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The Deliverance, Book IV, The Awakening by Ellen Glasgow

A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields

 

LIST OF CHARACTERS

CHRISTOPHER BLAKE, a tobacco-grower

MRS. BLAKE, his mother

TUCKER CORBIN, an old soldier

CYNTHIA and LILA BLAKE; sisters of Christopher

CARRAWAY, a lawyer

BILL FLETCHER, a wealthy farmer

MARIA FLETCHER, his granddaughter

WILL FLETCHER, his grandson

"MISS SAIDIE," sister of Fletcher

JACOB WEATHERBY, a tobacco-grower

JIM WEATHERBY, his son

SOL PETERKIN, another tobacco-grower

MOLLY PETERKIN, daughter of Sol

Tom SPADE, a country storekeeper

SUSAN, his wife

UNCLE BOAZ, a Negro

 

CHAPTER I. The Unforeseen

The road was steep, and Christopher, descending from the big, lumbering cart, left the oxen to crawl slowly up the incline. It was a windy afternoon in March, and he was returning from a trip to Farrar's mill, which was reached by a lane that branched off a half-mile or so from the cross-roads. A blue sky shone brightly through the leafless boughs above him, and along the little wayside path tufts of dandelion were blooming in the red dust. The wind, which blew straight toward him from the opening beyond the strip of wood in which he walked, brought the fresh scent of the upturned fields and of the swelling buds putting out with the warm sunshine. In his own veins he felt also that the blood had stirred, and that strange, quickening impulse, which comes with the rising sap alike to a man and to a tree, worked restlessly in his limbs at the touch of spring. Nature was alive again, and he felt vaguely that in the resurrection surrounding him he must have his part—that in him as well as in the earth the spirit of life must move and put forth in gladness. A flock of swallows passed suddenly like a streak of smoke on the blue sky overhead, and as his eyes followed them the old roving instinct pulled at his heart. To be up and away, to drink life to its dregs and come home for rest, were among the impulses which awoke with the return of spring.

The oxen moved behind him at a leisurely pace, and outstripping them in a little while, he had turned at a sudden opening in the trees into the main road, when, to his surprise, he saw a woman in black, followed by a small yellow dog, walking in front of him along the grassy path. As he caught sight of her a strong gust of wind swept down the road, wrapping her skirt closely about her and whirling a last year's leaf into her face. For a moment she paused and, throwing back her head, drank the air like water; then, holding firmly to her hat, she started on again at her rapid pace. In the ease with which she moved against the wind, in the self-possession of her carriage, and most of all in the grace with which she lifted her long black skirt, made, he could see, after the fashion of the outside world, he realised at once that she was a stranger to the neighbourhood. No woman whom he had known—not even Lila—had this same light yet energetic walk—a walk in which every line in her body moved in accord with the buoyant impulse that controlled her step. As he watched her he recalled instantly the flight of a swallow in the air, for her passage over the ground was as direct and beautiful as a bird's.

When he neared her she turned suddenly, and, as she flung back her short veil, he saw to his amazement that he faced Maria Fletcher.

"So you have forgotten me?" she said, with a smile. "Or have I changed so greatly that my old friends do not know me?"

She held out her hand, and while a tremor ran through him, he kept her bared palm for an instant in his own.

"You dropped from the sky," he answered, steadying his voice with an effort. "You have taken my breath away and I cannot speak."

Then letting her hand fall, he stood looking at her in a wonder that shone in his face, for to the Maria whom he had known the woman before him now bore only the resemblance that the finished portrait bears to the charcoal sketch; and the years which had so changed and softened her had given her girlish figure a nobility that belonged to the maturity she had not reached. It was not that she had grown beautiful—when he sought for physical changes he found only that her cheek was rounder, her bosom fuller; but if she still lacked the ruddy attraction of mere flesh-and-blood loveliness, she had gained the deeper fascination which is the outward accompaniment of a fervent spirit. Her eyes, her voice, her gestures were all attuned to the inner harmony which he recognised also in the smile with which she met his words; and the charm that she irradiated was that rarest of all physical gifts, the power of the flesh to express the soul that it envelops.

The wind or the meeting with himself had brought a faint flush to her cheek, but without lowering her eyes she stood regarding him with her warm, grave smile. The pale oval of her face, framed in the loosened waves of her black hair, had for him all the remoteness that surrounded her memory; and yet, though he knew it not, the appeal she made to him now, and had made long ago, was that he recognised in her, however dumbly, a creature born, like himself, with the power to experience the fulness of joy or grief.

"So I have taken your breath away," she said; "and you have forgotten Agag."

"Agag?" he turned with a question and followed her glance in the direction of the dog. "It is the brute you saved?"

"Only he is not a brute—I have seen many men who were more of one. Look! He recognises you. He has followed me everywhere, but he doesn't like Europe, and if you could have seen his joy when we got out at the cross-roads and he smelt the familiar country! It was almost as great as mine."

"As yours? Then you no longer hate it?"

"I have learned to love it in the last six years," she answered, "as I have learned to love many things that I once hated. Oh, this wind is good when it blows over the ploughed fields, and yet between city streets it would bring only dust and discomfort."

She threw back her head, looking up into the sky, where a bird passed.

"Will you get into the cart now?" he asked after a moment, vaguely troubled by the silence and by the gentleness of her upward look, "or do you wish to walk to the top of the hill?"

She turned and moved quickly on again.

"It is such a little way, let us walk," she replied, and then with a laugh she offered an explanation of her presence. "I wrote twice, but I had no answer," she said; "then I decided to come, and telegraphed, but they handed me my telegram and my last letter at the cross-roads. Can something have happened, do you think? or is it merely carelessness that keeps them from sending for the mail?"

"I hardly know; but they are all alive, at least. You have come straight from—where?"

"From abroad. I lived there for six years, first in one place, then in another—chiefly in Italy. My husband died eighteen months ago, but I stayed on with his people. It seemed then that they needed me most, but one can never tell, and I may have made a mistake in not coming home sooner."

"I think you did," he said quietly, running the end of his long whip through his fingers.

She flashed a disturbed glance at him.

"Is it possible that you are keeping something from me? Is any one ill?"

"Not that I have heard of, but I never see any of them, you know, except your brother."

"And he is married. They told me so at the cross-roads. I can't understand why they did not let me know."

"It was very sudden—they went to Washington."

"How queer! Who is the girl, I wonder?"

"Her name was Molly Peterkin—old Sol's daughter; you may remember him."

She shook her head. "No; I've lived here so little, you see. What is she like?"

"A beauty, with blue eyes and yellow hair."

"Indeed? And are they happy?" He laughed. "They are in love—or were, six months ago."

"You are cynical. But do they live at the Hall?"

"Not yet. Your grandfather has not spoken to Will since the marriage, and that was last August."

"Where, under heaven, do they live, then?"

"On a little farm he has given them adjoining Sol's. I believe he means that they shall raise tobacco for a living."

She made a gesture of distress. "Oh, I ought to have come home long ago!"

"What difference would that have made: you could have done nothing. A thunderbolt falling at his feet doesn't sober a man when he is in love."

"I might have helped—one never knows. At least I should have been at my post, for, after all, the ties of blood are the strongest claims we have."

"Why should they be?" he questioned, with sudden bitterness. "You are more like that swallow flying up there than you are like any Fletcher that ever lived."

She smiled. "I thought so once," she answered, "but now I know better. The likeness must be there, and I am going to find it."

"You will never find it," he insisted, "for there is nothing of them in you—nothing."

"You don't like them, I remember."

"Nor do you."

A laugh broke from her and humour rippled in her eyes.

"So you still persist in the truth, and in the plain truth!" she exclaimed.

"Then it is so, you confess it?"

"No, no, no," she protested. "Why, I love them all—all, do you hear, and I love Will more than the rest of them put together."

He looked away from her, and then, turning, waited for the oxen to reach the summit of the hill.

"You'd better get in now, I think," he said; "there is a long walk ahead of us, and if my team is slow it is sure also."

As he brought the oxen to a halt, she laid her hand for an instant on his arm, and, mounting lightly upon the wheel, stepped into the cart.

"Now give me Agag," she said, and he handed her the little dog before he took up the ropes and settled himself beside her on the driver's seat. "You look like one of the disinherited princesses in the old stories mother tells," he observed.

A puzzled wonder was in her face as she turned toward him.

"Who are you? And what has Blake Hall to do with your family?" she asked.

"Only that it was named after us. We used to live there."

"Within your recollection?"

He nodded, with his eyes on the slow oxen.

"Then you have not always been a farmer?"

"Ever since I was ten years old."

"I can't understand, I can't understand," she said, perplexed. "You are like no one about here; you are like no one I have ever seen."

"Then I must be like you," he returned bluntly.

"Like me? Oh, heavens, no; you would make three of me—body, brain, and soul. I believe, when I think of it, that you are the biggest man I've ever known—and by that I don't mean in height— for I have seen men with a greater number of physical inches. Inches, somehow, have very little to do with the impression—and so has muscle, strong as yours is. It is simple bigness that I am talking about, and it was the first thing I noticed in you—"

"At the cross-roads?" he asked, and instantly regretted his words.

"No; not at the cross-roads," she answered, smiling. "You have a good memory; but mine is better. I saw you once on a June morning, when I was riding along the road with the chestnuts and you were standing out in the field."

"I did not see you or I should have remembered," he said quietly.

Silence fell between them, and he was conscious in every fiber of his body—that he had never been so close to her before—had never felt the touch of her arm upon his own, nor the folds of her skirt brushing against his knees. A gust of wind whipped the end of her veil into his face, and when she turned to recapture it he felt her warm breath on his cheek. The sense of her nearness pervaded him from head to foot, and an unrest like that produced by the spring wind troubled his heart. He did not look at her, and yet he saw her full dark eyes and the curve of her white throat more distinctly than he beheld the blue sky at which he gazed. Was it possible that she, too, shared his disquietude? he wondered, or was the silence that she kept as undisturbed as her tranquil pose?

"I should not have forgotten it," he repeated presently, turning to meet her glance.

She started and looked away from the landscape. "You have long memories in this county, I know," she said. "So few things happen that it becomes a religion to cherish the little incidents. It may be that I, too, have inherited something of this, for I remember very clearly the few months I spent here."

"You remembered them even while you were away?"

"Why not?" she asked. "It is not the moving about, the strange places one sees, nor the people one meets, that really count in life, you know."

"What is it?" he questioned abruptly.

She hesitated as if trying to put her thoughts more clearly into words.

"I think it is the things one learns," she said; "the places in which we take root and grow, and the people who teach us what is really worth while—patience, and charity, and the beauty there is in the simplest and most common lives when they are lived close to Nature."

"In driving the plough or in picking the suckers from a tobacco plant," he added scornfully.

"In those things, yes; and in any life that is good, and true, and natural."

"Well, I have lived near enough to Nature to hate her with all my might," he answered, not without bitterness. "Why, there are times when I'd like to kick every ploughed field I see out into eternity. Tobacco-growing is one of the natural things, I suppose, but if you want to see any beauty in it you must watch it from a shady road. When you get in the midst of it you'll find it coarse and sticky, and given over generally to worms. I have spent my whole life working on it, and to this day I never look at a plant nor smell a pipe without a shiver of disgust. The things I want are over there," he finished, pointing with his whip-handle to the clear horizon. "I want the excitement that makes one's blood run like wine."

"Battle, murder, and all that, I suppose?" she said, smiling.

"War, and fame, and love," he corrected.

Her face had grown grave, and in the thoughtful look she turned upon him it seemed to him that he saw a purpose slowly take form. So earnest was her gaze that at last his own fell before it, at which she murmured a confused apology, like one forcibly awakened from a dream.

"I was wondering what that other life would have made of you," she said; "the life that I have known and wearied of—a life of petty shams, of sham love, of sham hate, of sham religion. It is all little, you know, and it takes a little soul to keep alive in it. I craved it once myself, and it took six years of artifice to teach me that I loved a plain truth better than a pretty lie."

He had been looking at the strong white hand lying in her lap, and now, with a laugh, he held out his own bronzed and roughened one.

"There is the difference," he said; "do you see it?"

A wave of sympathy swept over her expressive face, and with one of her impulsive gestures, which seemed always to convey some spiritual significance, she touched his outstretched palm with her fingers. "How full of meaning it is," she replied, "for it tells of quiet days in the fields, and of a courage that has not faltered before the thing it hates. When I look at it it makes me feel very humble—and yet very proud, too, that some day I may be your friend."

He shook his head, with his eyes on the sun, which was slowly setting.

"That is out of the question," he answered. "You cannot be my friend except for this single day. If I meet you to-morrow I shall not know you."

