaxed figure. Better than beauty,
he admitted the moment afterward, was the charm that shone for him in
her wonderfully expressive face—a face over which the experiences of
many lives seemed to ripple faintly in what was hardly more than the
shadow of a smile. She had loved and suffered, he thought, with his
gaze upon her, and from both love and suffering she had gained that
fulness of nature which is the greatest good that either has to
"So it is serious," she said anxiously, as he sat down.
"I fear so—at least, where your brother is concerned. I can't say
just what the terms of the will are, of course, but he made no secret
at breakfast of his determination to leave half of his property—which
the result of recent investments has made very large—to the cause of
"Yes, he has told me about it."
"Then there's nothing more to be said, unless you can persuade him
for your brother's sake to destroy the will when his anger has blown
over. I used every argument I could think of, but he simply wouldn't
listen to me—swept my advice aside as if it was so much wasted
He paused as Maria bent her ear attentively.
"He is coming upstairs now!" she exclaimed, amazed.
There was a heavy tread on the staircase, and a little later
Fletcher came in and turned to close the door carefully behind him.
He had recovered for a moment his air of bluff good-humour, and his
face crinkled into a ruddy smile.
"So you're hatching schemes between you, I reckon," he observed,
and, crossing to the hearth, pushed back a log with the toe of his
"It looks that way, certainly," replied Carraway, with his
pleasant laugh. "But I must confess that I was doing nothing more
interesting than admiring Mrs. Wyndham's taste in books."
Fletcher glanced round indifferently.
"Well, I haven't any secrets," he pursued, still under the
pressure of the thought which had urged him upstairs, "and as far as
that goes, I can tear up that piece of paper and have it done with any
day I please."
"So I had the honour to advise," remarked Carraway.
"That's neither here nor thar, I reckon—it's made now, and so
it's likely to stand until I die, though I don't doubt you'll twist
and split it then as much as you can. However, I reckon the foreign
missions will look arter the part that goes to them, and if Maria's
got the sense I credit her with she'll look arter hers."
"After mine?" exclaimed Maria, lifting her head to return his
gaze. "Why, I thought you gave me my share when I married."
"So I did—so I did, and you let it slip like water through your
fingers; but you've grown up, I reckon, sence you were such a fool as
to have your head turned by Wyndham, and if you don't hold on to this
tighter than you did to the last you deserve to lose it, that's all.
You're a good woman—I ain't lived a month in the house with you and
not found that out—but if you hadn't had something more than goodness
inside your head you wouldn't have got so much as a cent out of me
again. Saidie's a good woman and a blamed fool, too, but you're
different; you've got a backbone in your body, and I'll be hanged if
that ain't why I'm leaving the Hall to you."
"The Hall?" echoed Maria, rising impulsively from her chair and
facing him upon the hearthrug.
"The Hall and Saidie and the whole lot," returned Fletcher,
chuckling, "and I may as well tell you now, that, for all your
spendthrift notions about wages, you're the only woman I ever saw who
was fit to own a foot of land. But I like the quiet way you manage
things, somehow, and, bless my soul, if you were a man I'd leave you
the whole business and let the missions hang."
"There's time yet," observed Carraway beneath his breath.
"No, no; it's settled now," returned Fletcher, "and she'll have
more than she can handle as it is. Most likely she'll marry again,
being a woman, and a man will be master here, arter all. If you do,"
he added, turning angrily upon his granddaughter, "for heaven's sakes,
don't let it be another precious scamp like your first!"
With a shiver Maria caught her breath and bent toward him with an
appealing gesture of her arms.
"But you must not do it, grandfather; it isn't right. The place
was never meant to belong to me."
"Well, it belongs to me, I reckon, and confound your silly
puritanical fancies, I'll leave it where I please," retorted
Fletcher, and strode from the room.
Throwing herself back into her chair, Maria lay for a time looking
thoughtfully at the hickory log, which crumbled and threw out a shower
of red sparks. Her face was grave, but there was no hint of indecision
upon it, and it struck Carraway very forcibly at the instant that she
knew her own mind quite clearly and distinctly upon this as upon most
"It may surprise you," she said presently, speaking with sudden
passion, "but by right the Hall ought not to be mine, and I do not
want it. I have never loved it because it has never for a moment
seemed home to me, and our people have always appeared strangers upon
the land. How we came here I do not know, but it has not suited us,
and we have only disfigured a beauty into which we did not fit. Its
very age is a reproach to us, for it shows off our newness—our lack
of any past that we may call our own. Will might feel himself master
here, but I cannot."
Carraway took off his glasses and rubbed patiently at the ridge
they had drawn across his nose.
"And yet, why not?" he asked. "The place has been in your
grandfather's possession now for more than twenty years."
"For more than twenty years," repeated Maria scornfully, "and
before that the Blakes lived here—how long?"
