Book III, 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. In Which Tobacco is Hero
On an October afternoon some four years later, at the season of
the year when the whole county was fragrant with the curing tobacco,
Christopher Blake passed along the stretch of old road which divided
his farm from the Weatherbys', and, without entering the porch, called
for Jim from the little walk before the flat whitewashed steps. In
response to his voice, Mrs. Weatherby, a large, motherly looking
woman, appeared upon the threshold, and after chatting a moment,
directed him to the log tobacco barn, where the recently cut crop was
"Jim and Jacob are both over thar," she said; " an' a few others,
for the matter of that, who have been helpin' us press new cider an'
drinkin' the old. I'm sure I don't see why they want to lounge out
thar in all that smoke, but thar's no accountin' for the taste of a
man that ever I heard tell of an' I reckon they kin fancy pretty easy
that they are settin' plum in the bowl of a pipe. It beats me, though,
that it do. Why, one mouthful of it is enough to start me coughin' for
a week, an' those men thar jest swallow it down for pure pleasure."
Clean, kindly, hospitable, she wandered garrulously on, remembering at
intervals to press the young man to "come inside an' try the cakes an'
"No, I'll look them up out there," said Christopher, resisting the
invitation to enter. "I want to get a pair of horseshoes from Jim; the
gray mare cast hers yesterday, and Dick Boxley is laid up with a
sprained arm. Oh, no, thanks; I must be going back." With a friendly
nod he turned from the steps and went rapidly along the path which led
to the distant barn.
As Mrs. Weatherby had said, the place was like the bowl of a pipe,
and it was a moment before Christopher discovered the little group
gathered about the doorway, where a shutter hung loosely on wooden
The ancient custom of curing tobacco with open fires, which had
persisted in Virginia since the days of the early settlers, was still
commonly in use; and it is possible that had one of Christopher's
colonial ancestors appeared at the moment in Jacob Weatherby's log
barn it would have been difficult to convince him that between his
death and his resurrection there was a lapse of more than two hundred
years. He would have found the same square, pen-like structure, built
of straight logs carefully notched at the corners; the same tier-poles
rising at intervals of three feet to the roof; the same hewn plates to
support the rafters; the same "daubing" of the chinks with red clay;
and the same crude door cut in the south wall. From the roof the
tobacco hung in a fantastic decoration, shading from dull green to
deep bronze, and appearing, when viewed from the ground below, to
resemble a numberless array of small furled flags. On the hard earth
floor there were three parallel rows of "unseasoned" logs which burned
slowly day and night, filling the barn with gray smoke and the pungent
odour of the curing tobacco.
"It takes a heap of lookin' arter, an' no mistake," old Jacob was
remarking, as he surveyed the fine crop with the bland and easy gaze
of ownership. "Why, in a little while them top leaves thar will be
like tinder, an' the first floatin' spark will set it all afire.
That's the way Sol Peterkin lost half a crop last year, an' it's the
way Dick Moss lost his whole one the year before." At Christopher's
entrance he paused and turned his pleasant, ruddy face from the fresh
logs which he had been watching. "So you want to have a look at my
tobaccy, too?" he added, with the healthful zest of a child. "Well,
it's worth seein', if I do say so; thar hasn't been sech leaves raised
in this county within the memory of man."
"That's so," said Christopher, with an appreciative glance. "I'm
looking for Jim, but he's keeping up the fires, isn't he?" Then he
turned quickly, for Tom Spade, who with young Matthew Field had been
critically weighing the promise of Jacob's crop, broke out suddenly
into a boisterous laugh.
"Why, I declar', Mr. Christopher, if you ain't lost yo' shadow!"
Christopher regarded him blankly for a moment, and then joined
lightly in the general mirth. "Oh, you mean Will Fletcher," he
returned. "There was a pretty girl in the road as we came up, and I
couldn't get him a step beyond her. Heaven knows what's become of him
"I bet my right hand that was Molly Peterkin," said Tom. "If
anybody in these parts begins to talk about 'a pretty gal,' you may
be sartain he's meanin' that yaller-headed limb of Satan. Why, I
stopped my Jinnie goin' with her a year ago. Sech women, I said to
her, are fit for nobody but men to keep company with."
"That's so; that's so," agreed old Jacob, in a charitable tone;
"seein' as men have most likely made 'em what they are, an' oughtn't
to be ashamed of thar own handiwork."
"Now, when it comes to yaller hair an' blue eyes," put in Matthew
Field, "she kin hold her own agin any wedded wife that ever made a
man regret the day of his birth. Many's the time of late I've gone a
good half-mile to git out of that gal's way, jest as I used to cut
round old Fletcher's pasture when I was a boy to keep from passin' by
his redheart cherry-tree that overhung the road. Well, well, they do
say that her young man, Fred Turner, went back on her, an' threw her
on her father's hands two days befo' the weddin'."
"It was hard on Sol, now you come to think of it," said Tom. "He
told me himself that he tried to git the three who ought to marry her
to draw straws for the one who was to be the happy man, but they all
backed out an' left her high an' dry an' as pretty as a peach. Fred
Turner would have taken his chance, he said, like an honest man, an'
he was terrible down in the mouth when I saw him, for he was near daft
over the gal."
"Well, he was right," admitted Matthew, after reflection. "Why,
the gal sins so free an' easy you might almost fancy her a man."
He drew back, coughing, for Jim came in with a long green log and
laid it on the smouldering fire, which glowed crimson under the heavy
"Here's Sol," said the young man, settling the log with his foot.
"I told him you were on your way to the house, pa, but he said he had
only a minute, so he came out here."
"Oh, I've jest been to borrow some Jamaica ginger from Mrs.
Weatherby," explained Sol Peterkin, carefully closing the shutter
after his entrance.
"My wife's took so bad that I'm beginnin' to fear she'll turn out
as po' a bargain as the last. It's my luck—I always knew I was
ill-fated—but, Lord a-mercy, how's a man goin' to tell the state of
a woman's innards from the way she looks on top? All the huggin' in
the world won't make her wink an eyelash, an' then there'll crop out
heart disease or dropsy befo' the year is up. When I think of the
trouble I had pickin' that thar woman it makes me downright sick. It
ain't much matter about the colour or the shape, I said—a freckled
face an' a scrawny waist I kin stand—only let it be the quality that
wears. If you believe it, suh, I chose the very ugliest I could find,
thinkin' that the Lord might be mo' willin' to overlook her—an' now
this is what's come of it. She's my fourth, too, an' I'll begin to be
a joke when I go out lookin' for a fifth. Naw, suh; if Mary dies, pure
shame will keep me a widower to my death."
"Thar ain't but one thing sartain about marriage, in my mind,"
commented Matthew Field, "an' that is that it gits most of its colour
from the distance that comes between. The more your mouth waters for a
woman, the likelier 'tis that 'tain't the woman for you—that's my way
of thinkin'. The woman a man don't git somehow is always the woman he
ought to have had. It's a curious, mixed-up business, however you look
"That's so," said Tom Spade; "I always noticed it. The woman who
is your wife may be a bouncin' beauty, an' the woman who ain't may be
as ugly as sin, but you'd go twice as far to kiss her all the same.
Thar is always a sight more spice about the woman who ain't."
"Jest look at Eliza, now," pursued Matthew, wrapped in the thought
of his own domestic infelicities. "What I could never understand about
Eliza was that John Sales went clean to the dogs because he couldn't
git her. To think of sech a thing happenin', jest as if I was to
blame, when if I'd only known it I could hev turned about an' taken
her sister Lizzie. Thar were five of 'em in all, an' I settled on
Eliza, as it was, with my eyes blindfold. Poor John—poor John! It was
sech a terrible waste of wantin'."
"Well, it's a thing to stiddy about," said old Jacob, with a sigh.
"They tell me now that that po' young gal of Bill Fletcher's has found
it a thorny bed, to be sho'. Her letters are all bright an' pleasant
enough, they say, filled with fine clothes an' the names of strange
places, but a gentleman who met her somewhar over thar wrote Fletcher
that her husband used her like a dumb brute."
Christopher started and looked up inquiringly.
"Have you heard anything about that, Jim?" he asked in a queer
"Nothin' more. Fletcher told me he had written to her to come
home, but she answered that she would stick to Wyndham for better or
for worse. It's a great pity—the marriage promised so well, too."
"Oh, the gal's got a big heart; I could tell it from her eyes,"
said old Jacob. "When you see those dark, solemn eyes, lookin' out of
a pale, peaked face, it means thar's a heart behind 'em, an' a heart
that bodes trouble some day, whether it be in man or woman."
Christopher passed his hand across his brow and stood staring
vacantly at the smouldering logs. He could not tell whether the news
saddened or rejoiced him, but, at least, it brought Maria's image
vividly before his eyes. The spell of her presence was over him again,
and he felt, as he had felt on that last evening, the mysterious
attraction of her womanhood. So intense was the visionary appeal that
it had for the moment almost the effect of hallucination; it was as if
she still entreated him across all the distance. The brooding habit of
his mind had undoubtedly done much to conserve his emotion, as had the
rural isolation in which he lived. In a city life the four years would
probably have blotted out her memory; but where comparison was
impossible, and lighter distractions almost unheard of, what chance
was there for him to forget the single passionate experience he had
known? Among his primitive neighbours Maria had flitted for a time
like a bewildering vision; then the great distant world had caught her
up into its brightness, and the desolate waste country was become the
guardian of the impression she had left.
"If thar's a man who has had bad luck with his children, it's Bill
Fletcher," old Jacob was saying thoughtfully. "He's been a hard man
an' a mean one, too, an' when he couldn't beg or borrow it's my
opinion that he never hesitated to put forth his hand an' steal.
Thar's a powerful lot of judgment in dumb happenin's, an' when you see
a family waste out an' run to seed like that it usually means that the
good Lord is havin' His way about matters. It takes a mighty sharp eye
to tell the difference between judgment an' misfortune, an' I've seen
enough in this world to know that, no matter how skilfully you twist
up good an' evil, God Almighty may be a long time in the unravelling,
but He'll straighten 'em out at last. Now as to Bill Fletcher, his
sins got in the bone an' they're workin' out in the blood. Look at his
son Bill—didn't he come out of the army to drink himself to death?
Then his granddaughter Maria has gone an' mismarried a somebody, an'
this boy that he'd set his heart on is goin' to the devil so precious
fast that he ain't got time to look behind him."
"Oh, he's young yet," suggested Tom Spade, solemnly wagging his
head, "an' Fletcher says, you know, that he's all right so long as he
keeps clear of Mr. Christopher. It's Mr. Christopher, he swears,
that's been the ruin of him."
Christopher met this with a sneer. "Why does he let him dog my
footsteps, then?" he inquired with a laugh. "I never go to the Hall,
and yet he's always after me."
"Bless you, suh, it ain't any question of lettin' an' thar never
has been sence the boy first put on breeches. Why, when I refused to
sell him whisky at my sto', what did he do but begin smugglin' it out
from town! Fletcher found it out an' blew him sky-high, but in less
than a month it was all goin' on agin."
"An' the funny part is," said Jim Weatherby, "that you can't
dislike Will Fletcher, however much you try. He's a kindhearted,
jolly fellow, in spite of the devil."
"Or in spite of Mr. Christopher," added Tom, with a guffaw.
Frowning heavily, Christopher turned toward the door.
"Oh, you ask Will Fletcher who is his best friend," he said, "and
let me hear his answer."
With an abrupt nod to Jacob, he went out of the tobacco barn and
along the little path to the road. He had barely reached the gate,
however, when Jim Weatherby ran after him with the horseshoes, and
offered eagerly to come over in the morning and see that the gray mare
was properly shod.
"I'm handy at that kind of thing, you know," he explained, with a
"Well, if you don't mind, I wish you would come," Christopher
replied, "but to save my life I can't see why you are so ready with
other people's jobs."
Then, taking the horseshoes, he opened the gate and started
rapidly toward home. His mind was still absorbed by old Jacob's news,
and upon reaching the house he was about to pass up to his room, when
Cynthia called him from the little platform beyond the back door, and
going out, he found her standing pale and tearful on the kitchen
threshold. Looking beyond her, he saw that Lila and Tucker were in the
room, and from the intense and resolute expression in the younger
sister's face he judged that she was the central figure in what
appeared to be a disturbing scene.
"Christopher, you can't imagine what has happened," Cynthia began
in her beautiful, tragic voice. "Lila went to church yesterday— with
whom, do you suppose?"
Christopher thought for a moment.
"Not with Bill Fletcher?" he gave out at last.
"Come, come, now, it's a long ways better than that, you'll admit,
Cynthia," broke in Tucker, with a peaceful intention. "I can't help
reminding you, my dear, to be thankful that it wasn't so unlikely a
person as Bill Fletcher."
With a decisive gesture such as he had never believed her capable
of, Lila came up to Christopher and stood facing him with beaming
eyes. He had never before seen her so lovely, and he realised at the
instant that it was this she had always needed to complete her beauty.
From something merely white and warm and delicate she had become
suddenly as radiant as a flame.
"I went with Jim Weatherby, Christopher," she said slowly, "and
I'm not ashamed of it."
The admission wrung a short groan from Cynthia, who stood twisting
her gingham apron tightly about her fingers.
"Oh, Lila, who was his grandfather?" she cried. "Well, there's
this thing certain, she doesn't want to marry his grandfather," put
in Tucker, undaunted by the failure of his former attempts at
peace-making. "Not that I have anything against the old chap, for
that matter; he was an honest, well-behaved old body, and used to
mend my boots for me up to the day of his death. Jim gets his handy
ways from him, I reckon."
Cynthia turned upon him angrily.
"Uncle Tucker, you will drive me mad," she exclaimed, the tears
starting to her lashes. "It does seem to me that you, at least, might
show some consideration for the family name. It's all we've left."
"And it's a good enough relic in its way," returned Tucker
amicably, "though if you are going to make a business of sacrificing
yourself, for heaven's sake let it be for something bigger than a
relic. A live neighbour is a much better thing to make sacrifices for
than a dead grandfather."
"I don't care one bit what his grandfather was or whether he ever
had any or not!" cried Lila, in an outburst of indignation; "and more
than that, I don't care what mine was, either. I am going to marry
him—I am—I am! Don't look at me like that, Cynthia. Do you want to
spoil my whole life?"
Cynthia threw out her hands with a despairing grasp of the air, as
if she were reaching for the broken remnants of the family pride. "To
marry a Weatherby!" she gasped. "Oh, mother! mother! Lila, is it
possible that you can be so selfish?" But Lila had won her freedom too
dearly to surrender it to an appeal.
"I want to be selfish," she said stubbornly. "I have never been
selfish in my life, and I want to see what it feels like. Oh, you are
cruel, all of you, and you will break my heart."