"Because I am a Fletcher?" she asked, wondering.

"Because you are a Fletcher, and because you would find me worse than a Fletcher."

"Riddles, riddles," she protested, laughing; "and I was always dull at guessing—but I may as well warn you now that I have come home determined to make a friend of every mortal in the county, man and beast."

"You'll do it," he answered seriously. "I'm the only thing about here that will resist you. You'll be everybody's friend but mine."

She caught and held his gaze. "Let us see," she responded quietly.

For a time they were silent, and spreading out her skirt, she made a place for the dog upon it. The noise of the heavy wheels on the rocky bed of the road grew suddenly louder in his ears, and he realised with a pang that every jolt of the cart carried him nearer the end. With the thought there came to him a wish that life might pause at the instant—that the earth might be arrested in its passage and leave him forever aware of the warm contact that thrilled through him. They had already passed Weatherby's lane, and presently the chimneys of Blake Hall appeared above the distant trees. When they reached the abandoned ice-pond Christopher spoke with an attempted carelessness.

"It would perhaps be better for you to walk the rest of the way," he said. "Trouble might be made in the beginning if your grandfather were to know that I brought you over."

"You're right, I think," she said, and rising as the cart stopped, she followed him down into the road. Then with a word or two of thanks, she smiled brightly, and, calling the dog, passed rapidly into the twilight which stretched between him and a single shining window that was visible in the Hall.

After she had quite disappeared he still stood motionless by the ice-pond, staring into the dusk that had swallowed her up from his gaze. So long did he remain there that at last the oxen tired of waiting and began to move slowly on along the sunken road. Then starting abruptly from his meditation, he picked up the ropes that trailed before him on the ground and fell into his accustomed walk beside the cart. At the moment it seemed to him that his whole life was shattered into pieces by the event of a single instant. Something stronger than himself had shaken the foundations of his nature, and he was not the man that he had been before. He was like one born blind, who, when his eyes are opened, is ignorant that the light which dazzles him is merely the shining of the sun.

When he came into the house, after putting up the oxen, Cynthia commented upon the dazed look that he wore.

"You must have fallen asleep on the way home," she remarked.

"It is the glare of the lamp," he answered. "I have just come out of the darkness," and before sitting down to his supper, he opened the door and listened for the sound of his mother's voice.

"She is asleep, then?" he said, coming back again. "Has she recognised either of you to-day?"

"No; she wanders again. The present is nothing to her any longer—it is all blotted out with everything that Fletcher told her. She asks for father constantly, and the only thing that interested her was when Jim went in and talked to her about farming. She is quite rational except that she has entirely forgotten the last twenty years, and just before falling asleep she laughed heartily over some old stories of Grandpa Bolivar's."

"Then I may see her for a minute?"

"If you wish it—yes."

Passing along the hall, he entered the little chamber where the old lady lay asleep in her tester bed. Her fine white hair was brushed over the pillow, and her drawn and yellowed face wore a placid and childlike look. As he paused beside her a faint smile flickered about her mouth and her delicate hand trembled slightly upon the counterpane. Her dreams had evidently brought her happiness, and as he stood looking down upon her the wish entered his heart that he might change his young life for her old one— that he might become, in her place, half dead, and done with all that the future could bring of either joy or grief.

CHAPTER II. Maria Returns to the Hall

Through the grove of oaks a single lighted window glimmered now red, now yellow, as lamplight struggled with firelight inside, and Maria, walking rapidly through the dark, felt that the comfortable warmth shining on the panes was her first welcome home. The night had grown chilly, and she gathered her wraps closely together as she hastened along the gravelled drive and ran up the broad stone steps to the closed door. There was no answer to her knock, and, finding that the big silver handle of the door turned easily, she entered the hall and passed cautiously through the dusk that enveloped the great staircase. Her foot was on the first step, when a stream of light issued suddenly from the dining-room, and, turning, she stood for an instant hesitating upon the threshold. A lamp burned dimly in the center of the old mahogany table, where a scant supper for two had been hastily laid. In the fireplace a single hickory log sent out a shower of fine sparks, which hovered a moment in the air before they were sucked up by the big stone chimney. The room was just as Maria had left it six years before, and yet in some unaccountable fashion it seemed to have lost the dignity which she remembered as its one redeeming feature. Nothing was changed that she could see—the furniture stood in the same places, the same hard engravings hung on the discoloured walls—but as she glanced wonderingly about her she was aware of a shock greater than the one she had nerved herself to withstand. It was, after all, the atmosphere that depressed her, she concluded with her next thought—the general air of slovenly unrefinement revealed in the details of the room and of the carelessly laid table.

While she still hesitated uncertainly on the threshold, the pantry door opened noiselessly and Miss Saidie appeared, carrying a glass dish filled with preserved watermelon rind. At sight of Maria she gave a start and a little scream, and the dish fell from her hands and crashed upon the floor.

"Sakes alive! Is that you, Maria?"

Hastily crossing the room, Maria caught the little woman in her arms and kissed her twice.

"Why, you poor thing! I've frightened you to death," she said, with a laugh.

"You did give me a turn; that's so," replied Miss Saidie, as she wiped the moisture from her crimson face. "It's been so long since anybody's come here that Malindy—she's the only servant we've got now—was actually afraid to answer your knock. Then when I came in and saw you standing by the door, I declare it almost took my breath clean away. I thought for a moment you were a ghost, you looked so dead white in that long, black dress."

"Oh, I'm flesh and blood, never fear," Maria assured her. "Much more flesh and blood, too, than I was when I went away—but I've made you spill all your preserves. What a shame!"

Miss Saidie glanced down a little nervously. "I must wipe it up before Brother Bill comes in," she said; "it frets him so to see a waste."

Picking up a dust-cloth she had left on a chair, she got down on her knees and began mopping up the sticky syrup which trickled along the floor. "He hates so to throw away anything," she pursued, panting softly from her exertions, "that if he were to see this I believe it would upset him for a week. Oh, he didn't use to be like that, I know," she added, meeting Maria's amazed look; "and it does seem strange, for I'm sure he gets richer and richer every day—but it's the gospel truth that every cent he makes he hugs closer than he did the last. I declare, I've seen him haggle for an hour over the price of salt, and it turns him positively sick to see anything but specked potatoes on the table. He kinder thinks his money is all he's got, I reckon, so he holds on to it like grim death."

"But it isn't all he has. Where's Will?"

Miss Saidie shook her head, with a glance in the direction of the door.

"Don't mention him if you want any peace," she said, rising with difficulty to her feet. "Your grandpa has never so much as laid eyes on him sence he gave him that little worn-out place side by side with Sol Peterkin—and told him he'd shoot him if he ever caught sight of him at the Hall. You've come home to awful worry, thar's no doubt of it, Maria."

"Oh, oh, oh," sighed Maria, and, tossing her hat upon the sofa, pressed her fingers on her temples. With the firelight thrown full on the ivory pallor of her face, the effect she produced was almost unreal in its intensity of black and white—an absence of colour which had in it all the warmth and the animation we are used to associate with brilliant hues. A peculiar mellowness of temperament, the expression of a passionate nature confirmed in sympathy, shone in the softened fervour of her look as she bent her eyes thoughtfully upon the flames.

"Something must be done for Will," she said, turning presently. "This can't go on another day."

Miss Saidie caught her breath sharply, and hastened to the head of the table, as Fletcher's heavy footsteps crossed the hall.

"For heaven's sake, be careful," she whispered warningly, jerking her head nervously from side to side.

Fletcher entered with a black look, slamming the door heavily behind him, then, suddenly catching sight of Maria, he stopped short on the threshold and stared at her with hanging jaws.

"I'll be blessed if it ain't Maria!" he broke out at last.

Maria went toward him and held out her cheek for his kiss.

"I've surprised you almost as much as I did Aunt Saidie," she said, with her cheerful laugh, which floated a little strangely on the sullen atmosphere.

Catching her by the shoulder, Fletcher drew her into the circle of the lamplight, where he stood regarding her in gloomy silence.

"You've filled out considerable," he remarked, as he released her at the end of his long scrutiny. "But thar was room for it, heaven knows. You'll never be the sort that a man smacks his lips over, I reckon, but you're a plum sight better looking than you were when you went away."

Maria winced quickly as if he had struck her; then, regaining her composure almost instantly, she drew back her chair with a casual retort.

"But I didn't come home to set the county afire," she said. "Why, Aunt Saidie, what queer, coarse china! What's become of the white-and-gold set I used to like?"

A purple flush mounted, slowly to Miss Saidie's forehead.

"I was afraid it would chip, so I packed it away," she explained. "Me and Brother Bill ain't used to any better than this, so we don't notice. Things will have to be mighty fine now, I reckon, since you've got back. You were always particular about looks, I remember."

"Was I?" asked Maria curiously, glancing down into the plate before her. For the last few years she had schooled herself to despise what she called the "silly luxuries of living," and yet the heavy white cup which Miss Saidie handed her, and the sound of Fletcher drinking his coffee, aroused in her the old poignant disgust.

"I don't think I'm over particular now," she added pleasantly, "but we may as well get out the other china tomorrow, I think."

"You won't find many fancy ways here—eh, Saidie?" inquired Fletcher, with a chuckle. "Thar's been a precious waste of victuals on this place, but it's got to stop. I ain't so sure you did a wise thing in coming back," he finished abruptly, turning his bloodshot eyes on his granddaughter.

"You aren't? Well, I am," laughed Maria; "and I promise you that you shan't find me troublesome except in the matter of china."

"Then you must have changed your skin, I reckon."

"Changed? Why, I have, of course. Six years isn't a day, you know, and I've been in many places." Then, as a hint of interest awoke in his eyes, she talked on rapidly, describing her years abroad and the strange cities in which she had lived. Before she had finished, Fletcher had pushed his plate away and sat listening with the ghost of a smile upon his face.

"Well, you'll do, I reckon," he said at the end, and, pushing back his chair, he rose from his place and stamped out into the hall.

When he had gone into his sitting-room and closed the door behind him, Miss Saidie nodded smilingly, as she measured out the servant's sugar in a cracked saucer. "He's brighter than I've seen him for days," she said; "and now, if you want to go upstairs, Malindy has jest lighted your fire. She had to carry the wood up while we were at supper, so Brother Bill wouldn't see it. He hates even to burn a log, though they are strewn round loose all over the place."

Maria, was feeding Agag on the hearth, and she waited until he had finished before she took up her hat and wraps and went toward the door. "Oh, you needn't bother to light me," she said, waving Miss Saidie back when she would have followed. "Why, I could find my way over this house at midnight without a candle." Then, with a cheerful "Goodnight," she called Agag and went up the dusky staircase.

A wood fire was burning in her room, and she stood for a moment looking pensively into the flames, a faint smile sketched about her mouth. Then throwing off her black dress in the desire for freedom, she clasped her hands above her head and paced slowly up and down the shadowy length of the room. In the flowing measure of her walk; in the free, almost defiant, movement of her upraised arms; and in the ample lines of her throat and bosom, which melted gradually into the low curves of her hips, she might have stood for an incarnation of vital force. One felt instinctively that her personality would be active rather than passive—that the events which she attracted to herself would be profoundly emotional in their fulfilment.

Notwithstanding the depressing hour she had just passed, and the old vulgarity which had shocked her with a new violence, she was conscious, moving to and fro in the shadows, of a strange happiness—of a warmth of feeling which pervaded her from head to foot, which fluttered in her temples and burned like firelight in her open palms. The place was home to her, she realised at last, and the surroundings of her married life—the foreign towns and the enchanting Italian scenery—showed in her memory with a distant and alien beauty. Here was what she loved, for here was her right, her heritage—the desolate red roads, the luxuriant tobacco fields, the primitive and ignorant people. In her heart there was no regret for any past that she had known, for over the wild country stretching about her now there hung a romantic and mysterious haze.

A little later she was aroused from her reverie by Miss Saidie, who came in with a lighted lamp in her hand.

"Don't you need a light, Maria? I never could abide to sit in the dark."

"Oh, yes; bring it in. There, put it on the bureau and sit down by the fire, for I want to talk to you. No, I'm not a bit tired; I am only trying to fit myself again in this room. Why, I don't believe you've changed a pin in the pincushion since I went away."

Miss Saidie dusted the top of the bureau with her apron before she placed the tall glass lamp upon it.

"Thar warn't anybody to stay in it," she answered, as she sat down in a deep, cretonne-covered chair and pushed back the hickory log with her foot. "I declare, Maria, I don't see what you want to traipse around with that little poor-folksy yaller dog for. He puts me in mind of the one that old blind nigger up the road used to have."