He met her question squarely. "For more than two hundred."
Without shifting her steady gaze which she turned upon his face,
she leaned forward, clasping her hands loosely upon the knees.
"There are things that I want to know, Mr. Carraway," she said,
"many things, and I believe that you can tell me. Most of all, I want
to know why we ever came to Blake Hall? Why the Blakes ever left it?
And, above all, why they have hated us so heartily and so long?"
She paused and sat motionless, while she hung with suspended
breath upon his reply.
For a moment the lawyer hesitated, nervously twirling his glasses
between his thumb and forefinger; then he slowly shook his head and
looked from her to the fire.
"Twenty years are not as a day, despite your scorn, my dear young
lady, and many facts become overlaid with fiction in a shorter time."
"But you know something—and you believe still more."
"God forbid that I should convert you to any belief of mine."
She put out a protesting hand, her eyes still gravely insistent.
"Tell me all—I demand it. It is my right; you must see that."
"A right to demolish sand houses—to scatter old dust."
"A right to hear the truth. Surely you will not withhold it from
"I don't know the truth, so I can't enlighten you. I know only the
stories of both sides, and they resemble each other merely in that
they both center about the same point of interest."
"Then you will tell them to me—you must," she said earnestly.
"Tell me first, word for word, all that the Blakes believe of us."
With a laugh, he put on his glasses that he might bring her
troubled face the more clearly before him.
"A high spirit of impartiality, I admit," he observed.
"That I should want to hear the other side?"
"That, being a woman, you should take for granted the existence of
the other side."
She shook her head impatiently. "You can't evade me by airing
camphor-scented views of my sex," she returned. "What I wish to
know—and I still stick to my point, you see—is the very thing you
are so carefully holding back."
"I am holding back nothing, on my honour," he assured her. "If you
want the impression which still exists in the county—only an
impression—I must make plain to you at the start (for the events
happened when the State was in the throes of reconstruction, when
each man was busy rebuilding his own fortunes, and when tragedies
occurred without notice and were hushed up without remark)—if you
want merely an impression, I repeat, then you may have it, my dear
lady, straight from the shoulder."
"Well?" her voice rose inquiringly, for he had paused.
"There is really nothing definite known of the affair," he resumed
after a moment, "even the papers which would have thrown light into
the darkness were destroyed—burned, it is said, in an old office
which the Federal soldiers fired. It is all mystery— grim mystery and
surmise; and when there is no chance of either proving or disproving a
case I dare say one man's word answers quite as well as another's. At
all events, we have your grandfather's testimony as chief actor and
eye-witness against the inherited convictions of our somewhat Homeric
young neighbour. For eighteen years before the war Mr. Fletcher was
sole agent—a queer selection, certainly—for old Mr. Blake, who was
known to have grown very careless in the confidence he placed. When
the crash came, about three years after the war, the old gentleman's
mind was much enfeebled, and it was generally rumoured that his
children were kept in ignorance that the place was passing from them
until it was auctioned off over their heads and Mr. Fletcher became
the purchaser. How this was, of course, I do not pretend to say, but
when the Hall finally went for the absurd sum of seven thousand
dollars life was at best a hard struggle in the State, and I imagine
there was less surprise at the sacrifice of the place than at the fact
that your grandfather should have been able to put down the ready
money. The making of a fortune is always, I suppose, more inexplicable
than the losing of one. The Blakes had always been accounted people of
great wealth and wastefulness, but within five years from the close of
the war they had sunk to the position in which you find them now —a
change, I dare say, from which it is natural much lingering bitterness
should result. The old man died almost penniless, and his children
were left to struggle on from day to day as best they could. It is a
sad tale, and I do not wonder that it moves you," he finished slowly,
and looked down to wipe his glasses.
"And grandfather?" asked the girl quietly. Her gaze had not
wavered from his face, but her eyes shone luminous through the tears
which filled them.
"He became rich as suddenly as the Blakes became poor. Where his
money came from no one asked, and no one cared except the Blakes, who
were helpless. They made some small attempts at law suits, I believe,
but Christopher was only a child then, and there was nobody with the
spirit to push the case. Then money was needed, and they were quite
Maria threw out her hands with a gesture of revolt.
"Oh, it is a terrible story," she said, "a terrible story."
"It is an old one, and belongs to terrible times. You have drawn
it from me for your own purpose, and be that as it may, I have always
believed in giving a straight answer to a straight question. Now such
things would be impossible," he added cheerfully; "then, I fear, they
were but too probable."
"In your heart you believe that it is true?" He did not flinch
from his response. "In my heart I believe that there is more in it
than a lie."