Christopher's face paled and grew stern.
"We must all think of mother's wishes, Lila," he said gravely.
For the first time the girl lost her high fortitude, and a babyish
quiver shook her lips. Her glance wavered and fell, and with a
pathetic gesture she turned from Christopher to Cynthia and from
Cynthia to Tucker.
"Oh, you can't understand, Christopher!" she cried; "you have
never been in love, nor has Cynthia. None of you can understand but
She ran to him sobbing, and he, steadying himself on a single
crutch, folded his arm about her.
"I understand, child, thank God," he said softly.
CHAPTER II. Between Christopher and
An hour later Christopher was at work in the stable, when he heard
a careless whistle outside, and Will Fletcher looked in at the open
"I say, Chris, take a turn off and come down to Tom Spade's," he
Christopher, who was descending from the loft with an armful of
straw, paused midway of the ladder and regarded his visitor with
"I can't this evening," he answered; "the light is almost gone,
and I've a good deal to get through with after dark. I'll manage
better to-morrow, if I can. By the way, why didn't you show up at
Will came in and sat down on the edge of a big wooden box which
contained the harness. In the four years he had changed but little in
appearance, though his slim figure had shot up rapidly in height. His
chestnut hair grew in high peaks from his temples and swept in a
single lock above his small, sparkling eyes, which held an expression
of intelligent animation. On the whole, it was not an unpleasing face,
despite the tremulous droop of the mouth, already darkened by the
faint beginning of a brown mustache.
"Oh, Molly Peterkin stopped me in the road," he replied readily.
"I'd caught her eye once or twice before, but this was the first
chance we'd had to speak. I tell you she's a peach, Christopher."
Christopher came down from the ladder and spread the straw evenly
in the horses' stalls.
"So they say," he responded; "but I haven't much of an eye for
women, you know. Now, when it comes to judging a leaf of tobacco, I'm
a match for any man."
"Well, one can't be everything," remarked Will consolingly. He
snatched at a piece of straw that had fallen on the lowest rung of
the ladder and began idly chewing it. "As for me I know a blamed sight
more about women than I do about tobacco," he added, with a swagger.
Christopher glanced up, and at sight of the boyish figure burst
into a hearty laugh.
"Oh, you're a jolly old sport, I know, and to think that Tom Spade
has been accusing me of leading you astray! Why, you are already twice
the man that I am."
"Pshaw! That's just grandpa's chatter! The old man rails at me day
and night about you until it's a mortal wonder he doesn't drive me to
the dogs outright. I'd like to see another fellow that would put up
with it for a week. Captain Morrison told him, you know, that I hadn't
done a peg of study for a year, and it brought on a scene that almost
shook the roof. Now he swears I'm to go to the university next fall or
"Well, I'd go, by all means."
"What under heaven could I do there? All those confounded
languages Morrison poured into my head haven't left so much as a
single letter of the alphabet. Ad nauseam is all I learned of Latin.
I tell you I'd rather be a storekeeper any time than a scholar—books
make me sick all over—and, when it comes to that, I don't believe I
know much more to-day than you do."
A smile crossed Christopher's face, leaving it very grim. The
words recalled to him his own earlier ambition—that of the
gentlemanly scholar of the old order—and there flickered before his
eyes the visionary library, suffused with firelight, and the
translation of the "Iliad" he had meant to finish.
"I always told you it wasn't worth anything," he said roughly.
"She'd love you any better if you could spurt Greek?"
Will broke into a pleased laugh, his mind dwelling upon the fancy
the other had conjured up so skilfully.
"Did you ever see such lips in your life?" he inquired.
Christopher shook his head. "I haven't noticed them, but Sol's
have a way of sticking in my memory."
"Oh, you brute! It's a shame that she should have such a father.
He's about the worst I ever met."
"Some think the shame is on the other side, you know."
"That's a lie—she told me so. Fred Turner started the whole thing
because she refused to marry him at the last moment. She found out
suddenly that she wasn't in love with him. Girls are like that, you
see. Why, Maria—" Christopher looked up quickly. "I've nothing to do
with your sister," he observed. "I know that; but it's true, all the
same. Maria couldn't tell her own mind any better. Why, one day she
was declaring that she was over head and ears in love with Jack, and
the next she was wringing her hands and begging him to go away." "What
are you going to do down at the store?" asked Christopher abruptly.
"Oh, nothing in particular—just lounge, I suppose; there's never
anything to do. By the way, can't we have a hunt to-morrow?" "I'll see
about it. Look here, is your grandfather any worse than usual? He
stormed at me like mad yesterday because I wouldn't turn my team of
oxen out of the road." "It's like blasting rock to get a decent word
out of him. The only time he's been good-humoured for four years was
the week we were away together. He offered me five thousand dollars
down if I'd never speak to you again." "You don't say so!" exclaimed
Christopher. He bent his head and stood looking thoughtfully at the
matted straw under foot. "Well, you had a chance to turn a pretty
penny," he said, in a tone of gentle raillery. "Oh, hang it! What do
you mean?" demanded Will. "Of course, I wasn't going back on you like
that just to please grandpa. I'd have been a confounded sneak if I
had!" "You're a jolly good chap and no mistake! But the old man would
have been pleased, I reckon?" Will grinned.
"You bet he would! I could twist him round my finger but for you,
Aunt Saidie says." "It will be all the same in the end, though. The
whole thing will come to you some day." "Oh, yes. Maria got her share,
and Wyndham has made ducks and drakes of it." "Your grandfather's
aging, too, isn't he?"
"Rather," returned Will, with a curious mixture of amiable
lightness and cool brutality. "He's gone off at least twenty years
since that time I had pneumonia in your barn. That wrecked him, Aunt
Saidie says, and all because he knew he'd have to put up with you when
the doctor told him to let me have my way. His temper gets worse, too,
all the time. I declare, he sometimes makes me wish he were dead and
buried." "Oh, he'll live long enough yet, never fear—those wiry,
cross-grained people are as tough as lightwood knots. It's a pity,
though, he wants to bully you like that—it would kill me in a day." A
flush mounted to Will's forehead. "I knew you'd think so," he said,
"and it's what I tell him all the time. He's got no business meddling
with me so much, and I won't stand it." "He ought to get a dog,"
suggested Christopher indifferently. "Well, I'm not a dog, and I'll
make him understand it yet. Oh, you think I'm an awful milksop, of
course, but I'll show you otherwise some day. I'd like to know if you
could have done any better in my place?" "Done! Why, I shouldn't have
been in your place long, that's all." "I shan't, either, for that
matter; but I've got to humour him a little, you see, because he holds
the purse-strings." "He'd never go so far as to kick you out, would
he?" "Well, hardly. I'm all he has, you know. He doesn't like Maria
because of her fine airs, much as he thinks of education. I've got to
be a gentleman, he says; but as for him, he wouldn't give up one of
his vulgar habits to save anybody's soul. His trouble with Maria all
came of her reproving him for drinking out of his saucer. Now, I don't
mind that kind of thing so much, but Maria used to say she'd rather
have him steal, any day, than gulp his coffee. Why are you laughing
so?" "Oh, nothing. Are you going to Tom's now? I've got to work." Will
slid down from the big box and sauntered toward the door, pausing on
the little wooden step to light a cigarette. "Drop in if you get a
chance," he threw back over his shoulder, with a puff of smoke. In a
few moments Christopher finished his work, and, coming outside,
closed the stable door. Then he walked a few paces along the little
path stopping from time to time to gaze across the darkening
landscape. A light mist was wreathed about the tops of the old
lilac-bushes, where it glimmered so indistinctly that it seemed as if
one might dispel it by a breath; and farther away the soft evening
colours had settled over the great fields, beyond which a clear yellow
line was just visible above the distant woods. The wind was sharp with
an edge of frost, and as it blew into his face he raised his head and
drank long, invigorating drafts. From the cattle-pen hard by he
smelled the fresh breath of the cows, and around him were those other
odours, vague, familiar, pleasant, which are loosened at twilight in
the open country. The time had been when the mere physical contact
with the air would have filled him with a quiet satisfaction, but
during the last four years he had lost gradually his sensitiveness to
external things—to the changes of the seasons as to the beauties of
an autumn sunrise. A clear morning had ceased to arouse in him the old
buoyant energy, and he had lost the zest of muscular exertion which
had done so much to sweeten his labour in the fields. It was as if a
clog fettered his simplest no less than his greatest emotion; and his
enjoyment of nature had grown dull and spiritless, like his affection
for his family. With his sisters he was aware that a curious
constraint had become apparent, and it was no longer possible for him
to meet his mother with the gay deference she still exacted. There
were times, even, when he grew almost suspicious of Cynthia's
patience, and at such moments his irritation was manifested in a
sullen reserve. To himself he could give no explanation of his state
of mind; he knew merely that he retreated day by day farther into the
shadow of his loneliness, and that, while in his heart he still craved
human sympathy, an expression of it even from those he loved was,
above all, the thing he most bitterly resented. A light flashed in the
kitchen, and he went on slowly toward the house. As he reached the
back porch he saw that Lila was sitting at the kitchen window looking
wearily out into the dusk. The firelight scintillated in her eyes, and
as she turned quickly at a sound within the room he noticed with a
pang that the sparkles were caused by teardrops on her lashes. His
heart quickened at the sight of her drooping figure, and an impulse
seized him to go in and comfort her at any cost. Then his severe
constraint laid an icy hold upon him, and he hesitated with his hand
upon the door.
"If I go in and speak to her, what is there for me to say?" he
thought, overcome by his horror of any uncontrolled emotion. "We will
merely go over the old complaints, the endless explanations. She will
probably weep like a child, and I shall feel a brute when I look on
and keep silent. In the first place, if I speak to her, what is there
for me to say? If I simply beg her to stop crying, or if I rush in and
urge her to marry Jim Weatherby to-morrow, what good can come of
either course? She doesn't wait for my consent to the marriage, for
she is as old as I am, and knows her own heart much better than I know
mine. It is true that she is too beautiful to waste away like this,
but how can I prevent it, or what is there for me to do?"
Again came the impulse to go in and fold her in his arms, but
before he had taken the first step he yielded, as always, to his
strange reserve, and he realised that if he entered it would be but
to assume his customary unconcern, from the shelter of which he would
probably make a few commonplace remarks on trivial subjects. The
emotional situation would be ignored by them all, he knew; they would
treat it absolutely as if it had no existence, as if its voice was not
speaking to them in the silence, and they would break their bread and
drink their coffee in apparent unconsciousness that supper was not the
single thing that engrossed their thoughts. And all the time they
would be face to face with the knowledge that they had demanded that
Lila should sacrifice her life.
Presently Cynthia came out and called him, and he went in
carelessly and sat down at the table. Lila left the window and
slipped into her place, and when Tucker joined them she cut up his
food as usual and prepared his coffee.
"Uncle Tucker's cup has no handle, Cynthia," she said with
concern. "Let me take this one and give him another."
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Cynthia, bending over to examine the
break with her near-sighted squint. "We'll soon have to begin using
Aunt Susannah's set, if this keeps up. Uncle Boaz, you've broken
another cup to-day."
Her tone was sharp with irritation, and the fine wrinkles caused
by ceaseless small worries appeared instantly between her eyebrows.
Christopher, watching her, remembered that she had worn the same
expression during the scene with Lila, and it annoyed him unspeakably
that she should be able to descend so readily, and with equal energy,
upon so insignificant a grievance as a bit of broken china.
Uncle Boaz hobbled round the table and peered contemptuously at
the cup which Lila held.
"Dar warn' no use bruckin' dat ar one," he observed, "'caze 'twuz
bruck a'ready." " Oh, there won't be a piece left presently," pursued
Cynthia indignantly; and Christopher felt suddenly that there was
something contemptible in the passion she expended upon trifles. He
wondered if Tucker noticed how horribly petty it all was to lament a
broken cup when the tears were hardly dried on Lila's cheeks.
Finishing hurriedly, he pushed back his chair and rose from the table,
shaking his head in response to Cynthia's request that he should go in
to see his mother. "Not now," he said impatiently, with that nervous
avoidance of the person he loved best. "I'll be back in time to carry
her to bed, but I've got to take a half-hour off and look in on Tom
Spade." "She really ought to go to bed before sundown," responded
Cynthia, "but nothing under heaven will persuade her to do so. It's
her wonderful will that keeps her alive, just as it keeps her sitting
bolt upright in that old chair. I don't believe there's another woman
on earth who could have done it for more than twenty years." Taking
down his hat from a big nail in the wall, Christopher stood for a
moment abstractedly fingering the brim. "Well, I'll be back shortly,"
he said at last, and went out hurriedly into the darkness. At the
instant he could not tell why he had so suddenly decided to follow
Will Fletcher to the store, but, as usual, when the impulse came to
him he proceeded to act promptly as it directed. Strangely enough, the
boy was the one human being whom he felt no inclination to avoid, and
the least oppressive moments that he knew were the reckless ones they
spent together. While his daily companion was mentally and morally
upon a lower plane than his own, the association was not without a
balm for his wounded pride; and the knowledge that it was still
possible to assume superiority to Fletcher's heir was, so far as he
himself admitted, the one consolation that his life contained. As for
his feeling toward Will Fletcher as an individual, it was the outcome
of so curious a mixture of attraction and repulsion that he had long
ceased from any attempt to define it as pure emotion. For the last
four years the boy had been, as Tom Spade put it, "the very shadow on
the man's footsteps," and yet at the end of that time it was almost
impossible for Christopher to acknowledge either his liking or his
hatred. He had suffered him for his own end, that was all, and he had
come at last almost to enjoy the tolerance that he displayed. The hero
worship—the natural imitation of youth— was at least not unpleasant,
and there had been days during a brief absence of the boy when
Christopher had, to his surprise, become aware of a positive vacancy
in his surroundings. So long as Will made no evident attempt to rise
above him—so long, indeed, as Fletcher's grandson kept to Fletcher's
level, it was possible that the companionship would continue as
harmoniously as it had begun. In the store he found Tom Spade and his
wife—an angular, strong-featured woman, in purple calico, who carried
off the reputation of a shrew with noisy honours. When he asked for
Will, the storekeeper turned from the cash-drawer which he was
emptying and nodded toward the half-open door of the adjoining room.