"Does he?" asked Maria absently, in the voice of one whose thoughts are hopelessly astray.

She was standing by the window, holding aside the curtain of flowered chintz, and after a moment she added curiously: "There's a light in the fields, Aunt Saidie. What does it mean?"

Crossing the room, Miss Saidie followed the gesture with which Maria pointed into the night.

"That's on the Blake place," she said; "it must be Mr. Christopher moving about with his lantern."

"You call him Mr. Christopher?"

"Oh, it slipped out. His father's name was Christopher before him, and I used to open the gate for him when I was a child. Many and many a time the old gentleman's given me candy out of his pocket, or a quarter to buy a present, and one Christmas he brought me a real wax doll from the city. He wasn't old then, I can tell you, and he was as handsome as if he had stepped out of a fashion plate. Why, young Mr. Christopher can't hold a candle to him for looks."

"He was a gentleman, then? I mean the old man."

"Who? Mr. Christopher's father? I don't reckon thar was a freer or a finer between here and London."

Maria's gaze was still on the point of light which twinkled faintly here and there in the distant field.

"Then how, in heaven's name, did he come to this?" she asked, in a voice that was hardly louder than a whisper.

"I never knew; I never knew," protested Miss Saidie, going back to her chair beside the hearth. "Brother Bill and he hate each other worse than death, and it was Will's fancy for Mr. Christopher that brought on this awful trouble. For a time, I declare it looked as if the boy was really bewitched, and they were together morning, noon, and night. Your grandpa never got over it, and I believe he blames Mr. Christopher for every last thing that's happened—Molly Peterkin and all."

"Molly Peterkin?" repeated Maria inquiringly. "Why, how absurd! And, after all, what is the matter with the girl?" Dropping the curtain, she came over to the fire, and sat listening attentively while Miss Saidie told, in spasmodic jerks and pauses, the foolish story of Will's marriage.

"Your grandpa will never forgive him—never, never. He has turned him out for good and all, and he talks now of leaving every cent of his money to foreign missions."

"Well, we'll see," said Maria soothingly. "I'll go over there to- morrow and talk with Will, and then I'll try to bring grandfather to some kind of reason. He can't let them starve, rich as he is, there's no sense in that—and if the worst comes, I can at least share the little I have with them. It may supply them with bread, if Molly will undertake to churn her own butter."

"Then your money went, too?"

"The greater part of it. Jack was fond of wild schemes, you know. I left it in his hands." She had pronounced the dead man's name so composedly that Miss Saidie, after an instant's hesitation, brought herself to an allusion to the girl's loss.

"How you must miss him, dear," she ventured timidly; "even if he wasn't everything he should have been to you, he was still your husband."

"Yes, he was my husband," assented Maria quietly.

"You were so brave and so patient, and you stuck by him to the last, as a wife ought to do. Then thar's not even a child left to you now."

Maria turned slowly toward her and then looked away again into the fire. The charred end of a lightwood knot had fallen on the stones, and, picking it up, she threw it back into the flames. "For a year before his death his mind was quite gone," she said in a voice that quivered slightly; "he had to be taken to an asylum, but I went with him and nursed him till he died. There were times when he would allow no one else to enter his room or even bring him his meals. I have sat by him for two days and nights without sleeping, and though he did not recognise me, he would not let me stir from my place."

"And yet he treated you very badly—even his family said so."

"That is all over now, and we were both to blame. I owed him reparation, and I made it, thank God, at the last."

As she raised her bare arms to the cushioned back of her chair Miss Saidie caught a glimpse of a deep white scar which ran in a jagged line above her elbow.

"Oh, it is nothing, nothing," said Maria hastily, clasping her hands again upon her knees. "That part of my life is over and done with and may rest in peace. I forgave him then, and he forgives me now. One always forgives when one understands, you know, and we both understand to-day—he no less than I. The chief thing was that we made a huge, irretrievable mistake—the mistake that two people make when they think that love can be coddled and nursed like a domestic pet—when they forget that it goes wild and free and comes at no man's call. Folly like that is its own punishment, I suppose."

"My dear, my dear," gasped Miss Saidie, in awe-stricken sympathy before the wild remorse in Maria's voice.

"I did my duty, as you call it; I even clung to it desperately, and, much as I hated it, I never rebelled for a single instant. The nearest I came to loving him, I think, was when, after our terrible life together, he lay helpless for a year and I was with him day and night. If I could have given him my strength then, brain and body, I would have done it gladly, and that agonised compassion was the strongest feeling I ever had for him." She broke off for a long breath, and sat looking earnestly at the amazed little woman across from her. "You could never understand!" she exclaimed impetuously, "but I must tell you—I must tell you because I can't live with you day after day and know that there is an old dead lie between us. I hate lies, I have had so many of them, and I shall speak the truth hereafter, no matter what comes of it. Anything is better than a long, wearing falsehood, or than those hideous little shams that we were always afraid to touch for fear they would melt and show us our own nakedness. That is what I loathe about my life, and that is what I've done with now forever. I am myself now for the first time since I was born, and at last I shall let my own nature teach me how to live."

Her intense pallor was illumined suddenly by a white flame, whether from the leaping of some inner emotion or from the sinking firelight which blazed up fitfully Miss Saidie could not tell. As she turned her head with an impatient movement her black hair slipped its heavy coil and spread in a shadowy mass upon her bared shoulders.

"I'm sure I don't know how it is," said Miss Saidie, wiping her eyes. "But I can't see that it makes any difference whether you were what they call in love or not, so long as you were a good, well-behaved wife. I don't think a man troubles himself much about a woman's heart after he's put his wedding ring on her finger; and though I know, of course, that thar's a lot of nonsense spoken in courtship, it seems to me they mostly take it out in talking. The wives that I've seen are generally as anxious about thar setting hens as they are about thar husband's hearts, and I reckon things are mighty near the same the world over."

Without noticing her, Maria went on feverishly, speaking so low at times that the other almost lost the words.

"It is such a relief to let it all out," she said, with a long, sighing breath, "and oh! if I had loved him it would have been so different—so different. Then I might have saved him; for what evil is strong enough to contend against a love which would have borne all things, have covered all things?"

Rising from her chair, she walked rapidly up and down, and pausing at last beside the window, lifted the curtain and looked out into the night.

"I might have saved him; I know it now," she repeated slowly: "or had it been otherwise, even in madness I would not have loosened my arms, and my service would have been the one passionate delight left in my life. They could never have torn him from my bosom then, and yet as it was—as it was—" She turned quickly, and, coming back, laid her hand on Miss Saidie's arm. "It is such a comfort to talk, dear Aunt Saidie," she added, "even though you don't understand half that I say. But you are good—so good; and now if you'll lend me a nightgown I'll go to bed and sleep until my trunks come in the morning." Her voice had regained its old composure, and Miss Saidie, looking back as she went for the gown, saw that she had begun quietly to braid her hair.

CHAPTER III. The Day Afterward

When Maria awoke, the sun was full in her eyes, and somewhere on the lawn outside the first bluebird was whistling. With a start, she sprang out of bed and dressed quickly by the wood fire which Malindy had lighted. Then, before going downstairs, she raised the window and leaned out into the freshness of the morning, where a white mist glimmered in the hollows of the March landscape. In the distance she saw the smoking chimneys of the Blake cottage, very faint among the leafless trees, and nearer at hand men were moving back and forth in her grandfather's fields. Six years ago she would have found little beauty in so grave and colourless a scene, but to-day as she looked upon it a peace such as she had never known possessed her thoughts. The wisdom of experience was hers now, and with it she had gained something of the deeper insight into nature which comes to the soul that is reconciled with the unknown laws which it obeys.

Going down a few moments later, she found that breakfast was already over, and that Miss Saidie was washing the tea things at the head of the bared table.

"Why, it seems but a moment since I fell asleep," said Maria, as she drew back her chair. "How long has grandfather been up?"

"Since before daybreak. He is just starting to town, and he's in a terrible temper because the last batch of butter ain't up to the mark, he says. I'm sure I don't see why it ain't, for I worked every pound of it with my own hands—but thar ain't no rule for pleasing men, and never will be till God Almighty sets the universe rolling upside down. That's the wagon you hear now. Thank heaven, he won't be back till after dark."

With a gesture of relief Maria applied herself to the buttered waffles before her, prepared evidently in her honour, and then after a short silence, in which she appeared to weigh carefully her unuttered words, she announced her intention of paying immediately her visit to Will and Molly.

"Oh, you can't, you can't," groaned Miss Saidie, nervously mopping out the inside of a cup. "For heaven's sake, don't raise another cloud of dust jest as we're beginning to see clear again."

"Now don't tell me I can't when I must," responded Maria, pushing away her plate and rising from the table; "there's no such word as 'can't' when one has to, you know. I'll be back in two hours at the most, and oh! with so much to tell you!"

After tying on her hat in the hall, she looked in again to lighten Miss Saidie's foreboding by a tempting bait of news; but when she had descended the steps and walked slowly along the drive under the oaks, the assumed brightness of her look faded as rapidly as the morning sunshine on the clay road before her. It was almost with dismay that she found herself covering the ground between the Hall and Will's home and saw the shaded lane stretching to the little farm adjoining Sol Peterkin's.

As she passed the store, Mrs. Spade, who was selling white china buttons to Eliza Field, leaned over the counter and stared in amazement through the open window.

"Bless my soul an' body, if thar ain't old Fletcher's granddaughter come back!" she exclaimed—"holdin' her head as high as ever, jest as if her husband hadn't beat her black an' blue. Well, well, times have slid down hill sence I was a gal, an' the women of to-day ain't got the modesty they used to be born with. Why, I remember the time when old Mrs. Beale in the next county used to go to bed for shame, with a mustard plaster, every time her husband took a drop too much, which he did every blessed Saturday that he lived. It tided him over the Sabbath mighty well, he used to say, for he never could abide the sermons of Mr. Grant."

Eliza dropped the buttons she had picked up and turned, craning her neck in the direction of Maria's vanishing figure.

"What on earth has she gone down Sol Peterkin's lane for?" she inquired suspiciously.

"The Lord knows; if it's to visit her brother, I may say it's a long ways mo'n I'd do."

"She was always a queer gal even befo' her marriage—so strange an' far-away lookin' that I declar' it used to scare me half to death to meet her all alone at dusk. I never could help feelin' that she could bewitch a body, if she wanted to, with those solemn black eyes."

"She ain't bewitched me," returned Mrs. Spade decisively "an' what's mo', she's had too many misfortune come to her to make me believe she ain't done somethin' to deserve 'em. Thar's mighty few folks gets worse than they deserve in this world, an' when you see a whole flock of troubles settle on a person's head you may rest right sartain thar's a long score of misbehaviours up agin 'em. Yes, ma'am; when I hear of a big misfortune happenin' to anybody that I know, the first question that pops into my head is: 'I wonder if they've broke the sixth this time or jest the common seventh?' The best rule to follow, accordin' to my way of thinkin', is to make up yo' mind right firm that no matter what evil falls upon a person it ain't nearly so bad as the good Lord ought to have made it."

"That's a real pious way of lookin' at things, I reckon," sighed Eliza deferentially, as she fished five cents from the deep pocket of her purple calico and slapped it down upon the counter; "but we ain't all such good church-goers as you, the mo's the pity."

"Oh, I'm moral, an' I make no secret of it, "replied Mrs. Spade. "It's writ plain all over me, an' it has been ever sence the day that I was born. 'That's as moral lookin' a baby as ever I saw,' was what Doctor Pierson said to ma when I wan't mo'n two hours old. It was so then, an' it's been so ever sence. 'Virtue may not take the place of beaux,' my po' ma used to say, 'but it will ease her along mighty well without 'em'—Yes, the buttons are five cents. To be sure, I'll watch out and let you hear if she comes this way again."

Maria, meanwhile, happily unconscious of the judgment of her neighbours, walked thoughtfully along the lane until she came in sight of the small tumbled-down cottage which had been Fletcher's wedding gift to his grandson. A man in blue jean clothes was ploughing the field on the left of the road, and it was only when something vaguely familiar in his dejected attitude caused her to turn for a second glance that she realised, with a pang, that he was Will.

At her startled cry he looked up from the horses he was driving, and then, letting the ropes fall, came slowly toward her across the faint purple furrows. All the boyish jauntiness she remembered was gone from his appearance; his reversion to the family type had been complete, and it came to her with a shock that held her motionless that he stood to-day where her grandfather had stood fifty years before.

"Will!" she gasped, with an impulsive, motherly movement of her arms. Rejecting her caress with an impatient shrug, he stood kicking nervously at a clod of earth, his eyes wavering in a dispirited survey of her face.