Rising from her chair, she turned from him and walked rapidly up
and down the room, through the firelight which shimmered over the
polished floor. Once she stopped by the window, and, drawing the
curtains aside, looked out upon the April sunshine and upon the young
green leaves which tinted the distant woods. Then coming back to the
hearthrug, she stood gazing down upon him with a serene and resolute
"I am glad now that the Hall will be mine," she said, "glad even
that it wasn't left to Will, for who knows how he would have looked
at it. There is but one thing to be done: you must see that yourself.
At grandfather's death the place must go back to its rightful owners."
"To its rightful owners!" he repeated in amazement, and rose to
"To the Blakes. Oh, don't you see it—can't you see that there is
nothing else to do in common honesty?"
He shook his head, smiling.
"It is very beautiful, my child, but is it reasonable, after all?"
"Reasonable?" The fine scorn he had heard before in her voice
thrilled her from head to foot. "Shall I stop to ask what is
reasonable before doing what is right?"
Without looking at her, he drew a handkerchief from his pocket and
shook it slowly out from its folds.
"Well, I'm not sure that you shouldn't," he rejoined.
"Then I shan't be reasonable. I'll be wise," she said; "for
surely, if there is any wisdom upon earth, it is simply to do right.
It may be many years off, and I may be an old woman, but when the Hall
comes to me at grandfather's death I shall return it to the Blakes."
In the silence which followed he found himself looking into her
ardent face with a wonder not unmixed with awe. To his rather cynical
view of the Fletchers such an outburst came as little less than a
veritable thunderclap, and for the first time in his life he felt a
need to modify his conservative theories as to the necessity of blue
blood to nourish high ideals. Maria, indeed, seemed to him as she
stood there, drawn fine and strong against the curtains of faded
green, to hold about her something better than that aroma of the past
which he had felt to be the intimate charm of all exquisite things,
and it was at the moment the very light and promise of the future
which he saw in the broad intelligence of her brow. Was it possible,
after all, he questioned, that out of the tragic wreck of old claims
and old customs which he had witnessed there should spring creatures
of even finer fiber than those who had gone before?
"So this is your last word?" he inquired helplessly.
"My last word to you—yes. In a moment I am going out to see the
Blakes—to make them understand."
He put out his hand as if to detain her by a feeble pull at her
skirt. "At least, you will sleep a night upon your resolution?"
"How can my sleeping alter things? My waking may."
"And you will sweep the claims of twenty years aside in an hour?"
"They are swept aside by the claims of two hundred."
With a courteous gesture he bent over her hand and raised it
gravely to his lips.
"My dear young friend, you are very lovely and very unreasonable,"
CHAPTER VIII. Between Maria and
A little later, Maria, with a white scarf thrown over her head,
came out of the Hall and passed swiftly along the road under the
young green leaves which were putting out on the trees. When she
reached the whitewashed gate before the Blake cottage she saw
Christopher ploughing in the field on the left of the house, and
turning into the little path which trailed through the tall weeds
beside the "worm" fence, she crossed the yard and stood hesitating at
the beginning of the open furrow he had left behind him. His gaze was
bent upon the horses, and for a moment she watched him in attentive
silence, her eyes dwelling on his massive figure, which cast a
gigantic blue-black shadow across the April sunbeams. She saw him at
the instant with a distinctness, a clearness of perception, that she
had never been conscious of until to-day, as if each trivial detail in
his appearance was magnified by the pale yellow sunshine through
which she looked upon it. The abundant wheaten-brown hair, waving
from the moist circle drawn by the hat he had thrown aside, the
strong masculine profile burned to a faint terracotta shade from wind
and sun, and the powerful hands knotted and roughened by heavy labour,
all stood out vividly in the mental image which remained with her when
she lowered her eyes.
Aroused by a sound from the house, he looked up and saw her
standing on the edge of the ploughed field, her lace scarf blown
softly in the April wind. After a single minute of breathless
surprise he tossed the long ropes on the ground, and, leaving the
plough, came rapidly across the loose clods of upturned earth.
"Did you come because I was thinking of you?" he asked simply,
with the natural directness which had appealed so strongly to her
"Were you thinking of me?" her faint smile shone on him for an
instant; "and were your thoughts as grave, I wonder, as my reason for
"So you have a reason, then?"
"Did you think I should dare to come without one?"
The light wind caught her scarf, blowing the long ends about her
head. From the frame of soft white lace her eyes looked dark and
solemn and very distant.
"I had hoped that you had no other reason than kindness." He had
lost entirely the rustic restraint he had once felt in her presence,
and, as he stood there in his clothes of dull blue jean, it was easy
to believe in the gallant generations at his back. Was the fret of
their gay adventures in his blood? she wondered.
"You will see the kindness in my reason, I hope," she answered
quietly, while the glow of her sudden resolution illumined her face,
"and at least you will admit the justice—though belated."
He drew a step nearer. "And it concerns you—and me?" he asked.
"It concerns you—oh, yes, yes, and me also, though very slightly.