"Several of the young fellows are in thar now," he remarked
offhand, "an' I've jest had to go in an' git between Fred Turner an'
Will Fletcher. They came to out an' out blows, an' I had to shake 'em
both by the scuff of thar necks befo' they'd hish
snarlin'. Bless yo' life, all about a woman, too, every last word
of it. Well, well, meanin' no disrespect to you, Susan, it's a queer
thing that a man can't be born, married, or buried without a woman
gittin' herself mixed up in the business. If she ain't wrappin' you in
swaddlin' bands, you may be sho' she's measurin' off yo'
windin'-sheet. Mark my words, Mr. Christopher, I don't believe thar's
ever been a fight fought on this earth—be it a battle or a plain
fisticuff—that it warn't started in the brain of somebody's mother,
wife, or sweetheart an' it's most likely to have been the sweetheart.
It is strange, when you come to study 'bout it, how sech
peaceable-lookin' creaturs as women kin have sech hearty appetites for
"Well, trouble may be born of a woman, but it generally manages to
take the shape of a man," observed Mrs. Spade from behind the counter,
where she was filling a big glass jar with a fresh supply of striped
peppermint candy. "And as far as that goes, ever sence the Garden of
Eden, men have taken a good deal mo' pleasure in layin' the blame on
thar wives than they do in layin' blows on the devil. It's a fortunate
woman that don't wake up the day after the weddin' an' find she's
married an Adam instid of a man. However, they are as the Lord made
'em, I reckon," she finished charitably, "which ain't so much to thar
credit as it sounds, seein' they could have done over sech a po' job
with precious little trouble."
"Oh, I warn't aimin' at you, Susan," Tom hastened to assure her,
aware from experience that he entered an argument only to be worsted.
"You've been a good wife to me, for all yo' sharp tongue, an' I've
never had to git up an' light the fire sence the day I married you.
Yes, you've been a first-rate wife to me, an' no mistake."
"I'm the last person you need tell that to," was Mrs. Spade's
retort. "I don't reckon I've b'iled inside an' sweated outside for
mo' than twenty years without knowin' it. Lord! Lord! If it took as
hard work to be a Christian as it does to be a wife, thar'd be mighty
few but men in the next world—an' they'd git thar jest by followin'
like sheep arter Adam—"
"I declar', Susan, I didn't mean to rile you," urged Tom, breaking
in upon the flow of words with an appealing effort to divert its
course. "I was merely crackin' a joke with Mr. Christopher, you know."
"I'm plum sick of these here jokes that's got to have a woman on
the p'int of 'em," returned Mrs. Spade, tightly screwing on the top
of the glass jar. "I've always noticed that thar ain't nothin' so
funny in this world but it gits a long sight funnier if a man kin turn
it on his wife."
"Now, my dear—" helplessly expostulated Tom.
"My name's Susan, Tom Spade, an' I'll have you call me by it or
not at all. If thar's one thing I hate on this earth it's a 'dear' in
the mouth of a married man that ought to know better. I'd every bit as
lief you'd shoot a lizard at me, an' you ain't jest found it out. If
you think I'm the kind of person to git any satisfaction out of
improper speeches you were never mo' mistaken in yo' life; an' I kin
p'int out to you right now that I ain't never heard one of them words
yit that I ain't had to pay for it. A 'dear' the mo' is mighty apt to
mean a bucket of water the less. Oh, you can't turn my head with yo'
soft tricks, Tom Spade. I'm a respectable woman, as my mother was
befo' me, an' I don't want familiar doin's from any man, alive or
dead. The woman who does, whether she be married or single, ain't no
better than a female—that's my opinion!"
She paused to draw breath, and Tom was quick to take advantage of
the intermission. "Good Lord, Mr. Christopher, those darn young fools
are at it agin! " he exclaimed, darting toward the adjoining room.
With a stride, Christopher pushed past him and, opening the door,
stopped uncertainly upon the threshold.
At the first glance he saw that the trouble was between Will and
Fred Turner, and that Will, because of his slighter weight, had got
very much the worst of the encounter. The boy stood now, trembling
with anger and bleeding at the mouth, beside an overturned table,
while Fred—a stout, brawny fellow—was busily pummelling his
"You're a sneakin', puny-livered liar, that's what you are!"
finished Turner with a vengeance.
Christopher walked leisurely across the room.
"And you're another," he observed in a quiet voice—the voice of
his courtly father, which always came to him in moments of white
heat. "You are exactly that—a sneaking, puny-livered liar." His
manner was so courteous that it came as a surprise when he struck out
from the shoulder and felled Fred as easily as he might have knocked
over a wooden tenpin. "You really must learn better manners," he
remarked coolly, looking down upon him.
Then he wiped his brow on his blue shirt-sleeve and called for a
glass of beer.
CHAPTER III. Mrs. Blake Speaks her
Mind on Several Matters
Breakfast was barely over the next morning when Jim Weatherby
appeared at the kitchen door carrying a package of horseshoe nails
and a small hammer.
"I thought perhaps Christopher might want to use the mare early,"
he explained to Cynthia, who was clearing off the table. There was a
pleasant precision in his speech, acquired with much industry at the
little country school, and Cynthia, despite her rigid disfavour, could
not but notice that when he glanced round the room in search of Lila
he displayed the advantage of an aristocratic profile. Until to-day
she could not remember that she had ever seen him directly, as it
were; she had looked around him and beyond him, much as she might have
obliterated from her vision a familiar shrub that chanced to intrude
itself into her point of view. The immediate result of her examination
was the possibility she dimly acknowledged that a man might exist as a
well-favoured individual and yet belong to an unquestionably lower
class of life.
"Well, I'll go out to the stable," added Jim, after a moment in
which he had patiently submitted to her squinting observation.
"Christopher will be somewhere about, I suppose?"
"Oh, I suppose so," replied Cynthia indifferently, emptying the
coffee-grounds into the kitchen sink. The asperity of her tone was
caused by the entrance of Lila, who came in with a basin of corn-meal
dough tucked under her bared arm, which showed as round and delicate
as a child's beneath her loosely rolled-up sleeve.
"Cynthia, I can't find the hen-house key," she began; and then,
catching sight of Jim, she flushed a clear pink, while the little
brown mole ran a race with the dimple in her check.
"The key is on that nail beside the dried hops," returned Cynthia
sternly. "I found it in the lock last night and brought it in. It's a
mercy that the chickens weren't all stolen."
Without replying, Lila took down the key, strung it on her little
finger, and, going to the door, passed with Jim out into the autumn
sunshine. Her soft laugh pulsed back presently, and Cynthia, hearing
it, set her thin lips tightly as she carefully rinsed the coffee-pot
Christopher, who had just come up to the wellbrink, where Tucker
sat feeding the hounds from a plate of scraps, gave an abrupt nod in
the direction of the lovers strolling slowly down the hen-house path.
"It will end that way some day, I reckon," he said with a sigh,
"and you know I'm almost of a mind with Cynthia about it. It does
seem a downright pity. Not that Jim isn't a good chap and all that,
but he's an honest, hard-working farmer and nothing more— and, good
heavens! just look at Lila! Why, she's beautiful enough to set the
Smiling broadly, Tucker tossed a scrap of cornbread into Spy's
open jaws; then his gaze travelled leisurely to the hen-house, which
Lila had just unlocked. As she pushed back the door there was a wild
flutter of wings, and the big fowls flew in a swarm about her feet,
one great red-and-black rooster craning his long neck after the basin
she held beneath her arm. While she scattered the soft dough on the
ground she bent her head slightly sideways, looking up at Jim, who
stood regarding her with enraptured eyes.
"Well, I don't know that much good ever comes of setting anything
afire," answered Tucker with his amiable chuckle; "the danger is that
you're apt to cause a good deal of trouble somewhere, and it's more
than likely you'll get singed yourself in putting out the flame. You
needn't worry about Lila, Christopher; she's the kind of woman—and
they're rare—who doesn't have to have her happiness made to order;
give her any fair amount of the raw material and she'll soon manage to
fit it perfectly to herself. The stuff is in her, I tell you; the
atmosphere is about her- -can't you feel it—and she's going to be
happy, whatever comes. A woman who can make over a dress the sixth
time as cheerfully as she did the first has the spirit of a Caesar,
and doesn't need your lamentations. If you want to be a Jeremiah, you
must go elsewhere."
"Oh, I dare say she'll grow content, but it does seem such a
terrible waste. She's the image of that Saint-Memin portrait of Aunt
Susannah, and if she'd only been born a couple of generations ago she
would probably have been the belle of two continents. Such women must
be scarce anywhere."
"She's pretty enough, certainly, and I think Jim knows it. There's
but one thing I've ever seen that could compare with her for colour,
and that's a damask rose that blooms in May on an old bush in the
front yard. When all is said, however, that young Weatherby is no
clodhopper, you know, and I'm not sure that he isn't worthier of her
than any highsounding somebody across the water would have been. He
can love twice as hard, I'll wager, and that's the chief thing, after
all; it's worth more than big titles or fine clothes—or even than
dead grandfathers, with due respect to Cynthia. I tell you, Lila may
never stir from the midst of these tobacco fields; she may be buried
alive all her days between these muddy roads that lead heaven knows
where, and yet she may live a lot bigger and fuller life than she
might have done with all London at her feet, as they say it was at
your Greataunt Susannah's. The person who has to have outside props to
keep him straight must have been made mighty crooked at the start,
and Lila's not like that."
Christopher stooped and pulled Spy's ears.
"That's as good a way to look at it as any other, I reckon," he
remarked; "and now I've got to hurry the shoeing of the mare."
He crossed over and joined Lila and Jim before the henhouse door,
where he put the big fowls to noisy flight.
"Well, you're a trusty neighbour, " he cried good-humoredly,
striking Jim a friendly blow that sent him reeling out into the path.
Lila passed her hand in a sweeping movement round the inside of
the basin and flirted the last drops of dough from her finger-tips.
"A few of your pats will cripple Jim for a week," she observed,
"so you'd better be careful; he's too useful a friend to lose while
there are any jobs to do."
"Why, if I had that muscle I could run a farm with one hand," said
Jim. "Give a plough a single push, Christopher, and I believe it would
run as long as there was level ground."
Cynthia, standing at the kitchen window with a cuptowel slung
across her arm, watched the three chatting merrily in the sunshine,
and the look of rigid resentment settled like a mask upon her face.
She was still gazing out upon them when Docia opened the door behind
her and informed her in a whisper that "Ole miss wanted her moughty
"All right, Docia. Is anything the matter?"
"Naw'm, 'tain' nuttin' 'tall de matter. She's des got fidgetty."
"Well, I'll come in a minute. Are you better to-day? How's your
"Lawd, Miss Cynthia, hit's des bruised all over. Ev'y breaf I draw
hits it plum like a hammer. I hyear hit thump, thump, thump all de
"Be careful, then. Tell mother I'm coming at once."
She hung the cup-towel on the rack, and, taking off her blue
checked apron, went along the little platform to the main part of the
house and into the old lady's parlour, where the morning sunshine fell
across the faces of generations of dead Blakes. The room was still
furnished with the old rosewood furniture, and the old damask curtains
hung before the single window, which gave on the overgrown front yard
and the twisted aspen. Though the rest of the house suggested only the
direst poverty, the immediate surroundings of Mrs. Blake revealed
everywhere the lavish ease so characteristic of the old order which
had passed away. The carving on the desk, on the book-cases, on the
slender sofa, was all wrought by tedious handwork; the delicate damask
coverings to the chairs were still lustrous after almost half a
century; and the few vases scattered here and there and filled with
autumn flowers were, for the most part, rare pieces of old royal
Worcester. While it was yet Indian summer, there was no need of
fires, and the big fireplace was filled with goldenrod, which shed a
yellow dust down on the rude brick hearth.
The old lady, inspired by her indomitable energy, was already
dressed for the day in her black brocade, and sat bolt upright among
the pillows in her great oak chair.
"Some one passed the window whistling, Cynthia. Who was it? The
whistle had a pleasant, cheery sound."
"It must have been Jim Weatherby, I think: old Jacob's son."
"Is he over here?"
"To see Christopher—yes."
"Well, be sure to remind the servants to give him something to eat
in the kitchen before he goes back, and I think, if he's a decent
young man, I should like to have a little talk with him about his
family. His father used to be one of our most respectable labourers."
"It would tire you, I fear, mother. Shall I give you your knitting
"You have a most peculiar idea about me, my child. I have not yet
reached my dotage, and I don't think that a little talk with young
Weatherby could possibly be much of an ordeal. Is he an improper
"No, no, of course not; you shall see him whenever you like. I was
only thinking of you."
"Well, I'm sure I am very grateful for your consideration, my
dear, but there are times, occasionally, you know, when it is better
for one to judge for oneself. I sometimes think that your only fault,
Cynthia, is that you are a little—just a very little bit, you
understand—inclined to manage things too much. Your poor father used
to say that a domineering woman was like a kicking cow; but this
doesn't apply to you, of course."
"Shall I call Jim now, mother?"
"You might as well, dear. Place a chair for him, a good stout one,
and be sure to make him wipe his feet before he comes in. Does he
appear to be clean?"
"I remember his father always was—unusually so for a common
labourer. Those people sometimes smell of cattle, you know; and
besides, my nose has grown extremely sensitive in the years since I
lost my eyesight. Perhaps it would be as well to hand me the bottle of
camphor. I can pretend I have a headache."
"There's no need, really; he isn't a labourer at all, you know,
and he looks quite a gentleman. He is, I believe, considered a very
handsome young man."
Mrs. Blake waved toward the door and the piece of purple glass
flashed in the sunlight. "In that case, I might offer him some
sensible advice," she said. "The Weatherbys, I remember, always
showed a very proper respect for gentle people. I distinctly recall
how well Jacob behaved when on one occasion Micajah Blair—a dreadful,
dissolute character, though of a very old family and an intimate
friend of your father's—took decidedly too much egg-nog one Christmas
when he was visiting us, and insisted upon biting Jacob's cheek
because it looked so like a winesap. Jacob had come to see your father
on business, and I will say that he displayed a great deal of good
sense and dignity; he said afterward that he didn't mind the bite on
his cheek at all, but that it pained him terribly to see a Virginia
gentleman who couldn't balance a bowl of egg-nog. Well, well, Micajah
was certainly a rake, I fear; and for that matter, so was his father
"Father had queer friends," observed Cynthia sadly. "I remember
his telling me when I was a little girl that he preferred that family
to any in the county."
"Oh, the family was all right, my dear. I never heard a breath
against the women. Now you may fetch Jacob. Is that his name?"
"Dear me; that's very odd. He certainly should have been called
after his father. I wonder how they could have been so thoughtless."
Cynthia drew forward an armchair, stooped and carefully arranged
the ottoman, and then went with stern determination to look for Jim
He was sitting in the stable doorway, fitting a shoe on the old
mare, while Lila leaned against an overturned barrel in the sunshine
outside. At Cynthia's sudden appearance they both started and looked
up in amazement, the words dying slowly on their lips.