"Well, it seems that we have both made a blamed mess of things," he said at last.

Maria shook her head, smiling hopefully. "Not too bad a mess to straighten out, dear," she answered. "We must set to work at once and begin to mend matters. Ah, if you had only written me how things were!"

"What was the use?" asked Will doggedly. "It was all grandpa—he turned out the devil himself, and there was no putting up with him. He'll live forever, too; that's the worst of it!"

"But you did anger him very much, Will—and you might so easily have waited. Surely, you were both young enough."

"Oh, it wasn't all about Molly, you know, when it comes to that. Long before I married he had made my life a burden to me. It all began with his insane jealousy of Christopher Blake—"

"Of Christopher Blake?" repeated Maria, and fell a step away from him.

"Blake has been a deuced good friend to me," insisted Will; "that's what the old man hates—what he's hated steadily all along. The whole trouble started when I wouldn't choose my friends to please him; and when at last I undertook to pick out my own wife there was hell to pay."

Maria's gaze wandered inquiringly in the direction of the house, which had a disordered and thriftless air.

"Is she here?" she asked, not without a slight nervousness in her voice.

Will followed her glance, and, taking off his big straw hat, pulled at the shoestring tied tightly around the crown.

"Not now; but you'll see her some day, when she's dressed up, and I tell you she'll be worth your looking at. All she needs is a little money to turn her into the most tearing beauty you ever saw."

"And she's not at home?"

"Not now," he replied impatiently; "her mother has just come over and taken her off. I say, Maria," he lowered his voice, and an eager look came into his irresolute face, which already showed the effects of heavy drinking, "this can't keep up, you know; it really can't. We must have money, for there's a child coming in the autumn."

"A child!" exclaimed Maria, startled. "Oh, Will! Will!" She glanced round again at the barren landscape and the squalid little house; "then something must be done at once—there's no time to lose. I'll speak to grandfather about it this very night."

"At least, there's no harm in trying," said Will, catching desperately at the suggestion. "Even if you don't make things better, there's a kind of comfort in the thought that you can't make them worse. We're at the bottom of the hill already. So, if you don't pull us up, at least you won't push us any farther down."

"Oh, I'll pull you up, never fear; but you must give me time."

"Your own affairs are in rather a muddle I reckon, by now?"

"Hopeless, it seems; but I'll share with you the few hundreds I still have. I brought this to-day, thinking you might be in immediate need."

As she drew the little roll of bills from her pocket, Will reached out eagerly, and, seizing it from her, counted it greedily in her presence. "Well, you're a downright brick, Maria," he remarked, as he thrust it hastily into his shirt.

Disappointment had chilled Maria's enthusiasm a little, but the next instant she dismissed the feeling as ungenerous, and slipped her hand affectionately through his arm as he walked back with her into the road.

"I wish I could see Molly," she said again, her eyes on the house, where she caught a glimpse of a bright head withdrawn from one of the windows.

"She is over at her mother's, I told you," returned Will irritably, and then, stooping to kiss her hurriedly, he added in a persuasive voice: "Bring the old man to reason, Maria; it's life or death, remember."

"I'll do my best, Will; I'll go on my knees to him to-night."

"Does he dislike you as much as ever?"

"No; he rather fancies me, I think. Last evening he grew almost amiable, and this morning Aunt Saidie told me he left me a pound of fresh butter from the market jar. If you only knew how fond he's grown of his money you would realise what it means."

"Well, keep it up, for God's sake. Humour him for all he's worth. Coddle and coax him into doing something for us, or dying and leaving us his money."

Maria's face grew grave. "That's the serious part, Will; he talks of leaving every penny he has to foreign missions."

"The devil!" cried Will furiously. "If he does, I hope he'll land in hell. Don't let him, Maria. It all rests with you. Why, if he did, you'd starve along with us, wouldn't you?"

"Oh, you needn't think of me—I could always teach, you know, and a little money buys a great deal of happiness with me. I have learned that great wealth is almost as much of an evil as great poverty."

"I'd take the risk of it, every time; and he is beastly rich, isn't he, Maria?"

"One of the very richest men in the State, they told me at the cross-roads."

"Yet he has the insolence to cut me off without a dollar. Look at this petered-out little farm he's given me. Why, it doesn't bring in enough to feed a darkey!"

"We'll hope for better things, dear; but you must learn to be patient—very patient. His anger has been smothered so long that it has grown almost as settled as hate. Aunt Saidie doesn't dare mention your name to him, and she tells me that if I so much as speak of you he'll turn me out of doors."

"Then it's even worse than I thought."

"Perhaps. I can't say, for I haven't approached the subject even remotely as yet. Keep your courage, however, and I promise you to do my best."

She kissed him again, and then, turning her face homeward, started at a rapid walk down the lane. The interview with Will had disturbed her more than she liked to admit, and it was with a positive throb of pain that she forced herself at last to compare the boy of five years ago with the broken and dispirited man from whom she had just parted. Was this tragedy the end of the young ambition which Fletcher had nursed so fondly, this—a nervous, overworked tobacco-grower, with bloodshot eyes, and features already inflamed by reckless drinking? The tears sprang to her lashes, and, throwing up her hands with a pathetic gesture of protest, she hastened on homeward as if to escape the terror that pursued her.

She had turned from the lane into the main road, and was just approaching the great chestnuts which grew near the abandoned ice-pond, when, looking up suddenly at the call of a bird above her head, she saw Christopher Blake standing beside the rail fence and watching her with a strong and steady gaze. Involuntarily she slackened her pace and waited, smiling for him to cross the fence; but, to her amazement, after an instant in which his eyes held her as if rooted to the spot, he turned hastily away and walked rapidly in the opposite direction. For a breath she stood motionless, gazing blankly into space; then, as she went on again, she knew that she carried with her not the wonder at his sudden flight, but the clear memory of that one moment's look into his eyes. A century of experience, with its tears and its laughter, its joy and its anguish, its desire and its fulfilment, seemed crowded into the single instant that held her immovable in the road.

CHAPTER IV. The Meeting in the Night

When Christopher turned so abruptly from Maria's gaze he was conscious only of a desperate impulse of flight. At the instant his strength seemed to fail him utterly, and he realised that for the first time in his life he feared to trust himself to face the imminent moment. His one thought was to escape quickly from her presence, and in the suddenness of his retreat he did not weigh the possible effect upon her of his rudeness. A little later, however, when he had put the field between him and her haunting eyes, he found himself returning with remorse to his imaginings of what her scattered impressions must have been.

Between regret and perplexity the day dragged through, and he met his mother's exacting humours and Cynthia's wistful inquiries with a curious detachment of mind. He had reached that middle state of any powerful emotion when even the external objects among which one moves seem affected by the inward struggle between reason and desire—the field in which he worked, the distant landscape, the familiar faces in the house, and those frail, pathetic gestures of his mother's hands, all expressed in outward forms something of the passion which he felt stirring in his own breast. It was in his nature to dare risks blindly—to hesitate at no experience offered him in his narrow life, and there were moments during this long day when he found himself questioning if one might not, after all, plunge headlong into the impossible.

As he rose from the supper table, where he had pushed his untasted food impatiently away, he remembered that he had promised in the morning to meet Will Fletcher at the store, and, lighting his lantern, he started out to keep the appointment he had almost forgotten. He found Will overflowing with his domestic troubles, and it was after ten o'clock before they both came out upon the road and turned into opposite ways at the beginning of Sol Peterkin's lane.

"I'll help you with the ploughing, of course," Christopher said, as they lingered together a moment before parting; "make your mind quite easy about that. I'll be over at sunrise on Monday and put in a whole day's job."

Then, as he fell back into his own road, he found something like satisfaction in the prospect of driving Will Fletcher's plough. The easy indifference with which he was accustomed to lend a hand in a neighbour's difficulty had always marked his association with the man whose ruin, he still assured himself, he had wrought.

It was a dark, moonless night, with only a faint, nebulous whiteness where the clouded stars shone overhead. His lantern, swinging lightly from his hand, cast a shining yellow circle on the ground before him, and it was by this illumination that he saw presently, as he neared the sunken road into which he was about to turn, a portion of the shadow by the ice-pond detach itself from the surrounding blackness and drift rapidly to meet him. In his first start of surprise, he raised the lantern quickly above his head and waited breathlessly while the advancing shape assumed gradually a woman's form. The old ghost stories of his childhood thronged confusedly into his brain, and then, before the thrilling certainty of the figure before him, he uttered a single joyous exclamation:

"You!"

The light flashed full upon Maria's face, which gave back to him a white and tired look. Her eyes were heavy, and there was a strange solemnity about them—something that appealed vaguely to his religious instinct.

"What in heaven's name has happened?" he asked, and his voice escaped his control and trembled with emotion.

With a tired little laugh, she screened her eyes from the lantern.

"I had a talk with grandfather about Will," she answered, "and he got so angry that he locked me out of doors. He had had a worrying day in town, and I think he hardly knew what he was doing—but he has put up the bars and turned out the lights, and there's really no way of getting in."

He thought for a moment. "Will you go on to your brother's, or is it too far?"

"At first I started there, but that must have been hours ago, and it was so dark I got lost by the ice-pond. After all, it would only make matters worse if I saw Will again; so the question is, Where am I to sleep?"

"At Tom Spade's, then—or—" he hesitated an instant, "if you care to come to us, my sister will gladly find room for you."

She shook her head. "No, no; you are very kind, but I can't do that. It is best that I shouldn't leave the place, perhaps, and when the servant comes over at sunrise I can slip up into my room. If you'll lend me your lantern I'll make myself some kind of a bed in the barn. Fortunately, grandfather forgot to lock the door."

"In the barn?" he echoed, surprised.

"Oh, I went there first, but after I lay down I suddenly remembered the mice and got up and came away. I'm mortally afraid of mice in the dark; but your lantern will keep them off, will it not?"

She smiled at him from the shining circle which surrounded her like a halo, and for a moment he forgot her words in the wonderful sense of her nearness. Around them the night stretched like a cloak, enclosing them in an emotional intimacy which had all the warmth of a caress. As she leaned back against the body of a tree, and he drew forward that he might hold the lantern above her head, the situation was resolved, in spite of the effort that he made, into the eternal problem of the man and the woman. He was aware that his blood worked rapidly in his veins, and as her glance reached upward from the light to meet his in the shadow he realised with the swiftness of intuition that in her also the appeal of the silence was faced with a struggle. They would ignore it, he knew, and yet it shone in their eyes, quivered in their voices, and trembled in their divided hands; and to them both its presence was alive and evident in the space between them. He saw her bosom rise and fall, her lips part slightly, and a tremor disturb the high serenity of her self-control, and there came to him the memory of their first meeting at the cross-roads and of the mystery and the rapture of his boyish love. He had found her then the lady of his dreams, and now, after all the violence of his revolt against her, she was still to him as he had first seen her—the woman whose soul looked at him from her face.

For a breathless moment—for a single heart-beat—it seemed to him that he had but to lean down and gather her eyes and lips and hands to his embrace, to feel her awaken to life within his arms and her warm blood leap up beneath his mouth. Then the madness left him as suddenly as it had come, and she grew strangely white, and distant, and almost unreal, in the spiritual beauty of her look. He caught his breath sharply, and lowered his gaze to the yellow circle that trembled on the ground.

"But you will be afraid even with the light," he said, in a voice which had grown almost expressionless.

As if awaking suddenly from sleep, she passed her hand slowly across her eyes.

"No, I shall not be afraid with the light," she answered, and moved out into the road.

"Then let me hold it for you—the hill is very rocky."

She assented silently, and quickened her steps down the long incline; then, as she stumbled in the darkness, he threw the lantern over upon her side. "If you will lean on me I think I can steady you," he suggested, waiting until she turned and laid her hand upon his arm. "That's better now; go slowly and leave the road to me. How in thunder did you come over it in the pitch dark?"

"I fell several times," she replied, with a little unsteady laugh, "and my feet are oh! so hurt and bruised. Tomorrow I shall go on crutches."

"A bad night's work, then."

"But not so bad as it might have been," she added cheerfully.

"You mean if I had not found you it would have been worse. Well, I'm glad that much good has come out of it. I have spared you a cold—so that goes down to my credit; otherwise—But what difference does it make?" he finished impatiently. "We must have met sooner or later even if I had run across the world instead of merely across a tobacco field. After all, the world is no bigger than a tobacco field, when it comes to destiny."

"To destiny?" she looked up, startled. "Then there are fatalists even among tobacco-growers?"