I have just learned—just a moment ago—what you must have thought I
knew all along."
As he fell back she saw that he paled slowly beneath his sunburn.
"You have just learned—what?" he demanded.
"The truth," she replied; "as much of the truth as one may learn
in an hour: how it came that you are here and I am there—at the
"At the Hall?" he repeated, and there was relief in the quick
breath he drew; "I had forgotten the Hall."
"Forgotten it? Why, I thought it was your dream, your longing,
your one great memory."
Smiling into her eyes, he shook his head twice before he answered.
"It was all that—once."
"Then it is not so now?" she asked, disappointed, "and what I have
to tell you will lose half its value."
"So it is about the Hall?"
With one hand she held back the fluttering lace upon her bosom,
while lifting the other she pointed across the ploughed fields to the
old gray chimneys huddled amid the budding oaks.
"Does it not make you homesick to stand here and look at it?" she
asked. "Think! For more than two hundred years your people lived
there, and there is not a room within the house, nor a spot upon the
land, that does not hold some sacred association for those of your
name." Startled by the passion in her words, he turned from the Hall
at which he had been gazing.
"What do you mean? " he demanded imperatively. "What do you wish
"Look at the Hall and not at me while I tell you. It is this—now
listen and do not turn from it for an instant. Blake Hall—I have
just found it out—will come to me at grandfather's death, and when
it does—when it does I shall return it to your family—the whole of
it, every lovely acre. Oh, don't look at me—look at the Hall!"
But he looked neither at her nor at the Hall, for his gaze dropped
to the ground and hung blankly upon a clod of dry brown earth. She saw
him grow pale to the lips and dark blue circles come out slowly about
"It is but common justice; you see that," she urged.
At this he raised his head and returned her look.
"And what of Will?" he asked.
Her surprise showed in her face, and at sight of it he repeated
his question with a stubborn insistence: "But what of Will? What has
been done for Will?"
"Oh, I don't know; I don't know. The break is past mending. But it
is not of him that I must speak to you now—it is of yourself. Don't
you see that the terrible injustice has bowed me to the earth? What am
I better than a dependent—a charity ward who has lived for years upon
your money? My very education, my little culture, the refinements you
see in me—these even I have no real right to, for they belong to your
family. While you have worked as a labourer in the field I have been
busy squandering the wealth which was not mine."
His face grew gentle as he looked at her.
"If the Blake money has made you what you are, then it has not
been utterly wasted," he replied.
"Oh, you don't understand—you don't understand," she repeated,
pressing her hands upon her bosom, as if to quiet her fluttering
breath. "You have suffered from it all along, but it is I who suffer
most to-day—who suffer most because I am upon the side of the
injustice. I can have no peace until you tell me that I may still do
my poor best to make amends—that when your home is mine you will let
me give it back to you."
"It is too late," he answered with bitter humour. "You can't put a
field-hand in a fine house and make him a gentleman. It is too late to
undo what was done twenty years ago. The place can never be mine
again—I have even ceased to want it. Give it to Will."
"I couldn't if I wanted to," she replied; "but I don't want to—I
don't want to. It must go back to you and to your sisters. Do you
think I could ever be owner of it now? Even if it comes to me when I
am an old woman, I shall always feel myself a stranger in the house,
though I should live there day and night for fifty years. No, no; it
is impossible that I should ever keep it for an instant. It must go
back to you and to the Blakes who come after you."
"There will be no Blakes after me," he answered. "I am the last."
"Then promise me that if the Hall is ever mine you will take it."
"From you? No: not unless I took it to hand on to your brother. It
is an old score that you have brought up—one that lasted twenty years
before it was settled. It is too late to stir up matters now."
"It is not too late," she said earnestly. "It is never too late to
try to undo a wrong."
"The wrong was not yours; it must never touch you," he replied.
"If my life was as clean as yours, it would, perhaps, not be too late
for me either. Ten years ago I might have felt differently about it,
but not now."
He broke off hurriedly, and Maria, with a hopeless gesture, turned
back into the path.
"Then I shall appeal to your sisters when the time comes," she
Catching the loose ends of her scarf, he drew her slowly around
until she met his eyes. "And I have said nothing to you—to you," he
began, in a constrained voice, which he tried in vain to steady,
"because it is so hard to say anything and not say too much. This, at
least, you must know—that I am your servant now and shall be all my
She smiled sadly, looking down at the scarf which was crushed in
"And yet you will not grant the wish of my heart," she said.
"How could I? Put me back in the Hall, and I should be as ignorant
and as coarse as I am out here. A labourer is all I am and all I am
fit to be. I once had a rather bookish ambition, you know, but that is
over—I wanted to read Greek and translate 'The Iliad' and all
that—and yet to-day I doubt if I could write a decent letter to save
my soul. It's partly my fault, of course, but you can't know you could
never know—the abject bitterness and despair of those years when I
tried to sink myself to the level of the brutes—tried to forget that
I was any better than the oxen I drove. No, there's no pulling me up
again; such things aren't lived over, and I'm down for good."