"Why, whatever is the matter, Cynthia?" cried Lila, as if in
Cynthia came forward until she stood directly at the mare's head,
where she delivered her message with a gasp:
"Mother insists upon talking to Jim. There's no help for it; he
Weatherby dropped the mare's hoof and raised a breathless question
to Cynthia's face, while Lila asked quickly:
"Does she know?"
"Know what?" demanded Cynthia, turning grimly upon her. "Of course
she knows that Jim is his father's son."
The young man rose and laid the hammer down on the overturned
barrel; then he led the mare back to her stall, and coming out again,
washed his hands in a tub of water by the door.
"Well, I'm ready," he observed quietly. "Shall I go in alone?"
"Oh, we don't ask that of you," said Lila, laughing. "Come; I'll
take you." She slipped her hand under his arm and they went gaily
toward the house, leaving Cynthia to pick up the horseshoe nails
lying loose upon the ground.
Hearing the young man's step on the threshold, Mrs. Blake turned
her head with a smile of pleasant condescension and stretched out her
delicate yellowed hand.
"This is Jim Weatherby, mother," said Lila in her softest voice.
"Cynthia says you want to talk to him."
"I know, my child; I know," returned Mrs. Blake, with an animated
gesture. "Come in, Jim, and don't trouble to stand. Find him a chair,
Lila. I knew your father long before you were born," she added,
turning to the young man, "and I knew only good of him. I suppose he
has often told you of the years he worked for us?"
Jim held her hand for an instant in his own, and then, bending
over, raised it to his lips.
"My father never tires of telling us about the old times, and
about Mr. Blake and yourself," he answered in his precise English,
and with the simple dignity which he never lost. Lila, watching him,
prayed silently that a miracle might open the old lady's eyes and
allow her to see the kind, manly look upon his face.
Mrs. Blake nodded pleasantly, with evident desire to put him
wholly at his ease.
"Well, his son is becoming quite courtly," she responded, smiling,
"and I know Jacob is proud of you—or he ought to be, which amounts to
the same thing. There's nothing I like better than to see a good,
hard-working family prosper in life and raise its station. Not that I
mean to put ideas into your head, of course, for it is a ridiculous
sight to see a person dissatisfied with the position in which the good
Lord has placed him. That was what I always liked about your mother,
and I remember very well her refusing to wear some of my old finery
when she was married, on the ground that she was a plain, honest
woman, and wanted to continue so when she was a wife. I hope, by the
way, that she is well."
"Oh, quite. She does not walk much, though; her joints have been
To Lila's surprise, he was not the least embarrassed by the
personal tone of the conversation, and his sparkling blue eyes held
their usual expression of blithe good-humour.
"Indeed!" Mrs. Blake pricked at the subject in her sprightly way.
"Well, you must persuade her to use a liniment of Jamestown weed
steeped in whisky. There is positively nothing like it for
rheumatism. Lila, do we still make it for the servants? If so, you
might send Sarah Weatherby a bottle."
"I'll see about it, mother. Aren't you tired? Shall I take Jim
"Not just yet, child. I am interested in seeing what a promising
young man he has become. How old are you, Jim?"
"Twenty-nine next February. There are two of us, you know—I've a
sister Molly. She married Frank Granger and moved ten miles away."
"Ah, that brings me to the very point I was driving at. Above all
things, let me caution you most earnestly against the reckless
marriages so common in your station of life. For heaven's sake, don't
marry a woman because she has a pretty face and you cherish an
impracticable sentiment for her. If you take my advice, you will found
your marriage upon mutual respect and industry. Select a wife who is
not afraid of work, and who expects no folderol of romance.
Love-making, I've always maintained, should be the pastime of the
leisure class exclusively."
"I'm not afraid of work myself," replied Jim, laughing as he
looked boldly into the old lady's sightless eyes, "but I'd never
stand it for my wife—not a—a lick of it!"
"Tut, tut! Your mother does it."
Jim nodded. "But I'm not my father," he mildly suggested.
"Well, you're a fine, headstrong young fool, and I like you all
the better for it," declared Mrs. Blake. "You may go now, because I
feel as if I needed a doze; but be sure to come in and see me the next
time you're over here. Lila, put the cat on my knees and straighten my
Lila lifted the cat from the rug and placed it in the old lady's
lap; then, as she arranged the soft white pillows, she bent over
suddenly and kissed the piece of purple glass on the fragile hand.
CHAPTER IV. In Which Christopher
Following his impulsive blow in defense of Will Fletcher,
Christopher experienced, almost with his next breath, a reaction in
his feeling for the boy; and meeting him two days later at the door of
the tobacco barn, he fell at once into a tone of contemptuous
"So you let Fred smash you up, eh?" he observed, with a sneer.
"Oh, you needn't talk like that," he answered; "he's the biggest
man about here except you. By the way, you're a bully friend to a
fellow, you know, and it's not a particle of use pretending you don't
like me, because you can't help hitting back jolly quick when anybody
undertakes to give me a licking."
"Why were you such a fool as to go at him?" inquired Christopher,
glancing up at his evenly hanging rows of tobacco, and then coming
outside to lock the door. "You'll never get a reputation as a fighter
if you are always jumping on men over your own size. Now, next time I
should advise you to try your spirit on Sol Peterkin."
"Oh, it was all about Molly," explained Will frankly. "I told Fred
that he was a big blackguard to use the girl so, and then he called me
a 'white-livered liar.'"
"I heard him," remarked Christopher quietly.
"Well, I don't care what he says—he is a blackguard. I'm glad you
knocked him down, too; it was no more than he deserved."
"I didn't do it on Molly Peterkin's account, you know. Tobacco
takes up quite enough of my time without my entering the lists as a
champion of light women. But if you aren't man enough to fight your
own battles, I suppose I'll have to keep my muscle in proper shape."
Will smarted from the words, and the corners of his mouth took a
"I don't see how you expect me to be a match for Fred Turner," he
"Why, I don't expect it," replied Christopher coolly, as he turned
the key in the padlock, drew it out, and slipped it into his pocket.
"I expect you merely to keep away from him, that's all."
Will stared at him in perplexity. "What a devil of a humour you
are in!" he exclaimed.
"Am I?" Christopher broke into a laugh. "You are accustomed to the
sunny temper of your grandfather. How is he to-day? In his usual
"Oh, he's awful," answered the boy, relieved at the change of
subject. "If you could only have heard him yesterday! Somebody told
him about the fight at the store, and, as luck would have it, he found
out that Molly Peterkin was at the bottom of it all. When he called me
into his room and locked the door I knew something was up; and sure
enough, we had blood and thunder for two mortal hours. He threatened
to sell the horses and the hounds, and to put me at the plough, if I
ever so much as looked at the girl again—'gal,' he called her, and a
'brazen wench.' That is the way he talks, you know."
"I know," Christopher nodded gravely.
"But the funny part is, that the thing that made him hottest was
your knocking over Fred Turner. That he simply couldn't stand. Why,
he'd have paid Fred fifty dollars down to thrash me black and blue, he
said. He called you—Oh, he has a great store of pet names!"
"What?" asked Christopher, for the other caught himself up
"Nothing much—he's always doing it, you know."
"You needn't trouble yourself on my account. I'm familiar with his
use of words."
"Oh, he called you 'a crazy pauper who ought to be in gaol.'"
"He did, did he? Well, for once in his life he drew it mild." Then
he gave a long whistle and kicked away a rock in the path. " "'A crazy
pauper who ought to be in gaol.' I've a pretty good-sized debt to
settle with your grandfather, when I come to think of it."
"Just suppose you were in my place now," insisted Will. "Then I
reckon you'd have cause forswearing, sure enough. I tell you I
couldn't get out of that room yesterday until I promised him I'd turn
over a new leaf—that I'd start in with Mr. Morrison to-morrow, and
dig away at Latin and Greek until I go to the university next fall."
Christopher turned quickly.
"To-morrow?" he repeated. "Why, that's the day I had planned we'd
go hunting. Make Morrison's Friday."
The boy wavered.
"Can't we go another day?" he asked. "He's so awfully set on
to-morrow. I'd have to be mighty sharp to fool him again."
"Oh, well, but it's the only day I've free. There's a lot of fall
ploughing to do; then the apples are ready to be gathered; and I must
take some corn to the mill before the week's up. I've wasted too much
time with you as it is. It's the only wealth I have, you see."
"Then I'll go—I'll go," declared Will, jumping to a decision.
"There'll be a terrific fuss if he finds it out, but perhaps he
won't. I'll bring my gun over to the barn to-night, and get Zebbadee
to meet us with the hounds at the bend in the road. Well, I must get
back now. I don't want him to suspect I've seen you to-day."
He started off at a rapid pace, and Christopher, turning in the
other direction, went to bring the horses from the distant pasture.
It was a mellow afternoon, and a golden haze wrapped the broad meadow,
filled with autumn wild flowers, and the little bricked-up graveyard
on the low, green hill. As he swung himself over the bars at the end
of the path he saw Lila and Jim Weatherby gathering goldenrod in the
center of the field. When they caught sight of him, Jim laid his
handful of blossoms in a big basket on the ground and came to join him
on his way to the pasture.
"They are for Mrs. Blake's fireplace," he remarked with a friendly
smile, as he glanced back at Lila standing knee-deep amid the October
"It's a queer idea," observed Christopher, finding himself at a
loss for a reply.
Jim strolled on leisurely, snatching at the heads of wild carrot
as he passed.
"There's something I've wanted to tell you, Christopher," he said
after a moment, turning his pleasant, manly face upon the other.
"Is that so?" asked Christopher, with a sudden desire to avert the
impending responsibility. "Oh, but I hardly think I'm the proper
person, " he added, laughing.
Jim met his eyes squarely.
"I'm a plain man," he said slowly, "and though I'm not ashamed of
it, I know, of course, that my family have always been plain people.
As things are, I had no business on earth to fall in love with your
sister, but all the same it's what I've gone and done."
Christopher nodded and walked on.
"Well, I suppose it's what I should have done, too, in your
place," he returned quietly.
"I've reproached myself for it often enough," pursued Jim; "but
when all is said, how can a man prevent a thing like that? I might as
well try to shut my eyes to the sun when it is shining straight on me.
Why, everybody else seems dull and lifeless when I look at her—and I
seem such a brute myself that I hardly dare touch her hand. All I ask
is to be her servant until I die."
It took courage to speak such words, and Christopher, knowing it,
stopped midway of the little path and regarded Jim with the rare
smile which gave a boyish brightness to his face.
"By George, you are a trump!" he said heartily. "And as far as
that goes, you're good enough for Lila or for anybody else. It isn't
that, you see; it's only—"
"I know," finished Jim quietly and without resentment; "it's my
grandfather. Your sister, Cynthia, told me, and I reckon it's all
natural, but somehow I can't make myself ashamed of the old man— nor
is Lila, for that matter. He was an honest, upright body as ever you
saw, and he never did a mean thing in his life, though he lived to be
"You're right," said Christopher, flushing suddenly; "and as far
as I'm concerned, I'd let Lila marry you to-morrow; but as for
mother, she would simply never consent. The idea would be impossible
to her, and we could never explain things; you must see that
"I see," replied Jim readily; "but the main point is that you
yourself would have no objection to our marriage, provided it were
"Not a bit; not a bit."
He held out his hand, and Jim shook it warmly before he picked up
his basket and went to rejoin Lila.
Turning in the path, Christopher saw the girl, who was sitting
alone on the lowered bars, rise and wave a spray of goldenrod above
her head. Then, as the lovers met, she laid her hand upon Jim's arm
and lifted her glowing face as if to read his words before he uttered
them. Something in the happy surrender of her gesture, or in the
brooding mystery of the Indian summer, when one seemed to hear the
earth turn in the stillness, touched Christopher with a sudden
melancholy, and it appeared to him when he went on again that a shadow
had fallen over the brightness of the autumn fields. Disturbed by the
unrest which follows any illuminating vision of ideal beauty, he asked
himself almost angrily, in an effort to divert his thoughts, if it
were possible that he was weakening in his purpose, since he no longer
found the old zest in his hatred of Fletcher. The deadness of his
emotions had then affected this one also—the single feeling which he
had told himself would be eternal; and the old nervous thrill, so like
the thrill of violent love, no longer troubled him when he chanced to
meet his enemy face to face. To-day he held Will Fletcher absolutely
in his hand, he knew; in a few year's at most his debt to Fletcher
would probably be cancelled; the man and the boy would then be held
together by blood ties like two snarling hounds in the leash—and yet,
when all was said, what would the final outcome yield of satisfaction?
As he put the question he knew that he could meet it only by evasion,
and his inherited apathy enfeebled him even while he demanded an
answer of himself.
As the months went on, his indifference to success or failure
pervaded him like a physical lethargy, and he played his game so
recklessly at last that he sometimes caught himself wondering if it
were, after all, worth a single flicker of the candle. He still saw
Will Fletcher daily; but when the spring came he ceased consciously,
rather from weariness than from any nobler sentiment, to exert an
influence which he felt to be harmful to the boy. For four years he
had wrought tirelessly to compass the ruin of Fletcher's ambition; and
now, when he had but to stretch forth his arm for the final blow, he
admitted impatiently that what he lacked was the impulsive energy the
He was still in this mood when, one afternoon in April, as he was
driving his oxen to the store, he met Fletcher in the road behind the
pair of bays. At sight of him the old man's temper slipped control,
and at the end of a few minutes they were quarrelling as to who should
be the one to turn aside.
"Git out of the road, will you?" cried Fletcher, half rising from
his seat and jerking at the reins until the horses reared. "Drive
your brutes into the bushes and let me pass!"
"If you think I'm going to swerve an inch out of my road to oblige
you, Bill Fletcher, you are almost as big a fool as you are a rascal,"
replied Christopher in a cool voice, as he brought his team to a halt
and placed himself at the head of it with his long rawhide whip in his
As he stood there he had the appearance of taking his time as
lightly as did the Olympian deities; and it was clear that he would
wait patiently until the sun set and rose again rather than yield one
jot or tittle of his right upon the muddy road. While he gazed
placidly over Fletcher's head into the golden distance, he removed his
big straw hat and began fanning his heated face.
There followed a noisy upbraiding from Fletcher, which ended by
his driving madly into the underbrush and almost overturning the
heavy carriage. As he passed, he leaned from his seat and slashed his
whip furiously into Christopher's face; then he drove on at a wild
pace, bringing the horses in a shiver, and flecked with foam, into the
gravelled drive before the Hall.
The bright flower-beds and the calm white pillars were all in
sunshine, and Miss Saidie, with a little, green wateringpot in her
hand, was sprinkling a tub of crocuses beside the steps.