He met her question with a laugh. "But I wasn't always a tobacco- grower, and there were poets before Homer, who is about the only one I've ever read. It's true I've tried to lose the little education I ever had—that I've done my best to come down to the level of my own cattle; but I'm not an ox, after all, except in strength, and one has plenty of time to think when one works in the field all day. Why, the fancies I've had would positively turn your head."

"Fancies—about what?"

"About life and death and the things one wants and can never get. I dream dreams and plot unimaginable evil—"

"Not evil," she protested.

"Whole crops of it; and harvest them, too."

"But why?"

"For pure pleasure—for sheer beastly love of the devilment I can't do."

She shook her head, treating his words as a jest.

"There was never evil that held its head so high."

"That's pride, you know."

"Nor that wore so frank a face."

"And that's hypocrisy."

"Nor that dared to be so rude."

He caught up her laugh.

"You have me there, I grant you. What a brute I must have seemed this morning."

"You were certainly not a Chesterfield—nor a Bolivar Blake."

With a start he looked down upon her. "Then you, too, are aware of the old chap?" he asked.

"Of Bolivar Blake—why, who isn't? I used to be taught one of his maxims as a child—'If you can't tell a polite lie, don't tell any.'"

"Good manners, but rather bad morality, eh?" he inquired.

"Unfortunately, the two things seem to run together," she replied; "which encourages me to hope that you will prove to be a pattern of virtue."

"Don't hope too hard. I may merely have lost the one trait without developing the other."

"At least, it does no harm to believe the best," she returned in the same careless tone. Ahead of them, where the great oaks were massed darkly against the sky, he saw the steep road splotched into the surrounding blackness. Her soft breathing came to him from the obscurity at his side, and he felt his arm burn beneath the light pressure of her hand. For the first time in his lonely and isolated life he knew the quickened emotion, the fulness of experience, which came to him with the touch of the woman whom, he still told himself, he could never love. Not to love her had been so long for him a point of pride as well as of honour that even while the wonderful glow pervaded his thoughts, while his pulses drummed madly in his temples, he held himself doggedly to the illusion that the appeal she made would vanish with the morning. It was a delirium of the senses, he still reasoned, and knew even as the lie was spoken that the charm which drew him to her was, above all things, the spirit speaking through the flesh.

"I fear I have been a great bother to you," said Maria, after a moment, "but you will probably solace yourself with the reflection that destiny would have prepared an equal nuisance had you gone along another road."

"Perhaps," he answered, smiling; "but philosophy sometimes fails a body, doesn't it?"

"It may be. I knew a man once who said he leaned upon two crutches, philosophy and religion. When one broke under him he threw his whole weight on the other—and lo! that gave way."

"Then he went down, I suppose."

"I never heard the end—but if it wasn't quite so dark, you would find me really covered with confusion. I have not only brought you a good mile out of your road, but I am now prepared to rob you of your light. Can you possibly find your way home in the dark?"

As she looked up, the lantern shone in his face, and she saw that he wore a whimsical smile.

"I have been in the dark all my life," he answered, "until to- night."

"Until to-night?"

"Until now—this very minute. For the first time for ten years I begin to see my road at this instant—to see where I have been walking all along."

"And where did it lead you?"

He laughed at the seriousness in her voice.

"Through a muck-heap—in the steps of my own cattle. I am sunk over the neck in it already."

Her tone caught the lightness of his and carried it off with gaiety.

"But there is a way out. Have you found it?"

"There is none. I've wallowed so long in the filth that it has covered me."

"Surely it will rub off," she said.

For a moment the lantern's flash rested upon his brow and eyes, relieving them against the obscurity which still enveloped his mouth.

The high-bred lines of his profile stood out clear and fine as those of an ivory carving, and their very beauty saddened the look she turned upon him. Then the light fell suddenly lower and revealed the coarsened jaw, with the almost insolent strength of the closed lips. The whole effect was one of reckless power, and she caught her breath with the thought that so compelling a force might serve equally the agencies of good or evil.

They had reached the lawn, and as he responded to her hurried gesture of silence they passed the house quickly and entered the great open door of the barn. Here he hung the lantern from a nail, and then, pulling down some straw from a pile in one corner, arranged it into the rude likeness of a pallet.

"I don't think the mice will trouble you," he said at last, as he turned to go, "but if they do—why, just call out and I'll come to slaughter—"

"You won't go home, then?" she asked, amazed.

He nodded carelessly.

"Not till daybreak. Remember, if you feel frightened, that I'm within earshot."

Then, before she could protest or detain him for an explanation, he turned from her and went out into the darkness.

CHAPTER V. Maria Stands on Christopher's Ground

A broad yellow beam sliding under the door brought Maria into sudden consciousness, and rising hastily from the straw, where her figure had shaped an almost perfect outline, she crossed the dusky floor smelling of trodden grain and went out into the early sunshine, which slanted over the gray fields. A man trundling a wheelbarrow from the market garden, and a milkmaid crossing the lawn with a bucket of fresh milk, were the only moving figures in the landscape, and after a single hurried glance about her she followed the straight road to the house and entered the rear door, which Malindy had unlocked.

Meeting Fletcher a little later at breakfast, she found, to her surprise, that he accepted her presence without question and made absolutely no allusion to the heated conversation of the evening before. He looked sullen and dirty, as if he had slept all night in his clothes, and he responded to Maria's few good-humoured remarks with a single abrupt nod over his coffee-cup. As she watched him a feeling of pity for his loneliness moved her heart, and when he rose hastily at last and strode out into the hall she followed him and spoke gently while he paused to take down his hat from one of the old antlers near the door.

"If I could only be of some use to you, grandfather," she said; "are you sure there is nothing I can do?"

With his hand still outstretched, he hesitated an instant and stood looking down upon her, his heavy features wrinkling into a grin.

"I've nothing against you as a woman," he responded, "but when you set up and begin to charge like a judge, I'll be hanged if I can stand you."

"Then I won't charge any more. I only want to help you and to do what is best. If you would but let me make myself of some account."

He laughed not unkindly, and flecked with his stubby forefinger at some crumbs which had lodged in the folds of his cravat.

"Then I reckon you'd better mix a batch of dough and feed the turkeys," he replied, and touching her shoulder with his hat- brim, he went hurriedly out of doors.

When he had disappeared beyond the last clump of shrubbery bordering the drive, she remembered the lantern she had left hanging in the barn, and, going to look for it, carried it upstairs to her room. In the afternoon, however, it occurred to her that Christopher would probably need the light by evening, and swinging the handle over her arm, she set out across the newly ploughed fields toward the Blake cottage. The stubborn rustic pride which would keep him from returning to the Hall aroused in her a frank, almost tender amusement. She had long ago wearied of the trivial worldliness of life; in the last few years the shallowness of passion had seemed its crowning insult, and over the absolute sincerity of her own nature the primal emotion she had heard in Christopher's voice exerted a compelling charm. The makeshift of a conventional marriage had failed her utterly; her soul had rejected the woman's usual cheap compromise with externals; and in her almost puritan scorn of the vanities by which she was surrounded she had attained the moral elevation which comes to those who live by an inner standard of purity rather than by outward forms. In the largeness of her nature there had been small room for regret or for wasted passion, and until her meeting with Christopher on the day of her homecoming he had existed in her imagination only as a bright and impossible memory. Now, as she went rapidly forward along the little path that edged the field, she found herself wondering if, after all, she had worn unconsciously his ideal as an armour against the petty temptations and the sudden melancholies of the last six years.

As she neared the fence that divided the two farms she saw him walking slowly along a newly turned furrow, and when he looked up she lifted the lantern and waved it in the air. Quickening his steps, he swung himself over the rail fence with a single bound, and came to where she stood amid a dried fringe of last summer's yarrow.

"So you are none the worse for the night in the barn?" he asked anxiously.

"Why, I dreamed the most beautiful dreams," she replied, "and I had the most perfect sleep in the world."

"Then the mice kept away?"

"At least they didn't wake me."

"I stayed within call until sunrise," he said quietly. "You were not afraid?"

Her rare smile shone suddenly upon him, illumining the delicate pallor of her face. "I knew that you were there," she answered.

For a moment he gazed steadily into her eyes, then with a decisive movement he took the lantern from her hand and turned as though about to go back to his work.

"It was very kind of you to bring this over," he said, pausing beside the fence.

"Kind? Why, what did you expect? I knew it might hang there forever, but you would not come for it."

"No, I should not have come for it," he replied, swinging the lantern against the rails with such force that the glass shattered and fell in pieces to the ground.

"Why, what a shame!" said Maria; "and it is all my fault."

A smile was on his face as he looked at her.

"You are right—it is all your fault," he repeated, while his gaze dropped to the level of her lips and hung there for a breathless instant.

With an effort she broke the spell which had fallen over her, and, turning from him, pointed to the old Blake graveyard on the little hill.

"Those black cedars have tempted me for days," she said. "Will you tell me what dust they guard so faithfully?"

He followed her gesture with a frown.

"I will show you, if you like," he answered. "It is the only spot on earth where I may offer you hospitality."

"Your people are buried there?"

"For two hundred years. Will you come?"

While she hesitated, he tossed the lantern over into his field and came closer to her side. "Come," he repeated gently, and at his voice a faint flush spread slowly from her throat to the loosened hair upon her forehead. The steady glow gave her face a light, a radiance, that he had never seen there until to-day.

"Yes, I will come if you wish it," she responded quietly.

Together they went slowly up the low, brown incline over the clods of upturned earth. When they reached the bricked-up wall, which had crumbled away in places, he climbed over into the bed of periwinkle and then held out his hands to assist her in descending. "Here, step into that hollow," he said, "and don't jump till I tell you. Ah, that's it; now, I'm ready."

At his words, she made a sudden. spring forward, her dress caught on the wall, and she slipped lightly into his outstretched arms. For the half of a second he held her against his breast; then, as she released herself, he drew back and lifted his eves to meet the serene composure of her expression. He was conscious that his own face flamed red hot, but to all outward seeming she had not noticed the incident which had so moved him. The calm distinction of her bearing struck him as forcibly as it had done at their first meeting. "What a solemn place," she said, lowering her voice as she looked about her.

For answer he drew aside the screening boughs of a cedar and motioned to the discoloured marble slabs strewn thickly under the trees.

"Here are my people," he returned gravely. "And here is my ground."

Pausing, she glanced down on his father's grave, reading with difficulty the inscription beneath the dry dust from the cedars.

"He lived to be very old," she said, after a moment.

"Seventy years. He lived exactly ten years too long."

"Too long?"

"Those last ten years wrecked him. Had he died at sixty he would have died happy."

He turned from her, throwing himself upon the carpet of periwinkle, and coming to where he lay, she sat down on a granite slab at his side.

"One must believe that there is a purpose in it," she responded, raising a handful of fine dust and sifting it through her fingers, "or one would go mad over the mystery of things."

"Well, I dare say the purpose was to make me a tobacco-grower," he replied grimly, "and if so, it has fulfilled itself in a precious way. Why, there's never been a time since I was ten years old when I wouldn't have changed places, and said 'thank you,' too, with any one of those old fellows over there. They were jolly chaps, I tell you, and led jolly lives. It used to be said of them that they never won a penny nor missed a kiss."

"Nor learned a lesson, evidently. Well, may they rest in peace; but I'm not sure that their wisdom would carry far. There are better things than gaming and kissing, when all is said."

"Better things? Perhaps."

"Have you not found them?"

"Not yet; but then, I can't judge anything except tobacco, you know."

For a long pause she looked down into his upturned face.

"After all, it isn't the way we live nor the work we do that matters," she said slowly, "but the ideal we put into it. Is there any work too sordid, too prosaic, to yield a return of beauty?"

"Do you think so?" he asked, and glanced down the hill to his ploughshare lying in the ripped-up field. "But it is not beauty that some of us want, you see—it's success, action, happiness, call it what you will."

"Surely they are not the same. I have known many successful people, and the only three perfectly happy ones I ever met were what the world calls failures."

"Failures?" he echoed, and remembered Tucker.

Her face softened, and she looked beyond him to the blue sky, shining through the interlacing branches of bared trees.

"Two were women," she pursued, clasping and unclasping the quiet hands in her lap, "and one was a Catholic priest who had been reared in a foundling asylum and educated by charity. When I knew him he was on his way to a leper island in the South Seas, where he would be buried alive for the remainder of his life. All he had was an ideal, but it flooded his soul with light. Another was a Russian Nihilist, a girl in years and yet an atheist and a revolutionist in thought, and her unbelief was in its way as beautiful as the religion of my priest. To return to Russia meant death; she knew, and yet she went back, devoted and exalted, to lay down her life for an illusion. So it seems, when one looks about the world, that faith and doubt are dry and inanimate forms until we pour forth our heart's blood, which vivifies them."