Her tears, which she had held back, broke forth at his words, and
he saw them fall upon her bosom, where her hands were still tightly
"And it is all our fault," she said brokenly.
"Not yours, surely."
"It is not too late," she went on passionately, laying her hand
upon his arm and looking up at him with a misty brightness. "Oh, if
you would let me make amends—let me help you!"
"Is there any help?" he asked, with his eyes on the hand upon his
"If you will let me, I will find it. We will take up your study
where you broke it off—we will come up step by step, even to Homer,
if you like. I am fond of books, you know, and I have had my fancy for
Greek, too. Oh, it will be so easy—so easy; and when the time comes
for you to go back to the Hall, I shall have made you the most learned
Blake of the whole line."
He bent quickly and kissed the hand which trembled on his sleeve.
"Make of me what you please," he said; "I am at your service."
For the second time he saw the wonderful light—the fervour—
illumine her face, and then fade slowly, leaving a still, soft
radiance of expression.
"Then I may teach you all that you haven't learned," she said with
a happy little laugh. "How fortunate that I should have been born a
bookworm. Shall we begin with Greek?"
He smiled. "No; let's start with English—and start low."
"Then we'll do both; but where shall it be? Not at the Hall."
"Hardly. There's a bench, though, down by the poplar spring that
looks as if it were meant to be in school. Do you know the place?
It's in my pasture by the meadow brook?"
"I can find it, and I'll bring the books to-morrow at this hour.
Will you come?"
"To-morrow—and every day?"
For an instant he looked at her in perplexity. "I may as well tell
you," he said at last, "that I'm one of the very biggest rascals on
God's earth. I'm not worth all this, you know; that's honest."
"And so are you," she called back gaily, as she turned from him
and went rapidly along the little path.
CHAPTER IX. Christopher Faces Himself
When she had gone through the gate and across the little patch of
trodden grass into the sunken road, Christopher took up the ropes and
with a quick jerk of the buried ploughshare began his plodding walk
over the turned-up sod. The furrow was short, but when he reached the
end of it he paused from sheer exhaustion and stood wiping the heavy
moisture from his brow. The scene through which he had just passed had
left him quivering in every nerve, as if he had been engaged in some
terrible struggle against physical odds. All at once he became aware
that the afternoon was too oppressive for field work, and, unhitching
the horses from the plough, he led them slowly back to the stable
beyond the house. As he went, it seemed to him that he had grown
middle-aged within the hour; his youth had departed as mysteriously as
A little later, Tucker, who was sitting on the end of a big log at
the woodpile, looked up in surprise from the anthill he was watching.
"Quit work early, eh, Christopher?"
"Yes; I've given out," replied Christopher, stopping beside him
and picking up the axe which lay in a scattered pile of chips. "It's
the spring weather, I reckon, but I'm not fit for a tougher job than
"Well, I'd leave that off just now, if I were you."
Raising the axe, Christopher swung it lightly over his shoulder;
then, lowering it with a nerveless movement, he tossed it impatiently
on the ground.
"A queer thing happened just now, Uncle Tucker," he said, "a thing
you'll hardly believe even when I tell you. I had a visit from Mrs.
Wyndham, and she came to say—" he stammered and broke off abruptly.
"Mrs. Wyndham?" repeated Tucker. "She's Bill Fletcher's
granddaughter, isn't she?"
"Maria Fletcher—you may have seen her when she lived here, five
or six years ago."
Tucker shook his head.
"Bless your heart, my boy, I haven't seen a woman except Lucy and
the girls for twenty-five years. But why did she come, I wonder?"
"That's the strange part, and you won't understand it until you
see her. She came because she had just heard—some one had told
her—about Fletcher's old rascality."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Tucker beneath his breath. He gave a
long whistle and sat smiling at the little red anthill. "And did she
actually proffer an apology?" he inquired.
"An amendment, rather. The Hall will come to her at Fletcher's
death, and she walked over to say quite coolly that she wanted to
give it back to us. Think of that! To part with such a home for the
sake of mere right and justice."
"It is something to think about," assented Tucker, "and to think
hard about, too—and yet I cut my teeth on the theory that women have
no sense of honour. Now, that is pure, foolish, strait-laced honour,
and nothing else."
"Nothing else," repeated Christopher softly; "and if you'll
believe it, she cried—she really cried when I told her I couldn't
take it. Oh, she's wonderful!" he burst out suddenly, all his awkward
reserve dropping from him. "You can't be with her ten minutes without
feeling how good she is—good all through, with a big goodness that
isn't in the least like the little prudishness of other women—"
He checked himself hastily, but not before Tucker had glanced up
with his pleasant smile.