"You look flustered, Brother Bill," she observed, as Fletcher
threw the reins to a Negro servant and came up to where she stood.
"Oh, I've just had some words with that darned Blake," returned
Fletcher, chewing the end of his mustache, as he did when he was in a
rage. "I met him as I drove up the road and he had the impudence to
keep his ox-cart standing plumb still while I tore through the briers.
It's the third time this thing has happened, and I'll be even with him
for it yet."
"I'm sure he must be a very rude person," remarked Miss Saidie,
pinching off a withered blossom and putting it in her pocket to keep
from throwing it on the trim grass. "For my part, I've never been able
to see what satisfaction people git out of being ill-mannered. It
takes twice as long as it does to be polite, and it's not nearly so
good for the digestion afterward."
Fletcher listened to her with a scowl. "Well, if you ever get
anything but curses from Christopher Blake, I'd like to hear of it,"
he said, with a coarse laugh.
Why, he was really quite civil to me the other day when I passed
him," replied Miss Saidie, facing Fletcher with her hand resting on
the belt of her apron. "I was in the phaeton, and he got down off his
wagon and picked up my whip. I declare, it almost took my breath away,
but when I thanked him he raised his hat and spoke very pleasantly."
"Oh, you and your everlasting excuses!" sneered Fletcher, going up
the steps and turning on the porch to look down upon her. "I tell you
I've had as many of 'em as I'm going to stand. This is my house, and
what I say in it has got to be the last word. If you squirt any more
of that blamed water around here the place will rot to pieces under
our very feet."
Miss Saidie placed her watering-pot on the step and lifted to him
the look of amiable wonder which he found more irritating than a
"I forgot to tell you that Susan Spade has been waiting to speak
to you," she remarked, as if their previous conversation had been of
the friendliest nature.
"Oh, drat her! What does she want?"
"She wouldn't tell me—it was for you alone, she said. That was a
good half-hour ago, and she's been waiting in your setting-room ever
sence. She's such a sharp-tongued woman I wonder how Tom manages to
put up with her."
"Well, if he does, I won't," growled Fletcher, as he went in to
meet his visitor.
Mrs. Spade, wearing a severe manner and a freshly starched purple
calico, was sitting straight and stiff on the edge of the
cretonne-covered lounge, and as he entered she rose to receive him
with a visible unbending of her person. She was a lank woman, with a
long, scrawny figure which appeared to have run entirely to muscle,
and very full skirts that always sagged below the belt-line in the
back. Her face was like that of a man— large-featured, impressive,
and not without a ruddy masculine comeliness.
"It's my duty that's brought me, Mr. Fletcher," she began, as they
shook hands. "You kin see very well yo'self that it's not a pleasure,
as far as that goes, for if it had been I never should have come-not
if I yearned and pined till I was sore. I never saw a pleasure in my
life that didn't lead astray, an' I've got the eye of suspicion on the
most harmless-lookin' one that goes. As I tell Tom—though he won't
believe it—the only way to be sartain you're followin' yo' duty in
this world is to find out the thing you hate most to do an' then do it
with all yo' might. That rule has taken me through life, suh: it
married me to Tom Spade, an' it's brought me here to-day. 'Don't you
go up thar blabbin' on Will Fletcher,' said Tom, when I was tyin' on
my bonnet. 'You needn't say one word mo' about it,' was my reply. 'I
know the Lord's way, an' I know mine. I've wrastled with this in
pra'r, an' I tell you when the Lord turns anybody's stomach so dead
agin a piece of business, it means most likely that it's the very
thing they've got to swallow down."
"Oh, Will!" gasped Fletcher, dropping suddenly into his armchair.
"Please come to the point at once, ma'am, and let me hear what the
rascal has done last."
"I'm comin', suh; I'm comin'," Mrs. Spade hastened to assure him.
"Yes, Tom an' I hev talked it all down to the very bone, but I
wouldn't trust a man's judgment on morals any mo' than I would on
matchin' calico. Right an' wrong don't look the same to 'em by
lamplight as they do by day, an' if thar conscience ain't set plum'
in the pupils of thar eyes, I don't know whar 'tis, that's sho'. But,
thank heaven, I ain't one of those that's always findin' an excuse for
people—not even if the backslider be my own husband. Thar's got to be
some few folks on the side of decency, an' I'm one of 'em. Virtue's a
slippery thing—that's how I look at it—an' if you don't git a good
grip on it an' watch it with a mighty stern eye it's precious apt to
wriggle through yo' fingers. I'm an honest woman, Mr. Fletcher, an' I
wouldn't blush to own it in the presence of the King of England
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Fletcher, with a brutal laugh; "do you
mean to tell me the precious young fool has fallen in love with you?"
"Me, suh? If he had, a broomstick an' a spar' rib or so would have
been all you'd ever found of him agin. I've never yit laid eyes on the
man I couldn't settle with a single sweep, an' when a lone woman comes
to wantin' a protector, I've never seen the husband that could hold a
candle to a good stout broom. That's what I said to Jinnie when she
got herself engaged to Fred Boxley. 'Married or single,' I said, 'gal,
wife, or widow, a broom is yo' best friend.'"
Fletcher twisted impatiently in his chair.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, stop your drivelling," he blurted out at
last, "and tell me in plain language what the boy has done."
"Oh, I don't know what he's done or what he hasn't," rejoined Mrs.
Spade, "but I've watched him courtin' Molly Peterkin till I told Tom
this thing had to stop or I would stop it. If thar's a p'isonous snake
or lizard in this country, suh, it's that tow-headed huzzy of Sol
Peterkin's; an' if thar's a sex on this earth that I ain't go no
patience with, it's the woman sex. A man may slip an' slide a little
because he was made that way, but when it comes to a woman she's got
to w'ar whalebones in her clothes when I'm aroun'. Lord! Lord! What's
the use of bein' honest if you can't p'int yo' finger at them that
ain't? Virtue gits mighty little in the way of gewgaws in this world,
an' I reckon it's got to make things up in the way it feels when it
looks at them that's gone astray—"
"Molly Peterkin!" gasped Fletcher, striking the arm of his chair a
blow that almost shattered it. "Christopher Blake was bad enough, and
now it's Molly Peterkin! Out of the frying-pan right spang into the
fire. Oh, you did me a good turn in coming, Mrs. Spade. I'll forgive
you the news you brought, and I'll even forgive you your blasted
chatter. How long has this thing been going on, do you know?"
"That I don't, suh, that I don't; though I've been pryin' an'
peekin' mighty close. All I know is, that every blessed evenin' for
the last two weeks I've seen 'em walkin' together in the lane that
leads to Sol's. This here ain't goin' to keep up one day mo'; that's
what I put my foot down on yestiddy. I'd stop it if I didn't have
nothin' agin that gal but the colour of her hair. I don' know how
'tis, suh, but I've always had the feelin' that thar's somethin'
indecent about yaller hair, an' if I'd been born with it I'd have
stuck my head into a bowl of pitch befo' I'd have gone flauntin' those
corn-tassels in the eyes of every man I met. Thar's nothin' in the
looks of me that's goin' to make a man regret he's got a wife if I can
help it; an' mark my word, Mr. Fletcher, if they had dyed Molly
Peterkin's hair black she might have been a self-respectin' woman an'
a hater of men this very day. A light character an' a light head go
precious well together, an' when you set one a good sober colour the
other's pretty apt to follow."
Fletcher rose from his chair and stood gripping the table hard.
"Have you any reason to think—does it look likely—that young
Blake has had a hand in this?" he asked.
"Who? Mr. Christopher? Why, I don't believe he could tell a
petticoat from a pair of breeches to save his soul. He ain't got no
fancy for corn-tassels and blue ribbons, I kin tell you that. It's
good honest women that are the mothers of families that he takes to,
an' even then it ain't no mo' than 'How are you, Mrs. Spade? A fine
"Well, thar's one thing you may be sartain of," returned Fletcher,
breaking in upon her, "and that is that this whole business is as good
as settled. I leave here with the boy to-morrow morning at sunrise,
and he doesn't set foot agin in this county until he's gone straight
through the university. I'll drag him clean across the broad ocean
before he shall do it."
Then, as Mrs. Spade took a noisy departure, he stood, without
listening to her, gazing morosely down upon the pattern of the
CHAPTER V. The Happiness of Tucker
Early in the following November, Jim Weatherby, returning from the
cross-roads one rainy afternoon, brought Christopher a long, wailing
letter from Will.
"Oh, I've had to walk a chalk-line, sure enough," he wrote, "since
that awful day we left home in a pouring rain, with grandpa wearing a
whole thunderstorm on his forehead. It has been cram, cram, cram ever
since, I can tell you, and here I am now, just started at the
university, with my head still buzzing with the noise of those
confounded ancients. If grandpa hadn't gone when he did, I declare I
believe he would have ended by driving me clean crazy. Since he left
I've had time to take a look about me, and I find there's a good deal
of fun to be got here, after all. How I'll manage to mix it in with
Greek I don't see, but luck's with me, you know—I've found that
out—so I shan't bother.
"By the way, I wish you would make Molly Peterkin understand how
it was I came away so hastily. Tell her I haven't forgotten her, and
give her the little turquoise pin I'm sending. It just matches her
eyes. Be sure to let me know if she's as pretty as ever."
By the next mail the turquoise brooch arrived, and Christopher,
putting it in his pocket, went over to Sol Peterkin's to bear the
message to the girl. As it happened, she was swinging on the little
sagging gate when he came up the lane, and at sight of him her
eyebrows shot up under her flaxen curls, which hung low upon her
forehead. She was a pretty, soulless little animal, coloured like
peach-blossoms, and with a great deal of that soft insipidity which is
usually found in a boy's ideal of maiden innocence.
"Why, I couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw you," she said,
arranging her curls over her left shoulder with a conscious simper.
The old Blake gallantry rose to meet her challenging eyes, and he
regarded her smilingly a moment before he answered.
"Well, I could hardly believe mine, you know," he responded
carelessly. "I thought for an instant that a big butterfly had
alighted on the gate."
She pouted prettily.
"Won't you come in?" she asked after a moment, with an embarrassed
air, as she remembered that he was one of the "real Blakes" for whom
her father used to work.
A light retort was on his lips, but while he looked at her a
little weary frown darkened her shallow eyes, and with the peculiar
sympathy for all those oppressed by man or nature which was but one
expression of his many-sided temperament he quickly changed the tone
of his reply. At the instant it seemed to him that Molly Peterkin and
himself stood together defrauded of their rightful heritage of life;
and as his thought broadened he felt suddenly the pathos of her
forlorn little figure, of her foolish blue eyes, of her trivial
vanities, of her girlish beauty, soiled and worn by common handling. A
look very like compassion was in his face, and the girl, seeing it,
reddened angrily and kicked at a loose pebble in the path. When he
went away a moment later he left a careless message for Sol about the
tobacco crop, and the little white box containing the turquoise brooch
was still in his pocket.
That afternoon the trinket went back to Will with a curt letter.
"If you take my advice, you'll leave Molly Peterkin alone," he wrote
in his big, unformed hand, "for as far as I can see you are too good a
match to get on well together. She's a fool, you know, and from the
way you're going on just now it looks very much as if you were one
also. At any rate, I'm not your man for gallantries. I'd rather hunt
hares than women, any day—and game's plentiful just now."
It was a long winter that year, and for the first time since her
terrible illness Mrs. Blake was forced to keep her bed during a
bitter spell of weather, when the raw winds whistled around the
little frame house, entering the cracks at the doors and the loosened
sashes of the windows. Cynthia grew drawn and pinched with a sickly,
frost-bitten look, and even Lila's rare bloom drooped for a while like
that of a delicate plant starving for the sunshine. Christopher, who,
as usual, was belated in his winter's work, was kept busy hauling and
chopping wood, shovelling the snow away from the porch and the paths
that led to the well, the stable, and the barn. Once a day, most often
after breakfast, Jim Weatherby appeared, smiling gaily beneath his
powdering of snow; and sometimes, in defiance of Cynthia, he would
take Lila for a sleigh-ride, from which she would return blossoming
like a rose.
Mrs. Blake, from her tester bed, complained bitterly of the cold,
and drew from the increasing severity of the winters, which she
declared became more unbearable each year, warrant for her belief in
the gradual "decline of the world as a dwelling-place."
"You may say what you please, Tucker," she remarked one morning
when she had awakened with an appetite to find that her eggs had
frozen in the kitchen, "but you can hardly be so barefaced as to
compliment this weather. I'm sure I never felt anything like it when
I was young."
"Well, at least I have a roof over my head now, and I didn't when
I marched to Romney with old Stonewall," remarked Tucker from the
hearth, where he was roasting an apple before the big logs. "Many's
the morning I waked then with the snow frozen stiff all over me, and I
had to crack through it before I could get up."
The old lady made a peevish gesture.
"It may sound ungrateful," she returned, "but I'm sometimes
tempted to wish that you had never marched to Romney, or that General
Jackson had been considerate enough to choose a milder spell. I really
believe when you come to die you will console yourself with the
recollection of something worse that happened in the war."
Tucker laughed softly to himself as he watched the apple revolving
in the red heat on its bit of string. "Well, I'm not sure that I
shan't, Lucy," he said.
"Habit's mighty strong, you know, and when you come to think of it
there's some comfort in knowing that you'll never have to face the
worst again. A man doesn't duck his head at the future when he's
learned that, let be what will; it can't be so bad as the thing he's
gone through with and yet come out on top. It gives him a pretty good
feeling, after all, to know that he hasn't funked the hardest knock
that life could give. Well, my birds are hungry, I reckon, and I'll
hobble out and feed 'em while this apple is roasting to the core."
Raising himself with difficulty, he got upon his crutches and went
to scatter his crumbs from the kitchen window.
By the first of March the thaw came, and the snow melted in a day
beneath the lavish spring sunshine. It was a week later that
Christopher, coming from the woods at midday, saw Tucker sitting on
his old bench by the damask rose-bush, in which the sap was just
beginning to swell. The sun shone full on the dead grass, and the old
soldier, with his chin resting in the crook of his crutch, was gazing
straight down upon the earth. The expression of his large, kindly face
was so radiant with enjoyment that Christopher quickened his steps and
slapped him affectionately upon the shoulder.
"Is Fletcher dead, Uncle Tucker?" he inquired, laughing.
"No, no; nobody's dead that I've heard of," responded Tucker in
his cheerful voice; "but something better than Bill Fletcher's death
has happened, I can tell you. Why, I'd been sitting out here an hour
or more, longing for the spring to come, when suddenly I looked down
and there was the first dandelion—a regular miracle—blooming in the
mould about that old rose-bush."