She fell silent, and he started and touched softly the hem of her black skirt.

"And the other?" he asked.

"The other had a stranger and a longer story, but if you will listen I'll tell it to you. She was an Italian, of a very old and proud family, and as she possessed rare loveliness and charm, a marriage was arranged for her with a wealthy nobleman, who had fallen in love with her before she left her convent. She was a rebellious soul, it seems, for the day before her wedding, just after she had patiently tried on her veil and orange blossoms, she slipped into the dress of her waiting-maid and ran off with a music-teacher—a beggarly fanatic, they told me—a man of red republican views, who put dangerous ideas into the heads of the peasantry. From that moment, they said, her life was over; her family shut their doors upon her, and she fell finally so low as to be seen one evening singing in the public streets. Her story touched me when I heard it: it seemed a pitiable thing that a woman should be wrecked so hopelessly by a single moment of mistaken courage; and after months of searching I at last found the place she lived in, and went one May evening up the long winding staircase to her apartment—two clean, plain rooms which looked on a little balcony where there were pots of sweet basil and many pigeons. At my knock the door opened, and I knew her at once in the beautiful white face and hands of the woman who stood a little back in the shadow. Her forty years had not coarsened her as they do most Italian women, and her eyes still held the unshaken confidence of extreme youth. Her husband was sleeping in the next room, she said; he had but a few days more to live, and he had been steadily dying for a year. Then, at my gesture of sympathy, she shook her head and smiled.

"I have had twenty years," she said, "and I have been perfectly happy. Think of that when so many women die without having even a single day of life. Why, but for the one instant of courage that saved me, I myself might have known the world only as a vegetable knows the garden in which it fattens. My soul has lived, and though I have been hungry and cold and poorly clad, I have never sunk to the level of what they would have made me. He is a dreamer," she finished gently, "and though his dreams were nourished upon air, and never came true except in our thoughts, still they have touched even the most common things with beauty." While she talked, he awoke and called her, and we went in to see him. He complained a little fretfully that his feet were cold, and she knelt down and warmed them in the shawl upon her bosom. The mark of death was on him, and I doubt if even in the fulness of his strength he were worthy of the passion he inspired—but that, after all, makes little difference. It was a great love, which is the next best thing to a great faith."

As she ended, he raised his eyes slowly, catching the fervour of her glance.

"It was more than that—it was a great deliverance," he said.

Then, as she rose, he followed her from the graveyard, and they descended the low brown hill together.

CHAPTER VI. The Growing Light

By the end of the week a long rain had set in, and while it lasted Christopher took down the tobacco hanging in the roof of the log barn and laid it in smooth piles, pressed down by boards on the ground. The tobacco was still soft from the moist season when Jim Weatherby, who had sold his earlier in the year, came over to help pack the large casks for market, bringing at the same time a piece of news concerning Bill Fletcher.

"It seems Will met the old man somewhere on the road and they came to downright blows," he said. "Fletcher broke a hickory stick over the boy's shoulders."

Christopher carefully sorted a pile of plants, and then, selecting the finest six leaves, wrapped them together by means of a smaller one which he twisted tightly about the stems.

"Ah, is that so?" he returned, with a troubled look.

"It's a pretty kettle of fish, sure enough," pursued Jim. "Of course, Will has made a fool of himself, and gone to the dogs and all that, but I must say it does seem a shame, when you think that old Fletcher can't take his money with him to the next world. As for pure stinginess, I don't believe he'd find his match if he scoured the country. Why, they say his granddaughter barely gets enough to eat. Look here! What are you putting in that bad leaf for. It's worm-eaten all over."

"So it is," admitted Christopher, examining it with a laugh. "My eyesight must be failing me. But what good under heaven does his money do Fletcher, after all?"

"Oh, he's saving it up to leave to foreign missions, Tom Spade says. Mr. Carraway is coming down next week to draw up a new will."

"And his grandchildren come in for nothing?"

"It looks that way—but you can't see through Bill Fletcher, so nobody knows. The funny part is that he has taken rather a liking to Mrs. Wyndham, I hear, and she has even persuaded him to raise the wages of his hands. It's a pity she can't patch up a peace with Will—the quarrel seems to distress her very much."

"You have seen her, then?"

"Yesterday, for a minute. She stopped me near the store and asked for news of Will. There was nothing I could tell her except that they dragged along somehow with Sol Peterkin's help. That's a fine woman, Fletcher or no Fletcher."

"Well, she can't help that—it's merely a question of name. There's Cynthia calling us to dinner. We'll have to fill the hogsheads later on."

But when the meal was over and he was returning to his work, Cynthia followed him with a message from his mother.

"She has asked for you all the morning, Christopher; there's something on her mind, though she seems quite herself and in a very lively humour. It is impossible to get her away from the subject of marriage—she harps on it continually."

He had turned to enter the house at her first words, but now his face clouded, and he hung back before the door.

"Do you think I'd better go in?" he asked, hesitating.

"There's no getting out of it without making her feel neglected, and perhaps your visit may divert her thoughts. I'm sure I don't see what she has left to say on the subject."

"All right, I'll go," he said cheerfully; "but for heaven's sake, help me drum up some fresh topics."

Mrs. Blake was sitting up in bed, sipping a glass of port wine, and at Christopher's step she turned her groping gaze helplessly in his direction.

"What a heavy tramp you have, my son; you must be almost as large as your father."

Crossing the room as lightly as his rude boots permitted, Christopher stooped to kiss the cheek she held toward him. The old lady had wasted gradually to the shadow of herself, and the firelight from the hearth shone through the unearthly pallor of her face and hands. Her beautiful white hair was still arranged, over a high cushion, in an elaborate fashion, and her gown of fine embroidered linen was pinned together with a delicate cameo brooch.

"I have been talking very seriously to Lila," she began at once, as he sat down by the bedside. "My age is great, you know, and it is hardly probable that the good Lord will see fit to leave me much longer to enjoy the pleasures of this world. Now, what troubles me more than all else is that I am to die feeling that the family will pass utterly away. Is it possible that both Lila and yourself persist in your absurd and selfish determination to remain unmarried?"

"Oh, mother! mother!" groaned Lila from the fireplace.

"You needn't interrupt me, Lila; you know quite well that a family is looked at askance when all of its members remain single. Surely one old maid—and I am quite reconciled to poor Cynthia's spinsterhood—is enough to leaven things, as your father used to say—"

Her memory slipped from her for a moment; she caught at it painfully, and a peevish expression crossed her face.

"What was I saying, Lila? I grow so forgetful."

"About father, dear."

"No, no; I remember now—it was about your marrying. Well, well, as I said before, I fear your attitude is the result of some sentimental fancies you have found in books. My child, there was never a book yet that held a sensible view of love, and I hope you will pay no attention to what they say. As for waiting until you can't live without a man before you marry him—tut-tut! the only necessary question is to ascertain if you can possibly live with him. There is a great deal of sentiment talked in life, my dear, and very little lived—and my experience of the world has shown me that one man is likely to make quite as good a husband as another—provided he remains a gentleman and you don't expect him to become a saint. I've had a long marriage, my children, and a happy one. Your father fell in love with me at his first glance, and he did not hate me at his last, though the period covered an association of thirty years. We were an ideal couple, all things considered, and he was a very devoted husband; but to this day I have not ceased to be thankful that he was never placed in the position where he had to choose between me and his dinner. Honestly, I may as well confess among us three, it makes me nervous when I think of the result of such a pass."

"Oh, mother," protested Lila reproachfully; "if I listened to you I should never want to marry any man."

"I'm sure I don't see why, my dear. I have always urged it as a duty, not advised it as a pleasure. As far as that goes, I hold to this day the highest opinion of matrimony and of men, though I admit, when I consider the attention they require, I sometimes feel that women might select a better object. When the last word is said, a man is not half so satisfactory a domestic pet as a cat, and far less neat in his habits. Your poor father would throw his cigar ashes on the floor to the day of his death, and I could never persuade him to use an ash-tray, though I gave him one regularly every Christmas that he lived. Do you smoke cigars, Christopher? I detect a strong odour of tobacco about you, and I hope you haven't let Tucker persuade you into using anything so vulgar as a pipe. The worst effect of a war, I am inclined to believe, is the excuse it offers every man who fought in it to fall into bad habits."

"Oh, it's Uncle Tucker's pipe you smell," replied Christopher, with a laugh, as he rose from his chair. "I detest the stuff and always did."

"I suppose I ought to be thankful for it," said Mrs. Blake, detaining him by a gesture, "but I can't help recalling a speech of Micajah Blair's, who said that a woman who didn't flirt and a man who didn't smoke were unsexed creatures. It is a commendable eccentricity, I suppose, but an eccentricity, good or bad, is equally to be deplored. Your grandfather always said that the man who was better than his neighbours was quite as unfortunate as the man who was worse. Who knows but that your dislike of tobacco and your aversion to marriage may result from the same peculiar quirk in your brain?"

"Well, it's there and I can't alter it, even to please you, mother," declared Christopher from the door. "I've set my face square against them both, and there it stands."

He went out laughing, and Mrs. Blake resigned herself with a sigh to her old port.

The rain fell heavily, whipping up foaming puddles in the muddy road and beating down the old rosebushes in the yard.

As Christopher paused for a moment in the doorway before going to the barn he drew with delight the taste of the dampness into his mouth and the odour of the moist earth into his nostrils. The world had taken on a new and appealing beauty, and yet the colourless landscape was touched with a sadness which he had never seen in external things until to-day.

His ears were now opened suddenly, his eyes unbandaged, and he heard the rhythmical fall of the rain and saw the charm of the brown fields with a vividness that he had never found in his enjoyment of a summer's day. Human life also moved him to responsive sympathy, and he felt a great aching tenderness for his blind mother and for his sisters, with their narrowed and empty lives. His own share in the world, he realised, was but that of a small, insignificant failure; he had been crushed down like a weed in his tobacco field, and for a new springing-up he found neither place nor purpose. The facts of his own life were not altered by so much as a shadow, yet on the outside life that was not his own he beheld a wonderful illumination.

His powerful figure filled the doorway, and Cynthia, coming up behind him, raised herself on tiptoe to touch his bared head.

"Your hair is quite wet, Christopher; be sure to put on your hat and fasten the oilcloth over your shoulders when you go back to the barn. You are so reckless that you make me uneasy. Why, the rain has soaked entirely through your shirt."

"Oh, I'm a pine knot; you needn't worry."

She sighed impatiently and went back to the kitchen, while his gaze travelled slowly along the wet gray road to the abandoned ice-pond, and he thought of his meeting with Maria in the darkness and of the light of the lantern shining on her face. He remembered her white hands against her black dress, her fervent eyes under the grave pallor of her brow, her passionate, kind voice, and her mouth with the faint smile which seemed never to fade utterly away. Love, which is revealed usually as a pleasant disturbing sentiment resulting from the ordinary purposes of life, had come to him in the form of a great regenerating force, destroying but that it might rebuild anew.

CHAPTER VII. In Which Carraway Speaks the Truth to Maria

During the first week in April Carraway appeared at the Hall in answer to an urgent request from Fletcher that he should, without delay, put the new will into proper form.

On the morning after his arrival, Carraway had a long conversation with the old man in his sitting-room, and when it was over he came out with an anxious frown upon his brow and went upstairs to the library which Maria had fitted up in the spare room next her chamber. It was the pleasantest spot in the house, he had concluded last evening, and the impression returned to him as he entered now and saw the light from the wood fire falling on the shining floor, which reflected the stately old furniture, and the cushions, and the window curtains of faded green. Books were everywhere, and he noticed at once that they were not the kind read by the women whom he knew—big leather volumes on philosophy, yellow-covered French novels, and curled edges of what he took to be the classic poets. It was almost with relief that he noticed a dainty feminine touch here and there—a work- bag of flowered silk upon the sofa, a bowl of crocuses among the papers on the old mahogany desk, and clinging to each bit of well-worn drapery in the room a faint and delicate fragrance.

Maria was lying drowsily in a low chair before the fire, and as he entered she looked up with a smile and motioned to a comfortable seat across the hearth. A book was on her knees, but she had not been reading, for her fingers were playing carelessly with the uncut leaves. Against her soft black dress the whiteness of her face and hands showed almost too intense a contrast, and yet there was no hint of fragility in her appearance. From head to foot she was abounding with energy, throbbing with life, and though Carraway would still, perhaps, have hesitated to call her beautiful, his eyes dwelt with pleasure on the noble lines of her relaxed figure. Better than beauty, he admitted the moment afterward, was the charm that shone for him in her wonderfully expressive face—a face over which the experiences of many lives seemed to ripple faintly in what was hardly more than the shadow of a smile. She had loved and suffered, he thought, with his gaze upon her, and from both love and suffering she had gained that fulness of nature which is the greatest good that either has to yield.