"Well, my boy, I don't misunderstand you. I never knew a man yet
to begin a love affair with a panegyric on virtue. She's an estimable
woman, I dare say, and I presume she's plain."
"Plain!" gasped Christopher. "Why, she's beautiful—at least, you
think so when you see her smile."
"So she smiled through her tears, eh?"
Christopher started angrily. "Can you sit there on that log and
laugh at such a thing?" he demanded.
"Come, come," protested Tucker, "an honest laugh never turned a
sweet deed sour since the world began—and that was more than sweet;
it was fine. I'd like to know that woman, Christopher."
"You could never know her—no man could. She's all clear and
bright on the surface, but all mystery beneath."
"Ah, that's it; you see, there was never a fascinating woman yet
who was easy to understand. Wasn't it that shrewd old gallant,
Bolivar Blake, who said that in love an ounce of mystery was worth a
pound of morality?"
"It's like him: he said a lot of nonsense," commented Christopher.
"But to think," he added after a moment, "that she should be Bill
"Well, I knew her mother," returned Tucker, "and she was as
honest, God-fearing a body as ever trod this earth. She stood out
against Fletcher to the last, you know, and worked hard for her
living while that scamp, her husband, drank them both to death. There
are some people who are born with a downright genius for honesty, and
this girl may be one of them."
"I don't know—I don't know," said Christopher, in a voice which
had grown spiritless. Then after an instant in which he stared
blankly down at Tucker's ant-hill, he turned hurriedly away and
followed the little straggling path to the barn door.
>From the restlessness that pricked in his limbs there was no
escape, and after entering the barn he came out again and went down
into the pasture to the long bench beside the poplar spring. Here,
while the faint shadows of the young leaves played over him, he sat
with his head bent forward and his hands dropped listlessly between
Around him there was the tender green of the spring meadows,
divided by a little brook where the willows shone pure silver under
the April wind. Near at hand a catbird sang in short, tripping notes,
and in the clump of briars by the spring a rabbit sat alert for the
first sound. So motionless was Christopher that he seemed, sitting
there by the pale gray body of a poplar, almost to become a part of
the tree against which he leaned—to lose, for the time at least, his
share in the moving animal life around him.
At first there was mere blankness in his mind—an absence of light
and colour in which his thoughts were suddenly blotted out; then, as
the wind raised the hair upon his brow, he lifted his eyes from the
ground, and with the movement it seemed as if his life ran backward to
its beginning and he saw himself not as he was to-day, but as he might
have been in a period of time which had no being.
Before him were his knotted and blistered hands, his long limbs
outstretched in their coarse clothes, but in the vision beyond the
little spring he walked proudly with his rightful heritage upon him—a
Blake by force of blood and circumstance. The world lay before
him—bright, alluring, a thing of enchanting promise, and it was as if
he looked for the first time upon the possibilities contained in this
life upon the earth. For an instant the glow lasted—the beauty dwelt
upon the vision, and he beheld, clear and radiant, the happiness which
might have been his own; then it grew dark again, and he faced the
brutal truth in all its nakedness; he knew himself for what he was—a
man debased by ignorance and passion to the level of the beasts. He
had sold his birthright for a requital, which had sickened him even
in the moment of fulfilment.
To do him justice, now that the time had come for an
acknowledgment he felt no temptation to evade the judgment of his own
mind, nor to cheat himself with the belief that the boy was marked for
ruin before he saw him—that Will had worked out, in vicious weakness,
his own end. It was not the weakness, after all, that he had played
upon—it was rather the excitable passion and the whimpering fears of
the hereditary drunkard. He remembered now the long days that he had
given to his revenge, the nights when he had tossed sleepless while he
planned a widening of the breach with Fletcher. That, at least was his
work, and his alone—the bitter hatred, more cruel than death, with
which the two now stood apart and snarled. It was a human life that he
had taken in his hand—he saw that now in his first moment of
awakening—a life that he had destroyed as deliberately as if he had
struck it dead before him. Day by day, step by step, silent,
unswerving, devilish, he had kept about his purpose, and now at the
last he had only to sit still and watch his triumph.
With a sob, he bowed his head in his clasped hands, and so shut
out the light.
CHAPTER X. By the Poplar Spring
The next day he watched for her anxiously until she appeared over
the low brow of the hill, her arms filled with books, and Agag
trotting at her side. As she descended slowly into the broad ravine
where he awaited her under six great poplars that surrounded the
little spring, he saw that she wore a dress of some soft, creamy stuff
and a large white hat that shaded her brow and eyes. She looked
younger, he noticed, than she had done in her black gown, and he
recalled while she neared him the afternoon more than six years before
when she had come suddenly upon him while he worked in his tobacco.