"Well, I'll be hanged!" exclaimed Christopher, aghast. "Mark my
words, you'll be in an asylum yet."
The other chuckled softly.
"When you put me there you'll shut up the only wise man in the
county," he returned. "If your sanity doesn't make you happy, I can
tell you it's worth a great deal less than my craziness. Look at that
dandelion, now—it has filled two hours chock full of thought and
colour for me when I might have been puling indoors and nagging at God
Almighty about trifles. The time has been when I'd have walked right
over that little flower and not seen it, and now it grows yellower
each minute that I look at it, and each minute I see it better than I
did the one before. There's nothing in life, when you come to think of
it—not Columbus setting out to sea nor Napoleon starting on a
march—more wonderful than that brave little blossom putting up the
first of all through the earth."
"I can't see anything in a dandelion but a nuisance," observed
Christopher, sitting down on the bench and baring his head to the
sunshine; "but you do manage to get interest out of life, that's
"Interest! Good Lord!" exclaimed Tucker. "If a man can't find
something to interest him in a world like this, he must be a dull
fellow or else have a serious trouble of the liver. So long as I have
my eyes, and there's a different sky over my head each day, and earth,
and trees, and flowers all around me, I don't reckon I'll begin to
whistle to boredom. If I were like Lucy, now, I sometimes think things
would be up with me, and yet Lucy is one of the very happiest women
I've ever known. Her brain is so filled with pleasant memories that
it's never empty for an instant."
Christopher's face softened, as it always did at an allusion to
his mother's blindness.
"You're right," he said; "she is happy."
"To be sure, she's had her life," pursued Tucker, without noticing
him. "She's been a beauty, a belle, a sweetheart, a wife, and a
mother—to say nothing of a very spoiled old woman; but all the same,
I don't think I have her magnificent patience. Oh, I couldn't sit in
the midst of all this and not have eyes to see."
With a careless smile Christopher glanced about him—at the bright
blue sky seen through the bare trees, at the dried carrot flowers in
the old field across the road, at the great pine growing on the little
"I hardly think she misses much," he said, and added after a
moment, "Do you know I'd give twenty—no forty, fifty years of this
for a single year of the big noisy world over there. I'm dog-tired of
"Well, it's natural," admitted Tucker gently. "At your age I
doubtless felt the same. The young want action, and they ought to
have it, because it makes the quiet of middle age seem all the
sweeter. You've missed your duels and your flirtations and your
pomades, and you've been put into breeches and into philosophy at the
same time. Why, one might as well stick a brier pipe in the mouth of a
boy who is crying for his first gun and tell him to go sit in the
chimney-corner and be happy. When I was twenty-five I travelled all
the way to New York for the latest Parisian waistcoat, but I can't
remember that I ever strolled round the corner to see a peach-tree in
full bloom. I'm a lot happier now, heaven knows, in my homespun coat,
than I was then in that waistcoat of satin brocade, so I sometimes
catch myself wishing that I could see again the people I knew
then—the men I quarrelled with and the women I kissed. I'd like to
apologise for the young fool of thirty years ago."
Christopher stirred restlessly, and, clasping his hands behind his
head, stared at a small white cloud drifting slowly above the great
"Well, it's the fool part I envy you, all the same," he remarked.
"You're welcome to it, my boy," answered Tucker; then he paused
abruptly and bent his ear. "Ah, there's the bluebird! Do you hear him
whistling in the meadow? God bless him; he's a hearty fellow and has
spring in his throat."
"I passed one coming up," said Christopher.
"The same, I reckon. He'll be paying me a visit soon, and I've got
my crumbs ready." He smiled brightly and then sat with his chin on his
crutch, looking steadily across the road. "You haven't had your
chance, my boy," he resumed presently; "and a man ought to have
several chances to look round him in this world, for otherwise the
things he misses will always seem to him the only things worth having.
I'm not much of a fellow to preach, you'll say—a hundred and eighty
pounds of flesh that can't dress itself nor hobble about without
crutches that are strapped on- -but if it's the last word I speak I
wouldn't change a day in my long life, and if it came to going over it
again I'd trust it all in the Lord's hands and start blindfolded. And
yet, when I look back upon it now, I see that it wasn't much of a life
as lives go, and the two things I wanted most in it I never got."
Christopher turned quickly with a question.
"Oh, you think I have always been a contented, prosaic chap,"
pursued Tucker, smiling, "but you were never more mistaken since you
were born. Twice in my life I came mighty near blowing out my
brains—once when I found that I couldn't go to Paris and be an
artist, and the second time when I couldn't get the woman I wanted
for my wife. I wasn't cut out for a farmer, you see, and I had always
meant from the time I was a little boy to go abroad and study
painting. I'd set my heart on it, as people say, but when the time
came my father died and I had to stay at home to square his debts and
run the place. For a single night I was as clean crazy as a man ever
was. It meant the sacrifice of my career, you know, and a career
seemed a much bigger thing to me then than it does to-day."
"I never heard that," said Christopher, lowering his voice.
"There's a lot we don't know even about the people we live in a
little house with. You never heard, either, I dare say, that I was so
madly in love once that when the woman threw me over for a better man
I shut myself up in a cabin in the woods and did not speak to a human
being for six months. I was a rare devil, sure enough, though you'd
never believe it to see me now. It took two blows like that, a four
years' war, and the surgeon's operating table to teach me how to be
"It was Miss Matoaca Bolling, I suppose?" suggested Christopher,
with a mild curiosity.
The old soldier broke into his soft, full laugh.
"Matoaca! Bless your soul, no. But to think that Lucy should have
kept a secret for more than thirty years! Never talk to me again
about a woman's letting anything out. If she's got a secret that it
mortifies her to tell it will be buried in the grave with her, and
most likely it will never see the light at judgment Day. Lucy was
always ashamed of my being jilted, you know."
"It's a new story then, is it?"
"Oh, it's as old as the hills by now. What's the funny part,
though, is that Lucy has always tried to persuade herself it was
really Matoaca I cared for. You know, I sometimes think that a woman
can convince herself that black is white if she only keeps trying hard
enough—and it's marvellous that she never sees the difference between
wanting to believe a thing and believing it in earnest. Now, if
Matoaca had been the last woman on this earth, and I the last man, I
could never have fallen in love with her, though I may as well confess
that I had my share of fancies when I was young. It's no use
attempting to explain a man's feelings, of course. Matoaca was almost
as great a belle as Lucy, and she was the handsomest creature you ever
laid eyes on—one of those big, managing women who are forever
improving things around them. Why, I don't believe she could stay two
seconds in a man's arms without improving the set of his cravat. Some
men like that kind of thing, but I never did, and I often think the
reason I went so mad about the other woman was that she came restful
after Matoaca. She was the comforting kind, who, you might be sure,
always saw you at your best; and no matter the mood you were in, she
never wanted to pat and pull you into shape. Lucy always said she
couldn't hold a candle to Matoaca in looks, and I suppose she was
right; but, pretty or plain, that girl had something about her that
went straight to my heart more than thirty years ago and stays there
still. Strange to say, I've tried to believe that it was half
compassion, for she always reminded me of a little wild bird that
somebody had caught and shut up in a cage, and it used to seem to me
sometimes that I could almost hear the fluttering of her soul. Well,
whatever it was, the feeling was the sort that is most worth while,
though she didn't think so, of course, and broke her great heart over
another man. She married him and had six children and died a few years
ago. He was a fortunate fellow, I suppose, and yet I can't help
fancying that I've had the better part and the Lord was right. She was
not happy, they said, and he knew it, and yet had to face those eyes
of hers every day. It was like many other marriages, I reckon; he got
used to her body and never caught so much as a single glimpse of her
soul. Then she faded away and died to him, but to me she's just the
same as when I first saw her, and I still believe that if she could
come here and sit on this old bench I should be perfectly happy. It's
a lucky man, I tell you, who can keep the same desire for more than
He shook his head slowly, smiling as he listened to the bluebird
singing in the road. "And now I'll be fetching my crumbs," he added,
struggling to his crutches.
When he had helped Tucker to the house, Christopher came back and
sat down again on the bench, closing his eyes to the sunshine, the
spring sky, and the dandelion blooming in the mould. He was very
tired, and his muscles ached from the strain of heavy labour, yet as
he lingered there in the warm wind it seemed to him that action was
the one thing he desired. The restless season worked in his blood, and
he felt the stir of old impulses that had revived each year with the
quickening sap since the first pilgrimage man made on earth. He wanted
to be up and away while he was still young, and his heart beat high,
and at the moment he would have found positive delight in any
convulsion of the natural order, in any excuse for a headlong and
impetuous plunge into life.
He heard the door open again, and Tucker shuffled out into the
path and began scattering his crumbs upon the gravel. When
Christopher passed a moment later, on his way to the house, the old
soldier was merrily whistling an invitation to a glimpse of blue in a
tree-top by the road.
The spring dragged slowly, and with June came the transplanting of
the young tobacco. This was the busiest season of the year with
Christopher, and so engrossed was he in his work that for a week at
the end of the month he did not go down for the county news at Tom
Spade's store. Fletcher was at home, he knew, but he had heard nothing
of Will, and it was through the storekeeper at last that he learned
definitely of the boy's withdrawal from the university. Returning from
the field one afternoon at sunset, he saw Tom sitting beside Tucker in
the yard, and in response to a gesture he crossed the grass and
stopped beside the long pine bench.
"I say, Mr. Christopher, I've brought you a bit of news," called
the storekeeper at the young man's approach.
"Well, let's have it," returned Christopher, laughing. "If you're
going to tell me that Uncle Tucker has discovered a rare weed,
though, I warn you that I can't support it."
"Oh, I'm not in this, thank heaven," protested Tucker; "but to
tell the truth, I'm downright sorry for the boy—Fletcher or no
"Ah," said Christopher under his breath, "so it's Will Fletcher?"
"He's in a jolly scrape this time, an' no mistake," replied Tom.
"He's been leadin' a wild life at the university, it seems, an'
to-day Fletcher got a telegram saying that the boy had been caught
cheatin' in his examinations. The old man left on the next train, as
mad as a hornet, I can tell you. He swore he'd bring the young scamp
back an' put him to the plough. Well, well, thar are worse dangers
than a pretty gal, though Susan won't believe it."
"Then he'll bring him home?" asked Christopher, blinking in the
sunlight. At the instant it seemed to him that sky and field whirled
rapidly before his eyes, and a strange noise started in his ears which
he found presently to be the throbbing of his arteries.
"Oh, he's been given a hard push down the wrong road," answered
Tom, "an' it's more than likely he'll never pull up till he gits
clean to the bottom."
CHAPTER VI. The Wages of Folly
Two days later Fletcher's big new carriage crawled over the muddy
road, and Christopher, looking up from his work in the field, caught
a glimpse of the sullen face Will turned on the familiar landscape.
The younger Fletcher had come home evidently nursing a grievance at
his heart; his eyes held a look of dogged resentment, and the hand in
which he grasped the end of the linen dust-robe was closed in an
almost convulsive grip. When he met Christopher's gaze he glanced
angrily away without speaking, and then finding himself face to face
with his grandfather's scowl he jerked impatiently in the opposite
direction. It was clear that the tussle of wills had as yet wrung only
an enforced submission from the younger man.
Lifting his head, Christopher stood idly watching the carriage
until it disappeared between the rows of flowering chestnuts; then,
returning in a half-hearted fashion to his work, he found himself
wondering curiously if Fletcher's wrath and Will's indiscretions were
really so great as public rumour might lead one to suppose.
An answer to his question came the next evening, when he heard a
light, familiar whistle outside the stable where he was at work, and
a moment afterward Will appeared in the shadow of the doorway.
"So it wasn't a cut, after all?" said Christopher with a laugh, as
he held out his hand.
"I'll be hanged if I know what it was," was Will's response,
turning away after a limp grasp and seating himself upon the big box
in the corner. "To tell the truth, grandpa has put me into such a
fluster that I hardly know my head from my heels. There's one thing
certain, though; if he doesn't take his eye off me for a breathing
space he'll send me to the dogs before he knows it."
His face had lost its boyish freshness of complexion and his weak
mouth had settled into lines of sullen discontent. Even his dress
displayed the carelessness which is one of the outward marks of a
disordered mind, and his bright blue tie was loosely knotted in
"What's the trouble now?" demanded Christopher, coming from the
stall and hanging his lantern from a nail beside the ladder, where
the light fell full on Will's face. "Out with it and have done. I
thought yesterday that you had been driving a hard bargain with the
old man on my account."
"Oh, it's not you this time, thank heaven," returned Will. "It's
all about that confounded scrape I got into at the university. I told
him it would mean trouble if he sent me there, but he would do it
whether or no. He dragged me away from here, you remember, and had me
digging at my books with a scatter-brained tutor for a good six
months; then when I knew just about enough to start at the university
he hauled me there with his own hands and kept watch over me for
several weeks. I'm quick at most things like that, so after he went
away I thought I'd have a little fun and trust luck to make it up to
me at the end—but it all went against me somehow, and then they
stirred up that blamed rumpus about the examinations."
Yawning more in disgust than in drowsiness, he struck a match on
the edge of the box and lighted a cigarette. His flippant manner was
touched with the conscious resentment which still lingered in his
eyes, and from the beginning to the end of his account he betrayed no
hint of a regret for his own shabby part in the affair. When it was
not possible to rest the blame upon his grandfather, he merely
shrugged his shoulders and lightly tossed the responsibility to fate.
"This is one of the things I daren't do at the house," he remarked
after a moment, inhaling a cloud of smoke and blowing it in spirals
through his nostrils; "the old man won't tolerate anything more decent
than a pipe, unless it happens to be a chew. Oh, I'm sick to death of
the whole business," he burst out suddenly. "When I woke up this
morning I had more than half a mind to break loose and go abroad to
Maria. By the way, Wyndham's dead, you know; he died last fall just
after we went away."
"Ah, is that so!" exclaimed Christopher. "She'll come home, then,
"That's the queer part—she won't, and nobody knows why. Wyndham
turned out to be a regular scamp, of course; he treated her
abominably and all that, but he no sooner died than she turned about
and picked up one of his sisters to nurse and coddle. Oh, it's all
foolishness, but I've half a mind to run away, all the same. A life
like this will drive me crazy in six months, and I'll be hanged if it
is my fault, after all. He knew I never had a head for books, but he
drove me at them as if I were no better than a black slave. Things
have all been against me from the start, and yet I used to think that
I was born to be lucky—"
"What does he mean to do with you now?" inquired Christopher.
"Put me to the plough, he says; but I can't stand it—I haven't
the strength. Why, this morning he made me hang around that tobacco
field in the blazing sun for two mortal hours, minding those shiftless
darkies. If I complain; or even go off to sit down in a bit of shade,
he rushes up and blusters about kicking me out of doors unless I earn
my bread. Oh, his temper is simply awful, and he gets worse every day.