"So it is serious," she said anxiously, as he sat down.

"I fear so—at least, where your brother is concerned. I can't say just what the terms of the will are, of course, but he made no secret at breakfast of his determination to leave half of his property—which the result of recent investments has made very large—to the cause of foreign missions."

"Yes, he has told me about it."

"Then there's nothing more to be said, unless you can persuade him for your brother's sake to destroy the will when his anger has blown over. I used every argument I could think of, but he simply wouldn't listen to me—swept my advice aside as if it was so much wasted breath—"

He paused as Maria bent her ear attentively.

"He is coming upstairs now!" she exclaimed, amazed.

There was a heavy tread on the staircase, and a little later Fletcher came in and turned to close the door carefully behind him. He had recovered for a moment his air of bluff good-humour, and his face crinkled into a ruddy smile.

"So you're hatching schemes between you, I reckon," he observed, and, crossing to the hearth, pushed back a log with the toe of his heavy boot.

"It looks that way, certainly," replied Carraway, with his pleasant laugh. "But I must confess that I was doing nothing more interesting than admiring Mrs. Wyndham's taste in books."

Fletcher glanced round indifferently.

"Well, I haven't any secrets," he pursued, still under the pressure of the thought which had urged him upstairs, "and as far as that goes, I can tear up that piece of paper and have it done with any day I please."

"So I had the honour to advise," remarked Carraway.

"That's neither here nor thar, I reckon—it's made now, and so it's likely to stand until I die, though I don't doubt you'll twist and split it then as much as you can. However, I reckon the foreign missions will look arter the part that goes to them, and if Maria's got the sense I credit her with she'll look arter hers."

"After mine?" exclaimed Maria, lifting her head to return his gaze. "Why, I thought you gave me my share when I married."

"So I did—so I did, and you let it slip like water through your fingers; but you've grown up, I reckon, sence you were such a fool as to have your head turned by Wyndham, and if you don't hold on to this tighter than you did to the last you deserve to lose it, that's all. You're a good woman—I ain't lived a month in the house with you and not found that out—but if you hadn't had something more than goodness inside your head you wouldn't have got so much as a cent out of me again. Saidie's a good woman and a blamed fool, too, but you're different; you've got a backbone in your body, and I'll be hanged if that ain't why I'm leaving the Hall to you."

"The Hall?" echoed Maria, rising impulsively from her chair and facing him upon the hearthrug.

"The Hall and Saidie and the whole lot," returned Fletcher, chuckling, "and I may as well tell you now, that, for all your spendthrift notions about wages, you're the only woman I ever saw who was fit to own a foot of land. But I like the quiet way you manage things, somehow, and, bless my soul, if you were a man I'd leave you the whole business and let the missions hang."

"There's time yet," observed Carraway beneath his breath.

"No, no; it's settled now," returned Fletcher, "and she'll have more than she can handle as it is. Most likely she'll marry again, being a woman, and a man will be master here, arter all. If you do," he added, turning angrily upon his granddaughter, "for heaven's sakes, don't let it be another precious scamp like your first!"

With a shiver Maria caught her breath and bent toward him with an appealing gesture of her arms.

"But you must not do it, grandfather; it isn't right. The place was never meant to belong to me."

"Well, it belongs to me, I reckon, and confound your silly puritanical fancies, I'll leave it where I please," retorted Fletcher, and strode from the room.

Throwing herself back into her chair, Maria lay for a time looking thoughtfully at the hickory log, which crumbled and threw out a shower of red sparks. Her face was grave, but there was no hint of indecision upon it, and it struck Carraway very forcibly at the instant that she knew her own mind quite clearly and distinctly upon this as upon most other matters.

"It may surprise you," she said presently, speaking with sudden passion, "but by right the Hall ought not to be mine, and I do not want it. I have never loved it because it has never for a moment seemed home to me, and our people have always appeared strangers upon the land. How we came here I do not know, but it has not suited us, and we have only disfigured a beauty into which we did not fit. Its very age is a reproach to us, for it shows off our newness—our lack of any past that we may call our own. Will might feel himself master here, but I cannot."

Carraway took off his glasses and rubbed patiently at the ridge they had drawn across his nose.

"And yet, why not?" he asked. "The place has been in your grandfather's possession now for more than twenty years."

"For more than twenty years," repeated Maria scornfully, "and before that the Blakes lived here—how long?"

He met her question squarely. "For more than two hundred."

Without shifting her steady gaze which she turned upon his face, she leaned forward, clasping her hands loosely upon the knees.

"There are things that I want to know, Mr. Carraway," she said, "many things, and I believe that you can tell me. Most of all, I want to know why we ever came to Blake Hall? Why the Blakes ever left it? And, above all, why they have hated us so heartily and so long?"

She paused and sat motionless, while she hung with suspended breath upon his reply.

For a moment the lawyer hesitated, nervously twirling his glasses between his thumb and forefinger; then he slowly shook his head and looked from her to the fire.

"Twenty years are not as a day, despite your scorn, my dear young lady, and many facts become overlaid with fiction in a shorter time."

"But you know something—and you believe still more."

"God forbid that I should convert you to any belief of mine."

She put out a protesting hand, her eyes still gravely insistent. "Tell me all—I demand it. It is my right; you must see that."

"A right to demolish sand houses—to scatter old dust."

"A right to hear the truth. Surely you will not withhold it from me?"

"I don't know the truth, so I can't enlighten you. I know only the stories of both sides, and they resemble each other merely in that they both center about the same point of interest."

"Then you will tell them to me—you must," she said earnestly. "Tell me first, word for word, all that the Blakes believe of us."

With a laugh, he put on his glasses that he might bring her troubled face the more clearly before him.

"A high spirit of impartiality, I admit," he observed.

"That I should want to hear the other side?"

"That, being a woman, you should take for granted the existence of the other side."

She shook her head impatiently. "You can't evade me by airing camphor-scented views of my sex," she returned. "What I wish to know—and I still stick to my point, you see—is the very thing you are so carefully holding back."

"I am holding back nothing, on my honour," he assured her. "If you want the impression which still exists in the county—only an impression—I must make plain to you at the start (for the events happened when the State was in the throes of reconstruction, when each man was busy rebuilding his own fortunes, and when tragedies occurred without notice and were hushed up without remark)—if you want merely an impression, I repeat, then you may have it, my dear lady, straight from the shoulder."

"Well?" her voice rose inquiringly, for he had paused.

"There is really nothing definite known of the affair," he resumed after a moment, "even the papers which would have thrown light into the darkness were destroyed—burned, it is said, in an old office which the Federal soldiers fired. It is all mystery— grim mystery and surmise; and when there is no chance of either proving or disproving a case I dare say one man's word answers quite as well as another's. At all events, we have your grandfather's testimony as chief actor and eye-witness against the inherited convictions of our somewhat Homeric young neighbour. For eighteen years before the war Mr. Fletcher was sole agent—a queer selection, certainly—for old Mr. Blake, who was known to have grown very careless in the confidence he placed. When the crash came, about three years after the war, the old gentleman's mind was much enfeebled, and it was generally rumoured that his children were kept in ignorance that the place was passing from them until it was auctioned off over their heads and Mr. Fletcher became the purchaser. How this was, of course, I do not pretend to say, but when the Hall finally went for the absurd sum of seven thousand dollars life was at best a hard struggle in the State, and I imagine there was less surprise at the sacrifice of the place than at the fact that your grandfather should have been able to put down the ready money. The making of a fortune is always, I suppose, more inexplicable than the losing of one. The Blakes had always been accounted people of great wealth and wastefulness, but within five years from the close of the war they had sunk to the position in which you find them now —a change, I dare say, from which it is natural much lingering bitterness should result. The old man died almost penniless, and his children were left to struggle on from day to day as best they could. It is a sad tale, and I do not wonder that it moves you," he finished slowly, and looked down to wipe his glasses.

"And grandfather?" asked the girl quietly. Her gaze had not wavered from his face, but her eyes shone luminous through the tears which filled them.

"He became rich as suddenly as the Blakes became poor. Where his money came from no one asked, and no one cared except the Blakes, who were helpless. They made some small attempts at law suits, I believe, but Christopher was only a child then, and there was nobody with the spirit to push the case. Then money was needed, and they were quite impoverished."

Maria threw out her hands with a gesture of revolt.

"Oh, it is a terrible story," she said, "a terrible story."

"It is an old one, and belongs to terrible times. You have drawn it from me for your own purpose, and be that as it may, I have always believed in giving a straight answer to a straight question. Now such things would be impossible," he added cheerfully; "then, I fear, they were but too probable."

"In your heart you believe that it is true?" He did not flinch from his response. "In my heart I believe that there is more in it than a lie."

Rising from her chair, she turned from him and walked rapidly up and down the room, through the firelight which shimmered over the polished floor. Once she stopped by the window, and, drawing the curtains aside, looked out upon the April sunshine and upon the young green leaves which tinted the distant woods. Then coming back to the hearthrug, she stood gazing down upon him with a serene and resolute expression.

"I am glad now that the Hall will be mine," she said, "glad even that it wasn't left to Will, for who knows how he would have looked at it. There is but one thing to be done: you must see that yourself. At grandfather's death the place must go back to its rightful owners."

"To its rightful owners!" he repeated in amazement, and rose to his feet.

"To the Blakes. Oh, don't you see it—can't you see that there is nothing else to do in common honesty?"

He shook his head, smiling.

"It is very beautiful, my child, but is it reasonable, after all?" he asked.

"Reasonable?" The fine scorn he had heard before in her voice thrilled her from head to foot. "Shall I stop to ask what is reasonable before doing what is right?"

Without looking at her, he drew a handkerchief from his pocket and shook it slowly out from its folds.

"Well, I'm not sure that you shouldn't," he rejoined.

"Then I shan't be reasonable. I'll be wise," she said; "for surely, if there is any wisdom upon earth, it is simply to do right. It may be many years off, and I may be an old woman, but when the Hall comes to me at grandfather's death I shall return it to the Blakes."

In the silence which followed he found himself looking into her ardent face with a wonder not unmixed with awe. To his rather cynical view of the Fletchers such an outburst came as little less than a veritable thunderclap, and for the first time in his life he felt a need to modify his conservative theories as to the necessity of blue blood to nourish high ideals. Maria, indeed, seemed to him as she stood there, drawn fine and strong against the curtains of faded green, to hold about her something better than that aroma of the past which he had felt to be the intimate charm of all exquisite things, and it was at the moment the very light and promise of the future which he saw in the broad intelligence of her brow. Was it possible, after all, he questioned, that out of the tragic wreck of old claims and old customs which he had witnessed there should spring creatures of even finer fiber than those who had gone before?

"So this is your last word?" he inquired helplessly.

"My last word to you—yes. In a moment I am going out to see the Blakes—to make them understand."

He put out his hand as if to detain her by a feeble pull at her skirt. "At least, you will sleep a night upon your resolution?"

"How can my sleeping alter things? My waking may."

"And you will sweep the claims of twenty years aside in an hour?"

"They are swept aside by the claims of two hundred."

With a courteous gesture he bent over her hand and raised it gravely to his lips.

"My dear young friend, you are very lovely and very unreasonable," he said.

CHAPTER VIII. Between Maria and Christopher

A little later, Maria, with a white scarf thrown over her head, came out of the Hall and passed swiftly along the road under the young green leaves which were putting out on the trees. When she reached the whitewashed gate before the Blake cottage she saw Christopher ploughing in the field on the left of the house, and turning into the little path which trailed through the tall weeds beside the "worm" fence, she crossed the yard and stood hesitating at the beginning of the open furrow he had left behind him. His gaze was bent upon the horses, and for a moment she watched him in attentive silence, her eyes dwelling on his massive figure, which cast a gigantic blue-black shadow across the April sunbeams. She saw him at the instant with a distinctness, a clearness of perception, that she had never been conscious of until to-day, as if each trivial detail in his appearance was magnified by the pale yellow sunshine through which she looked upon it. The abundant wheaten-brown hair, waving from the moist circle drawn by the hat he had thrown aside, the strong masculine profile burned to a faint terracotta shade from wind and sun, and the powerful hands knotted and roughened by heavy labour, all stood out vividly in the mental image which remained with her when she lowered her eyes.

Aroused by a sound from the house, he looked up and saw her standing on the edge of the ploughed field, her lace scarf blown softly in the April wind. After a single minute of breathless surprise he tossed the long ropes on the ground, and, leaving the plough, came rapidly across the loose clods of upturned earth.