"So you are present at the roll-call?" she said, laughing, as she
sat down on the bench beside him and spread out the books that she
"Why, I've been sitting here for half an hour," he answered.
"What a shame—that's a whole furrow unploughed, isn't it?"
"Several of them; but I'm not counting furrows now. I'm getting
ready to appall you by my ignorance." He spoke with a determined,
reckless gaiety that lent a peculiar animation to his face.
"If you are waiting for that, you are going to be disappointed,"
she replied, smiling, "for I've put my heart into the work, and I was
born and patterned for a teacher; I always knew it. We're going to do
English literature and a first book in Latin."
"Are we?" He picked up the Latin grammar and ran his fingers
lightly through the pages. "I went a little way in this once," he
said. "I got as far as 'omnia vincit amor' and stopped. Tobacco
conquered me instead."
She caught up his gay laugh. "Well, we'll try it over again," she
returned, and held out the book.
An hour later, when the first lesson was over and he had gone back
to his work, he carried with him a wonderful exhilaration—a feeling
as if he had with a sudden effort burst the bonds that had held him to
the earth. By the next day the elation vanished and a great heaviness
came in its place, but for a single afternoon he had known what it was
to thrill in every fiber with a powerful and pure emotion—an emotion
beside which all the cheap sensations of his life showed stale and
colourless. While the strangeness of this mood was still upon him he
chanced upon Lila and Jim Weatherby standing together by the gate in
the gray dusk, and when presently the girl came back alone across the
yard he laid his hand upon her arm and drew her over to Tucker's bench
beside the rose-bush.
"Lila, I've changed my mind about it all," he said.
"About what, dear?"
"About Jim and you. We were all wrong—all of us except Uncle
Tucker—wrong from the very start. You musn't mind mother; you musn't
mind anybody. Marry Jim and be happy, if he can make you so."
"Oh, Christopher!" gasped Lila, with a long breath, lifting her
lovely, pensive face. "Oh, Christopher!"
"Don't wait; don't put it off; don't listen to any of us," he
urged impatiently. "Good God! If you love him as you say you do, why
have you let all these years slip away?"
"But you thought it was best, Christopher. You told me so."
"Best! There's nothing best except to be happy if you get the
"He wants me to marry him now," said Lila, lowering her voice.
"Mother will never know, he thinks, her mind grows so feeble; he
wants me to marry him without any getting ready—after church one
Putting his arm about her, Christopher held her for a moment
against his side. "Then do it," he said gravely, as he stooped and
And several weeks later, on a bright first Sunday in May, Lila was
married, after morning services, in the little country church, and
Christopher watched her almost eagerly as she walked home across the
broad meadows powdered white with daisies. To the reproachful
countenance which Cynthia presented to him upon his return to the
house he gave back a careless and defiant smile.
"So it's all over," he announced gaily, "and Lila's married at
"Then you're satisfied, I hope," rejoined Cynthia grimly, "now
that you've dragged us down to the level of the Weatherbys and— the
Fletchers? There's nothing more to be said about it, I suppose, and
you may as well come in to dinner."
She held herself stiffly aloof from the subject, with her head
flung back and her chin expressing an indignant protest. There was a
kind of rebellious scorn in the way in which she carved the shoulder
of bacon and poured the coffee.
"Good Lord! It's such a little thing to make a fuss about," said
Tucker, "when you remember, my dear, that our levels aren't any
bigger than chalk lines in the eyes of God Almighty."
Cynthia regarded him with squinting displeasure.
"Oh, of course; you have no family pride," she returned; "but I
had thought there was a little left in Christopher."
Christopher shook his head, smiling indifferently. "Not enough to
want blood sacrifices," he responded, and fell into a detached and
thoughtful silence. The vision of Lila in her radiant happiness
remained with him like a picture that one has beheld by some rare
chance in a vivid and lovely light; and it was still before him when
he left the house presently and strolled slowly down to meet Maria by
the poplar spring.
The bloom of the meadows filled his nostrils with a delicate
fragrance, and from the bough of an old apple-tree in the orchard he
heard the low afternoon murmurs of a solitary thrush. May was on the
earth, and it had entered into him as into the piping birds and the
spreading trees. It was at last good to be alive— to breathe the
warm, sweet air, and to watch the sunshine slanting on the low, green
hill. So closely akin were his moods to those of the changing seasons
that, at the instant, he seemed to feel the current of his being flow
from the earth beneath his feet—as if his physical nature drew
strength and nourishment from that genial and abundant source.
When he reached the spring he saw Maria appear on the brow of the
hill, and with a quick, joyous bound his heart leaped up to meet her.
As she came toward him her white dress swept the tall grass from her
feet, and her shadow flew like a winged creature straight before her.
There was a vivid softness in her face—a look at once bright and
wistful—which moved him with a new and strange tenderness.