He's growing stingy, too, and makes us live like beggars. All the
vegetables go to market now, and most of the butter, and this morning
he blew Aunt Saidie's head off because she had spring chickens on the
breakfast table. I don't dare ask him for a penny, and yet he's
rich—one of the richest men in the State, they say."
"Well, it sounds jolly," observed Christopher, smiling.
"Oh, you can't imagine the state of things, and you'd never
believe it if I told you. It's worse than any fuss you ever heard of
or ever saw. I used to be able to twist him round my finger, you know,
and now he hates me worse than he does a snake. He hasn't spoken a
word to me since that scene we had at the university, except to order
me to go out and watch the Negroes plant tobacco. If he finds out I
want a thing he'll move heaven and earth to keep me from getting
it—and then sit by and grin. He's got a devil in him, that's the
truth, and there's nothing to do except keep out of his way as much as
possible. I'm patient, too—Aunt Saidie knows it—and the only time I
ever hit back was when he jumped on you the other day. Then I got mad
and struck out hard, I tell you."
Christopher leaned over and began buckling and unbuckling a
leather strap in the harness-box.
"Don't get into hot water on my account," he returned; "the more
he abuses me, you know, the better I like it. But it's odd that after
all these years he should want to turn you into an overseer."
"Well, he shan't do it; that's certain. It will be a cold day when
he gets me masquerading in the family character. Let him go just one
step too far and I'll shake him off for good, and strike out on a
freight-train. Life couldn't be any worse than it is now, and it might
be a great deal better. As to my hanging round like this much longer
and swearing at a pack of worthless darkies—well, it's more than I
bargain for, that's all."
"There's not much excitement in it, to be sure. I would rather be
a freight-hand myself, I think, when all is said."
"Oh, you needn't joke. You were brought up to it and it doesn't
come so hard."
"Not so hard as it does to me, at any rate. There's got to be some
dash about life, I tell you, to make it suit my taste. I wasn't born
to settle down and count my money and my tobacco from morning till
night. It's spice I want in things, and—hang it! I don't believe
there's a pretty woman in the county."
For a moment Christopher stared silently down at the matted straw.
His face had grown dark, and the reckless lines about his mouth became
"Why, where's Molly Peterkin?" he asked abruptly, with a laugh
that seemed to slip from him against his will.
The other broke into a long whistle and tossed the end of his
cigarette through the doorway.
"You needn't think I've forgotten her," he replied; "she's the one
bright spot I see in this barren hole. By the way, why do you think
her a fool?"
"Because she is one."
"And you're a brute. What does a man want with brains in a woman,
anyway. Maria had them and they didn't keep her from coming to
Christopher reached for the lantern.
"Well, I've got to go now," he broke in, "and you'd better be
trotting home or you'll have the old man and the hounds out after
With the lantern swinging from his hand, he went to the door and
waited for Will; then passing out, he turned the key in the lock, and
with a short "Good-night!" started briskly toward the house.
Will followed him to the kitchen steps, and then keeping to the
path that trailed across the yard, he passed through the whitewashed
gate and went on along the sunken road which led by the abandoned
ice-pond. Here he turned into the avenue of chestnuts, and with the
lighted windows of the Hall before him, walked slowly toward the
impending interview with his grandfather.
As he entered the house, Miss Saidie looked out from the
dining-room doorway and beckoned in a stealthy fashion with the
"He has been hunting everywhere for you," she whispered, "and I
told him you'd gone for a little stroll along the road."
An expression of anger swept over Will's face, and he made a
helpless gesture of revolt.
"I won't stand it any longer," he answered, with a spurt of
resolution which was exhausted in the feeble speech.
Miss Saidie put up her hand and straightened his necktie with an
"Only for a little while, dear," she urged; "he's in one of his
black humours, and it will blow over, never fear. Things are never so
bad but there's hope of a mending some day. Try to please him and go
to work as he wants you to do. It all came of the trouble at the
university—he had set his heart on your carrying off the honours."
"It was his fault," said Will stubbornly. "I begged him not to
send me there. It was his fault."
"Well, that can't be helped now," returned the little woman
decisively. "All we can do is to make things as easy as we can, and
if thar's ever to be any peace in this house again you must try to
humour him. I never saw him in such a state before, and I've known him
for sixty years and slept in a trundle-bed with him as a baby. The
queerest thing about it, too, is that he seems to get closer and
closer every day. Just now thar was a big fuss because I hadn't sent
all the fresh butter to market, and I thought he'd have a fit when he
found I was saving some asparagus for dinner to-morrow."
"Where is he now?" asked Will in a whisper.
"Complaining over some bills in his setting-room; and he actually
told me a while ago, when I went in, that he had been a fool to give
Maria so much money for Wyndham to throw away. Poor Maria! I'm sure
she has had a hard enough time without being abused for something she
couldn't help. But it really is a passion with him, thar's no use
denying it. He spends his whole time adding up the cost of what we
Then, as the supper-bell rang in the hall, she finished hurriedly,
and assuming a cheerful manner, took her place behind the silver
Fletcher entered with a heavy step, his eyes lowering beneath his
bushy eyebrows. The weight of his years appeared to have fallen upon
him in a night, and he was no longer the hale, ruddy man of middle
age, with his breezy speeches and his occasional touches of coarse
humour. The untidiness of his clothes was still marked-his coat, his
cravat, his fingér nails, all showed the old lack of neatness.
"Won't you say grace, Brother Bill?" asked Miss Saidie, as he
paused abstractedly beside his chair.
Bending his head, he mumbled a few hurried words, and then cast a
suspicious glance over the long table.
"I told you to use the butter with onions in it," he said, helping
himself and tasting a little on the end of his knife. "This brings
forty cents a pound in market, and I'll not have the waste."
"Oh, Brother Bill, the other is so bad," gasped Miss Saidie
"It's good enough for you and me, I reckon. We wan't brought up on
any better, and what's good enough for us is good enough for my
grandson." Then he turned squarely upon Will. "So you're back, eh?
Whar did you go?" he demanded
Will tried to meet his eyes, failed, and stared gloomily at the
white-and-red border of the tablecloth.
"I went out for a breath of air," he answered in a muffled voice.
"It's been stifling all day."
"You've got to get used to it, I reckon," returned the old man
with a brutal laugh. "I'll have no idlers and no fancy men about me."
An ugly smile distorted his coarse features, and, laying down his
knife and fork, he sat watching his grandson with his small,
CHAPTER VII. The Toss of a Coin
A fortnight passed before Will came to Christopher's again, and
then he stole over one evening in the shadow of the twilight. Things
were no better, he said; they were even worse than usual; the work in
the tobacco field was simply what he couldn't stand, and his
grandfather was growing more intolerable every day. Besides this, the
very dullness of the life was fast driving him to distraction. He had
smuggled a bottle of whisky from the town, and last night, after a hot
quarrel with the old man, he had succeeded in drugging himself to
sleep. "My nerves have gone all to pieces," he finished irritably,
"and it's nothing on earth but this everlasting bickering that has
done it. It's more than flesh and blood can be expected to put up
His hand shook a little when he lighted a cigarette, and his face,
which was burned red from wind and sun, contracted nervously as he
talked. It was the wildness in his speech, however, the suppressed
excitement which ran in an undercurrent beneath his words, that caused
the other to turn sharply and regard him for a moment with gathered
"Well, take my advice and don't try that dodge too often,"
remarked Christopher in a careless tone.
"What in the deuce does it matter?" returned Will desperately. "It
was the only quiet night I've had for three weeks: I slept like a log
straight through until the breakfast-bell. Then I was late, of course,
and he threatened to take an hour's time from my day's wages. By the
way, he pays me now, you know, just as he does the other labourers."
For a time he kept up his rambling complaint, but, breaking off
abruptly at last, made some trivial excuse, and started homeward
across the fields. Christopher, looking after him, was hardly
surprised when he saw him branch off into the shaded lane that led to
There followed a month when the two met only at long intervals,
and then with a curious constraint of manner. Sometimes Christopher,
stopping on his way to the pasture, would exchange a few words over
the rail fence with Will, who lounged on the edge of his grandfather's
tobacco crop; but the old intimacy had ceased suddenly to exist, and
it was evident that a newer interest had distracted the boy's ardent
It was not until August that the meaning of the change was made
clear to Christopher, when, coming one day to a short turn in a
little woodland road upon his land, he saw Will and Molly Peterkin
sitting side by side on a fallen log. The girl had been crying, and at
the sight of Christopher she gave a frightened sob and pulled her blue
gingham sunbonnet down over her forehead; but Will, inspired at the
instant by some ideal of chivalry, drew her hand through his arm and
came out boldly into the road.
"You know Molly," he said in a brave voice that was not without
pathos, "but you don't know that she has promised to be my wife."
Whatever the purpose of the girl's tears, she had need of them no
longer, for with an embarrassed little laugh she flushed and dimpled
into her pretty smile.
"Your wife?" repeated Christopher blankly. "Why, you're no better
than two children and deserve to be whipped. If I were in your place,
I'd start to catching butterflies, and quit fooling."
He passed on laughing merrily; but before the day was over he
began to wonder seriously if Will could be really sincere in his
intention to marry Molly Peterkin—poor, pretty Molly, whose fame was
blown to the four corners of the county.
By night the question had come to perplex him in earnest, and it
was almost with relief that he heard a familiar rattle on his
window-pane as he undressed, and, looking out, saw Will standing in
the long grass by the porch.
"Well, it's time you turned up," he said, when he had slipped
cautiously down the staircase and joined him in the yard.
"Get your lantern," returned Will, "and come on to the barn.
There's something I must see you about at once," and while the other
went in search of the light, he stood impatiently uprooting a tuft of
grass as he whistled a college song in unsteady tones.
At the end of a minute Christopher reappeared, bearing the
lantern, which he declared was quite unnecessary because of the
"Oh, but I must talk indoors," responded Will; "the night makes me
creepy—it always did."
"So there is something to say, and it's no nonsense? Are the skies
about to fall, or has your grandfather got a grip on his temper?"
"Pshaw! It's not that. Wait till we get inside." And when they had
entered the barn, he turned and carefully closed the door, after
flashing the light over the trampled straw in the dusky corners. In
the shed outside a new-born calf bleated plaintively, and at the sound
he started and broke into an apologetic laugh. "You thought I was
joking to-day," he said suddenly.
"So I presumed," he answered, wondering if drink or love or both
together had produced so extreme an agitation.
"Well, I wasn't," declared Will, and, placing the lantern on the
floor, he raised his head to meet the other's look. "I was as dead in
earnest as I am this minute—and if it's the last word I ever speak, I
mean to marry Molly Peterkin."
His excitable nerves were plainly on the rack of some strong
emotion, and as he met the blank amazement in Christopher's face he
turned away with a gesture of angry reproach.
"Then you're a fool," said Christopher, with a shrug of his
Will quivered as if the words struck him like a whip.
"Because she's Sol Peterkin's daughter?" he burst out. Christopher
"It's not her father, but her character, that I was thinking of,"
he answered, and the next instant fell back in sheer surprise, for
Will, flinging himself recklessly upon him, struck him squarely in the
As they fell breathlessly apart Christopher was conscious that for
the first time in his life he felt something like respect for Will
Fletcher—or at least for that expression of courageous passion which
in the vivid moments of men's lives appears to raise the strong and
the weak alike above the ordinary level of their surroundings. For a
second he stood swallowing down the anger which the blow aroused in
him—an anger as purely physical as the mounting of the hot blood to
his cheek—then he looked straight into the other's face and spoke in
a pleasant voice.
"I beg your pardon; it was all my fault," he said.
"I knew you'd see it," answered Will, appeased at once by the
confession, "and I counted on you to help us; that's why I came."
"To help you?" repeated Christopher, a little startled.
"Well, we've got to be married, you know—there's simply nothing
else to do. All this confounded talk about Molly has come near
killing her, and the poor child is afraid to look anybody in the
face. She's so innocent, you know, that half the time she doesn't
understand what their lies are all about."
"Good God!" said Christopher beneath his breath.
"And besides, what use is there in waiting?" urged Will. "Grandpa
won't be any better fifty years from now than he is to-day, and by
that time we'd be old and gray-haired. This life is more than I can
stand, anyway, and it makes mighty little difference whether it ends
one way or another. Just so I have Molly I don't care much what
"But you can't marry—it's simply out of the question. Why, you're
not yet twenty."
"Oh, we can't marry here, of course, but we're going on to
Washington to-morrow—all our plans are made, and that's why I came
to see you. I want to borrow your horses to take us to the crossroads
at midnight. "
Seizing him by the shoulder, Christopher shook him roughly in a
"Wake up," he said impatiently; "you are either drunk or asleep,
and you're going headlong to the devil. If you do this thing you'll
be ashamed of it in two weeks." Then he released him, laughing as he
watched him totter and regain his balance. "But if you're bent on
being an ass, then, for heaven's sake, go and be one," he added
A shiver passed through Will, and he stuttered an instant before
he could form his words.
"She told me you'd say that," he replied. "She told me you'd
always hated her."
"Hate her? Nonsense! She isn't worth it. I'd as soon hate a white
kitten. As far as that goes, I've nothing against the girl, and I
don't doubt she'd be a much better wife than most men deserve. I'm
not prating about virtue, mind you; I'm only urging common sense.
You're too young and too big a fool to marry anybody."
"Well, you disapprove of her, at any rate—you're against her, and
that's why I haven't talked about her before. She's the most beautiful
creature alive, I tell you, and I wouldn't give her up if to keep her
meant I'd be a beggar."
"It will mean that, most likely."
Turning away, Will drew a small flask from his pocket and,
unscrewing the stopper, raised the bottle to his lips. "I'd go mad
but for this," he said; "that's why I've carried it about with me for
the last week. It's the only thing that drives away this horrible
As he drank, Christopher regarded him curiously, noting that the
whisky lent animation to his face and an unnatural luster to his
eyes. The sunburn on his forehead appeared to deepen all at once, and
there was a bright red flush across his cheeks.
"You won't take my advice," said Christopher at last, "but I can't
help telling you that unless you're raving mad you'd better drop the
whole affair as soon as possible."
"Not now—not now, " protested Will gaily, consumed by an
artificial energy. "Don't preach to me while the taste of a drink is
still in my mouth, for there's no heart so strong as the one whisky
puts into a man. When I feel my courage oozing from my fingers I can
reinforce it in less time than it takes to sneak away."