"I was a little late," she explained, as they met before the long
bench and she laid her books upon it, "and I am very warm. May I have
"From a bramble cup?"
"How else?" She took off her hat and tossed it on the grass at her
feet; then, going to the spring, she waited while he plucked a leaf
from the bramble and bent it into shape. When he filled it and held it
out, she placed her lips to the edge of the leaf and looked up at him
with smiling eyes while she drank slowly from his hand.
"It holds only a drop, but how delicious!" she said, seating
herself again upon the bench and leaning back against the great body
of a poplar. Then her eyes fell upon his clothes. "Why, how very much
dressed you look!" she added.
"Oh, there's a reason besides Sunday—I've just come from a
wedding. Lila has married after twelve years of waiting."
"Your pretty sister! And to whom?"
"To Jim Weatherby—old Jacob's son, you know. Now, don't tell me
that you disapprove. I count on your good sense to see the wisdom of
"So it is your pretty sister," she said slowly, "the woman I
passed in the road the other day and held my breath as I did before
"Is that so? Well, she doesn't know much about pictures, nor does
Jim. She has thrown herself away, Cynthia says, but what could she
have waited for, after all? Nothing had ever come to her, and she had
lived thirty years. Besides, she will be very happy, and that's a good
deal, isn't it?"
"It's everything," said Maria quietly, looking down into her lap.
"Everything? And if you had been born in her place?"
"I am not in her place and never could be; but six years ago, if I
had been told that I must live here all my life, I think I should have
fretted myself to death; that would have happened six years ago, for I
was born with a great aching for life, and I thought then that one
could live only in the big outside world."
"And now?" he questioned, for she paused and sat smiling gravely
at the book she held.
"Now I know that the fulness of life does not come from the things
outside of us, and that we ourselves must create the beauty in which
we live. Oh, I have learned so much from misery," she went on softly,
"and worst of all, I have learned what it is to starve for bread in
the midst of sugar-plums."
"And it was worth learning?"
"The knowledge that I gained? Oh, yes, yes; for it taught me how
to be happy. I went down into hell," she said passionately, "and I
came out—clean. I saw evil such as I had never heard of; I went close
to it, I even touched it, but I always kept my soul very far away, and
I was like a person in a dream. The more I saw of sin and ugliness the
more I dreamed of peace and beauty. I builded me my own refuge, I fed
on my own strength day and night —and I am what I am—"
"The loveliest woman on God's earth," he said.
"You do not know me, "she answered, and opened the book before
her. "It was the story of the Holy Grail," she added, "and we left
off here. Oh, those brave days of King Arthur! It was always May
He touched the page lightly with a long blade of grass.
"Read yourself—this once," he pleaded, "and let me listen."
Leaning a little forward, she looked down and slowly turned the
pages, her head bent over the book, her long lashes shading the faint
flush in her cheeks. Over her white dress fell a delicate lacework
from the young poplar leaves, flecked here and there with pale drops
of sunshine, which filtered through the thickly clustered boughs. When
the wind passed in the high tree-tops, the shadows, soft and fine as
cobweb, rippled over her dress, and a loose strand of her dark hair
waved gently about her ear. The life—the throbbing vitality
within—her seemed to vivify the very air she breathed, and he felt
all at once that the glad thrill which stirred his blood was but a
response to the fervent spirit which spoke in her voice.
"For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May,"
she read, "in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more
in that month than in any other month—for then all herbs and trees
renew a man and woman, and in likewise lovers call again to mind old
gentleness and old service and many kind deeds that were forgotten by
The words went like wine to his head, and he saw her shadowy
figure recede and dissolve suddenly as in a mist. A lump rose in his
throat, his heart leaped, and he felt his pulses beating madly in his
temples. He drew back, closing his eves to shut out her face; but the
next instant, as she stirred slightly to hold down the rippling
leaves, he bent forward and laid his hand upon the one that held the
Her voice fluttered into silence, and, raising her head, she
looked up in tremulous surprise. He saw her face pale slowly, her
lids quiver and droop above her shining eyes, and her teeth gleam
milk white between her parted lips. A tremor of alarm ran through
her, and she made a swift movement to escape; then, lifting her eyes
again, she looked full into his own, and, stooping quickly, he kissed
her on the mouth.
An instant afterward the book fell to the ground, and he rose to
his feet and stood trembling against the body of the poplar.
"Forgive me," he said; "forgive me—I have ruined it."
Standing beside the bench, she watched him with a still, grave
gentleness before which his gaze dropped slowly to the ground.
"Yes, you have ruined this," she answered, smiling, "but Latin is
"It's no use," he went on breathlessly. "I can't do it; it's no
His eyes sought hers and held them while he made a single step
forward; then, turning quickly away, he went from her across the
meadow to the distant wood.