Growing boisterous, he assumed a ridiculous swagger, and broke
into a fragment of a college song. Until morning he would not
probably become himself again, and, knowing this, Christopher
desisted helplessly from his efforts at persuasion.
"You will lend me the horses?" asked Will, keeping closely to his
"Are you steady enough?"
"Of course—of course, " he stretched out his hands and moved a
pace or two away; "and besides, Dolly drives like old Nick."
"Well, I'll see," said Christopher, and going to the window, he
flung back the rude shutter and looked out into the August night. The
warm air touched his face like a fragrant breath, and from the
darkness a big white moth flew over his shoulder to where the lantern
burned dimly on the floor.
"I may take them?" urged Will again, pulling him by the sleeve.
At the words Christopher turned and walked slowly back across the
"Yes, I'll lend them to you," he answered, without meeting the
"You're a jolly good chap; I always knew it, " cried Will
heartily. "I'll take them out at midnight, when there's a good moon,
and get Jerry Green to drive them back to-morrow. Hurrah! It's the
best night's work you ever did!"
He went out hurriedly, still singing his college song, and
Christopher, without moving from his place, stood watching the big
white moth that circled dizzily about the lantern. At the instant he
regretted that Will had appealed to him—regretted even that he had
promised him the horses. He wished it had all come about without his
knowledge—that Fletcher's punishment and Will's ruin had been wrought
less directly by his own intervention. Next he told himself that he
would have stopped this thing had it been possible, and then with the
thought he became clearly aware that it was still in his power to
prevent the marriage. He had but to walk across the fields to
Fletcher's door, and before sunrise the foolish pair would be safely
home again. Will would probably be sent off to recover, and Molly
would go back to making butter and to flirting with Fred Turner. On
the other hand, let the marriage but take place—let him keep silent
until the morning—and the revenge of which he had dreamed since
childhood would be accomplished at a single stroke. Bill Fletcher's
many sins would find him out in a night.
The big moth, fluttering aimlessly from the lantern, flew suddenly
in his face, and the touch startled him from his abstraction. With a
laugh he shook the responsibility from his shoulders, and then, as he
hesitated again for a breath, the racial instinct arose, as usual, to
decide the issue.
Taking a dime from his pocket, he tossed it lightly in the air and
waited for it to fall.
"Heads for me, tails for Fletcher."
The coin spun for an instant in the gloom above him and then
dropped noiselessly to the floor. When he lifted the lantern and bent
over it he saw that the head lay uppermost.
CHAPTER VIII. In Which Christopher
When he entered the house a little later Cynthia met him in the
kitchen doorway with an anxious frown.
"I heard a noise, Christopher. What was it?"
"A man wanted me about something. How is mother resting?"
"Not well. Her dreams trouble her. She grows weaker every day, and
the few hours she insists upon spending in her chair tire her
"There is nothing that she needs, you say?"
"No; nothing. She has never felt our poverty for an instant."
The furrow between his eyebrows grew deeper.
"And you?" he asked abruptly, regarding her fixedly with his
intent gaze. "What under heaven are you up to at this hour?"
Glancing down at the ironing-board before her, she flushed
painfully through the drawn grayness of her face.
"I had a little ironing to do," she answered, "and I wanted it all
finished to-night. Mother needs me in the day."
Pushing her aside, he seized the iron and ran it in a few hasty
strokes over the rough-dry garment which she had spread on the board.
"Go to bed and leave these things alone," he insisted.
"Oh, Christopher, you'll spoil it!" cried Cynthia, clutching his
He returned the iron to the stand and met her reproachful look
with a gesture of annoyance. "Well, I'm going to sleep, if you
aren't," he said, and treading as lightly as possible in his heavy
boots, went along the little platform and upstairs to his garret room.
Once inside, he undressed hastily and flung himself upon the bed,
but his thoughts spun like a top, and wild visions of Will, of
Fletcher, and of Molly Peterkin whirled confusedly through his brain.
When at last he lost consciousness for a time, it was to dream
restlessly of the cry of a hare that the hounds had caught and
mangled. The scream of the creature came to him from a thick wood,
which was intersected by innumerable small green paths, and when he
tried vainly to go to the rescue he lost himself again and again in
the wilderness of trails. Back and forth he turned in the twilight,
crushing down the underbrush and striking in a frenzy at the forked
boughs the trees wrapped about him, while suddenly the piteous voice
became that of a woman in distress. Then, with a great effort, he
fought his way through the wood, to see the mangled hare change slowly
into Maria Fletcher, who opened her eyes to ask him why he hunted her
He awoke in a cold sweat, and, sitting up in bed, leaned for air
toward the open window. A dull ache gnawed at his heart, and his lips
were parched as if from fever. Again it seemed to him that Maria
entreated him across the distance.
When he came down at sunrise he found Jerry Green awaiting him
with the horses, and learned in answer to his questions that the
lovers had taken a light wagon at the cross-roads and driven on to
"They were that bent on gittin' thar that they couldn't even wait
for the stage, " the man told him. "Well, they're a merry pair, an' I
hope good will come of it—seein' as 'tain't no harm to hope."
"Oh, they think so now, at any rate," Christopher replied, as he
turned away to unharness the patient horses.
At breakfast, an hour or two later, he learned that his mother was
in one of her high humours, and that, awaking early and prattling
merrily of the past, she insisted that they should dress her
immediately in her black brocade. When the meal was over he carried
her from her bed to the old oak chair, in which she managed to keep
upright among her pillows. Her gallant spirit was still youthful and
undaunted, and the many infirmities of her body were powerless to
distort the cheerful memories behind her sightless eyes.
Leaving her presently, after a careless chat about the foibles of
Bolivar Blake, he took his hoe from an outhouse and went to "grub"
the young weeds from the tobacco, which had now reached its luxuriant
August height. By noon his day's work on the crop was over, and he was
resting for a moment in the shadow of a locust tree by the fence, when
he heard rapid footsteps approaching in the new road, and Bill
Fletcher threw himself over the crumbling rails and came panting into
the strip of shade. At sight of the man's face Christopher flung his
hoe out into the field, where it bore down a giant plant, and bracing
his body against the tree, prepared himself to withstand the shock of
the first blow; but the other, after glaring at him for a breathless
instant, fell back and rapped out a single thundering oath. "You
hell-hound! This is all your doing!"
Throwing off the words with a gesture of his arm, Christopher
stared coolly into the other's distorted face; then, yielding to the
moment's vindictive impulse, he broke into a sneering laugh.
"So you have heard the good news?" he inquired lightly.
Before the rage in the old man's eyes—before the convulsed
features and the quivering limbs—he felt a savage joy suddenly take
possession of him.
"It's all your doing, every last bit of it," repeated Fletcher
hoarsely, "and I'll live to pay you back if I hang for it in the
"Go ahead, then," retorted Christopher; "you might as well hang
for a sheep as for a lamb, you know."
"Oh, you think I'm fooling?" said the other, wiping a fleck of
foam from his mouth, "but you'll find out better some day, unless the
devil gets you mighty quick. You've made that boy a scamp and a
drunkard, and now you've gone and married him to a—" He swallowed the
words and stood gasping above his loosened collar.
Christopher paled slightly beneath his sunburn; then, as he
recovered his assurance, a brutal smile was sketched about his mouth.
"Come, come, go easy," he protested flippantly; "there's such a
thing, you remember, as the pot calling the kettle black."
His gay voice fell strangely on the other's husky tones, and for
the moment, in spite of his earth-stained hands and his clothes of
coarse blue jean, he might have been a man of the world condescending
to a peasant. It was at such times, when a raw emotion found
expression in the primitive lives about him, that he realised most
vividly the gulf between him and his neighbours. To his superficial
unconcern they presented the sincerity of naked passion.
"You've made the boy what he is," repeated the old man, in a
quiver from head to foot. "You've done your level best to send him to
"Well, he had a pretty good start, it seems, before I ever laid
eyes on him."
"You set out to ruin him from the first, and I watched you," went
on Fletcher, choking over each separate word before he uttered it;
"my eye was on your game, and if you were anything but the biggest
villain on earth I could have stopped it. But for you he'd be a decent
chap this very minute."
"And the pattern of his grandfather," sneered Christopher.
Fletcher raised his arm for a blow and then let it fall limply to
his side. "Oh, I'm done with you now, and I'm done with your gang,"
he said. "Play your devil's tricks as much as you please; they won't
touch me. If that boy sets foot on my land again I'll horsewhip him as
I would a hound. Let him see who'll feed him now when he comes to
Catching his breath, Christopher stared at him an instant in
silence; then he spoke in a voice which had grown serious.
"The more fool you, then," he said. "The chap's your grandson, and
he's a better one than you deserve. Whatever he is, I tell you now,
he's a long sight too good for such as you—and so is Molly Peterkin,
for that matter. Heavens above! What are you that you should become a
stickler for honesty in others? Do you think I've forgotten that you
drove my father to his grave, and that the very land you live on you
stole from me? Pshaw! It takes more than twenty years to bury a thing
like that, you fool!"
Fletcher looked helplessly round for a weapon, and catching sight
of the hoe, raised it in his hands; but Christopher, seizing it
roughly from him, tossed it behind him in the little path.
"I'll have none of that," added the young man grimly.
"You're a liar, as your father was before you," burst out
Fletcher, swallowing hard; "and as for that scamp you've gone and
sent to hell, you can let him starve or not, jest as you please. He
has made his choice between us, and he can stick to it till he rots in
the poorhouse. Much good you'll do him in the end, I reckon."
"Well, just now it seems he hasn't chosen either of us," remarked
Christopher, cooling rapidly as the other's anger grew red hot. "It
rather looks as if he'd chosen Molly Peterkin."
"Damn you!" gasped Fletcher, putting up a nerveless hand to tear
his collar apart, while a purple flush rose slowly from his throat to
his forehead. "If you name that huzzy to me again I'll thrash you
within an inch of your life!"
"Let's try it," suggested Christopher in an irritating drawl.
"Oh, I'm used to bullies like you," pursued the old man. "I know
the kind of brute that thinks he can knock his way into heaven. Your
father was jest sech another, and if you come to die a crazy drunkard
like him it'll be about the end that you deserve!"
An impatient frown drew Christopher's brows together, and, picking
up the hoe, he walked leisurely out into the field.
"Well, I can't stop to hear your opinion of me," he observed.
"You'll have to keep it until another time," and breaking into a
careless whistle, he strode off between the tobacco furrows on his
way to bring the old mare from the pasture.
A little later, alone with the broad white noon and the stillness
of the meadow, his gay whistle ended abruptly on his lips and the old
sullen frown contracted his heavy brows. It was in vain that he tried
to laugh away the depression of the moment; the white glare of the
fields and the perfume of wild flowers blooming in hot sunshine
produced in him a sensation closely akin to physical nausea—a disgust
of himself and of the life and the humanity that he had known. What
was it all worth, after all? And what of satisfaction was there to be
found in the thing he sought? Fletcher's face rose suddenly before
him, and when he tried to banish the memory the effort that he made
brought but the more distinctly to his eyes the coarse, bloated
features with the swollen veins across the nose. Trivial recollections
returned to annoy him—the way the man sucked in his breath when he
was angry, and the ceaseless twitching of the small muscles above his
bloodshot eyes. "Pshaw! What business is it of mine?" he questioned
angrily. "What am I to the man, that I cannot escape the disgust that
he arouses? Is it possible that I should be haunted forever by a face
I hate? There are times when I could kill him simply because of the
repulsion that I feel. As for the boy—let him marry a dozen Molly
Peterkins—who cares? Not I, surely. When he turns upon his
grandfather and they fall to gnawing at each other's bones, the better
I shall be pleased." He shook his head impatiently, but the oppression
which in some vague way he associated with the white heat and the
scent of wild flowers still weighed heavily upon his thoughts. "Is it
possible that after all that has happened I am not yet satisfied?" he
asked, with annoyance.
For awhile he lingered by the little brook in the pasture, and
then slipping the bridle on the old mare, returned slowly to the
house. At the bars he met Sol Peterkin, who had hurried over in
evident consternation to deliver his news.
"Good Lord, Mr. Christopher! What do you think that gal of mine
has gone and done now?"
Christopher slid the topmost bar from its place and lifted his
"Don't tell me that she's divorced already," he returned. "Why,
the last I heard of her she had run off this morning to marry Will
"That's it, suh; that's it," said Sol. "I'm meanin' the marriage.
Well, well, it does seem that you can't settle down an' begin to say
yo' grace over one trouble befo' a whole batch lights upon you. To
think, arter the way I've sweated an' delved to be honest, that a gal
of mine should tie me hand an' foot to Bill Fletcher."
In spite of his moodiness, the humour of the situation struck home
to Christopher, and throwing back his head he burst into a laugh.
"Oh, you needn't poke yo' fun, suh," continued Sol. "Money is a
mighty good thing, but you can't put it in the blood, like you kin
meanness. All Bill Fletcher's riches ain't soaked in him blood an'
bone, but his meanness is, an' that thar meanness goes a long sight
further than his money. Thar ain't much sto' set by honesty in this
here world, suh, an' you kin buy a bigger chaw of tobaccy with five
cents than you kin with all the virtue of Moses on his Mount; but all
the same it's a mighty good thing to rest yo' head on when you go to
bed, an' I ain't sure but it makes easier lyin' than a linen
pillow-slip an' a white goose tick—"
"Oh, I dare say," interrupted Christopher; "but now that it's over
we must make the best of it. She didn't marry Bill Fletcher, after
all, you know—"
He checked himself with a start, and the bridle slipped from his
arm to the ground, for his name was called suddenly in a high voice
from the house, and as he swung himself over the bars Lila came
running barehead across the yard.
"Christopher!" she cried; "we could not find you, and Bill
Fletcher has talked to mother like a madman. Come quickly! She has
Before she had finished, he had dashed past her and through the
house into the little parlour, where the old lady sat erect and
unconscious in her Elizabethan chair.
"I found her like this," said Lila, weeping. "We heard loud voices
and then a scream, and when we rushed in the man left, and she sat
looking straight ahead like this—like this."
Throwing himself upon his knees beside the chair, Christopher
caught his mother to his breast and turned angrily upon the women.
"Has nothing been done? Where is the doctor?" he cried.
"Jim has gone for him. Here, let me take her," said Cynthia,
unclasping his arms. "There, stand back. She is not dead. In a little
while she will come to herself again."
Rising from the floor, he stood motionless in the center of the
room, where the atmosphere was heavy with the fragrance of camphor
and tea-roses. A broad strip of sunshine was at his feet, and in the
twisted aspen beside the window a catbird was singing. These remained
with him for years afterward, and with them the memory of the blind
woman sitting stiffy erect and staring vacantly into his face.
"He has told her everything," said Cynthia—"after twenty years."