"Did you come because I was thinking of you?" he asked simply, with the natural directness which had appealed so strongly to her fearless nature.

"Were you thinking of me?" her faint smile shone on him for an instant; "and were your thoughts as grave, I wonder, as my reason for coming?"

"So you have a reason, then?"

"Did you think I should dare to come without one?"

The light wind caught her scarf, blowing the long ends about her head. From the frame of soft white lace her eyes looked dark and solemn and very distant.

"I had hoped that you had no other reason than kindness." He had lost entirely the rustic restraint he had once felt in her presence, and, as he stood there in his clothes of dull blue jean, it was easy to believe in the gallant generations at his back. Was the fret of their gay adventures in his blood? she wondered.

"You will see the kindness in my reason, I hope," she answered quietly, while the glow of her sudden resolution illumined her face, "and at least you will admit the justice—though belated."

He drew a step nearer. "And it concerns you—and me?" he asked.

"It concerns you—oh, yes, yes, and me also, though very slightly. I have just learned—just a moment ago—what you must have thought I knew all along."

As he fell back she saw that he paled slowly beneath his sunburn.

"You have just learned—what?" he demanded.

"The truth," she replied; "as much of the truth as one may learn in an hour: how it came that you are here and I am there—at the Hall."

"At the Hall?" he repeated, and there was relief in the quick breath he drew; "I had forgotten the Hall."

"Forgotten it? Why, I thought it was your dream, your longing, your one great memory."

Smiling into her eyes, he shook his head twice before he answered.

"It was all that—once."

"Then it is not so now?" she asked, disappointed, "and what I have to tell you will lose half its value."

"So it is about the Hall?"

With one hand she held back the fluttering lace upon her bosom, while lifting the other she pointed across the ploughed fields to the old gray chimneys huddled amid the budding oaks.

"Does it not make you homesick to stand here and look at it?" she asked. "Think! For more than two hundred years your people lived there, and there is not a room within the house, nor a spot upon the land, that does not hold some sacred association for those of your name." Startled by the passion in her words, he turned from the Hall at which he had been gazing.

"What do you mean? " he demanded imperatively. "What do you wish to say?"

"Look at the Hall and not at me while I tell you. It is this—now listen and do not turn from it for an instant. Blake Hall—I have just found it out—will come to me at grandfather's death, and when it does—when it does I shall return it to your family—the whole of it, every lovely acre. Oh, don't look at me—look at the Hall!"

But he looked neither at her nor at the Hall, for his gaze dropped to the ground and hung blankly upon a clod of dry brown earth. She saw him grow pale to the lips and dark blue circles come out slowly about his eyes.

"It is but common justice; you see that," she urged.

At this he raised his head and returned her look.

"And what of Will?" he asked.

Her surprise showed in her face, and at sight of it he repeated his question with a stubborn insistence: "But what of Will? What has been done for Will?"

"Oh, I don't know; I don't know. The break is past mending. But it is not of him that I must speak to you now—it is of yourself. Don't you see that the terrible injustice has bowed me to the earth? What am I better than a dependent—a charity ward who has lived for years upon your money? My very education, my little culture, the refinements you see in me—these even I have no real right to, for they belong to your family. While you have worked as a labourer in the field I have been busy squandering the wealth which was not mine."

His face grew gentle as he looked at her.

"If the Blake money has made you what you are, then it has not been utterly wasted," he replied.

"Oh, you don't understand—you don't understand," she repeated, pressing her hands upon her bosom, as if to quiet her fluttering breath. "You have suffered from it all along, but it is I who suffer most to-day—who suffer most because I am upon the side of the injustice. I can have no peace until you tell me that I may still do my poor best to make amends—that when your home is mine you will let me give it back to you."

"It is too late," he answered with bitter humour. "You can't put a field-hand in a fine house and make him a gentleman. It is too late to undo what was done twenty years ago. The place can never be mine again—I have even ceased to want it. Give it to Will."

"I couldn't if I wanted to," she replied; "but I don't want to—I don't want to. It must go back to you and to your sisters. Do you think I could ever be owner of it now? Even if it comes to me when I am an old woman, I shall always feel myself a stranger in the house, though I should live there day and night for fifty years. No, no; it is impossible that I should ever keep it for an instant. It must go back to you and to the Blakes who come after you."

"There will be no Blakes after me," he answered. "I am the last."

"Then promise me that if the Hall is ever mine you will take it."

"From you? No: not unless I took it to hand on to your brother. It is an old score that you have brought up—one that lasted twenty years before it was settled. It is too late to stir up matters now."

"It is not too late," she said earnestly. "It is never too late to try to undo a wrong."

"The wrong was not yours; it must never touch you," he replied. "If my life was as clean as yours, it would, perhaps, not be too late for me either. Ten years ago I might have felt differently about it, but not now."

He broke off hurriedly, and Maria, with a hopeless gesture, turned back into the path.

"Then I shall appeal to your sisters when the time comes," she responded quietly.

Catching the loose ends of her scarf, he drew her slowly around until she met his eyes. "And I have said nothing to you—to you," he began, in a constrained voice, which he tried in vain to steady, "because it is so hard to say anything and not say too much. This, at least, you must know—that I am your servant now and shall be all my life."

She smiled sadly, looking down at the scarf which was crushed in his hands.

"And yet you will not grant the wish of my heart," she said.

"How could I? Put me back in the Hall, and I should be as ignorant and as coarse as I am out here. A labourer is all I am and all I am fit to be. I once had a rather bookish ambition, you know, but that is over—I wanted to read Greek and translate 'The Iliad' and all that—and yet to-day I doubt if I could write a decent letter to save my soul. It's partly my fault, of course, but you can't know you could never know—the abject bitterness and despair of those years when I tried to sink myself to the level of the brutes—tried to forget that I was any better than the oxen I drove. No, there's no pulling me up again; such things aren't lived over, and I'm down for good."

Her tears, which she had held back, broke forth at his words, and he saw them fall upon her bosom, where her hands were still tightly clasped.

"And it is all our fault," she said brokenly.

"Not yours, surely."

"It is not too late," she went on passionately, laying her hand upon his arm and looking up at him with a misty brightness. "Oh, if you would let me make amends—let me help you!"

"Is there any help?" he asked, with his eyes on the hand upon his arm.

"If you will let me, I will find it. We will take up your study where you broke it off—we will come up step by step, even to Homer, if you like. I am fond of books, you know, and I have had my fancy for Greek, too. Oh, it will be so easy—so easy; and when the time comes for you to go back to the Hall, I shall have made you the most learned Blake of the whole line."

He bent quickly and kissed the hand which trembled on his sleeve.

"Make of me what you please," he said; "I am at your service."

For the second time he saw the wonderful light—the fervour— illumine her face, and then fade slowly, leaving a still, soft radiance of expression.

"Then I may teach you all that you haven't learned," she said with a happy little laugh. "How fortunate that I should have been born a bookworm. Shall we begin with Greek?"

He smiled. "No; let's start with English—and start low."

"Then we'll do both; but where shall it be? Not at the Hall."

"Hardly. There's a bench, though, down by the poplar spring that looks as if it were meant to be in school. Do you know the place? It's in my pasture by the meadow brook?"

"I can find it, and I'll bring the books to-morrow at this hour. Will you come?"

"To-morrow—and every day?"

"Every day."

For an instant he looked at her in perplexity. "I may as well tell you," he said at last, "that I'm one of the very biggest rascals on God's earth. I'm not worth all this, you know; that's honest."

"And so are you," she called back gaily, as she turned from him and went rapidly along the little path.

CHAPTER IX. Christopher Faces Himself

When she had gone through the gate and across the little patch of trodden grass into the sunken road, Christopher took up the ropes and with a quick jerk of the buried ploughshare began his plodding walk over the turned-up sod. The furrow was short, but when he reached the end of it he paused from sheer exhaustion and stood wiping the heavy moisture from his brow. The scene through which he had just passed had left him quivering in every nerve, as if he had been engaged in some terrible struggle against physical odds. All at once he became aware that the afternoon was too oppressive for field work, and, unhitching the horses from the plough, he led them slowly back to the stable beyond the house. As he went, it seemed to him that he had grown middle-aged within the hour; his youth had departed as mysteriously as his strength.

A little later, Tucker, who was sitting on the end of a big log at the woodpile, looked up in surprise from the anthill he was watching.

"Quit work early, eh, Christopher?"

"Yes; I've given out," replied Christopher, stopping beside him and picking up the axe which lay in a scattered pile of chips. "It's the spring weather, I reckon, but I'm not fit for a tougher job than chopping wood."

"Well, I'd leave that off just now, if I were you."

Raising the axe, Christopher swung it lightly over his shoulder; then, lowering it with a nerveless movement, he tossed it impatiently on the ground.

"A queer thing happened just now, Uncle Tucker," he said, "a thing you'll hardly believe even when I tell you. I had a visit from Mrs. Wyndham, and she came to say—" he stammered and broke off abruptly.

"Mrs. Wyndham?" repeated Tucker. "She's Bill Fletcher's granddaughter, isn't she?"

"Maria Fletcher—you may have seen her when she lived here, five or six years ago."

Tucker shook his head.

"Bless your heart, my boy, I haven't seen a woman except Lucy and the girls for twenty-five years. But why did she come, I wonder?"

"That's the strange part, and you won't understand it until you see her. She came because she had just heard—some one had told her—about Fletcher's old rascality."

"You don't say so!" exclaimed Tucker beneath his breath. He gave a long whistle and sat smiling at the little red anthill. "And did she actually proffer an apology?" he inquired.

"An amendment, rather. The Hall will come to her at Fletcher's death, and she walked over to say quite coolly that she wanted to give it back to us. Think of that! To part with such a home for the sake of mere right and justice."

"It is something to think about," assented Tucker, "and to think hard about, too—and yet I cut my teeth on the theory that women have no sense of honour. Now, that is pure, foolish, strait-laced honour, and nothing else."

"Nothing else," repeated Christopher softly; "and if you'll believe it, she cried—she really cried when I told her I couldn't take it. Oh, she's wonderful!" he burst out suddenly, all his awkward reserve dropping from him. "You can't be with her ten minutes without feeling how good she is—good all through, with a big goodness that isn't in the least like the little prudishness of other women—"

He checked himself hastily, but not before Tucker had glanced up with his pleasant smile.

"Well, my boy, I don't misunderstand you. I never knew a man yet to begin a love affair with a panegyric on virtue. She's an estimable woman, I dare say, and I presume she's plain."

"Plain!" gasped Christopher. "Why, she's beautiful—at least, you think so when you see her smile."

"So she smiled through her tears, eh?"

Christopher started angrily. "Can you sit there on that log and laugh at such a thing?" he demanded.

"Come, come," protested Tucker, "an honest laugh never turned a sweet deed sour since the world began—and that was more than sweet; it was fine. I'd like to know that woman, Christopher."

"You could never know her—no man could. She's all clear and bright on the surface, but all mystery beneath."

"Ah, that's it; you see, there was never a fascinating woman yet who was easy to understand. Wasn't it that shrewd old gallant, Bolivar Blake, who said that in love an ounce of mystery was worth a pound of morality?"

"It's like him: he said a lot of nonsense," commented Christopher. "But to think," he added after a moment, "that she should be Bill Fletcher's granddaughter!"

"Well, I knew her mother," returned Tucker, "and she was as honest, God-fearing a body as ever trod this earth. She stood out against Fletcher to the last, you know, and worked hard for her living while that scamp, her husband, drank them both to death. There are some people who are born with a downright genius for honesty, and this girl may be one of them."

"I don't know—I don't know," said Christopher, in a voice which had grown spiritless. Then after an instant in which he stared blankly down at Tucker's ant-hill, he turned hurriedly away and followed the little straggling path to the barn door.

>From the restlessness that pricked in his limbs there was no escape, and after entering the barn he came out again and went down into the pasture to the long bench beside the poplar spring. Here, while the faint shadows of the young leaves played over him, he sat with his head bent forward and his hands dropped listlessly between his knees.

Around him there was the tender green of the spring meadows, divided by a little brook where the willows shone pure silver under the April wind. Near at hand a catbird sang in short, tripping notes, and in the clump of briars by the spring a rabbit sat alert for the first sound. So motionless was Christopher that he seemed, sitting there by the pale gray body of a poplar, almost to become a part of the tree against which he leaned—to lose, for the time at least, his share in the moving animal life around him.

At first there was mere blankness in his mind—an absence of light and colour in which his thoughts were suddenly blotted out; then, as the wind raised the hair upon his brow, he lifted his eyes from the ground, and with the movement it seemed as if his life ran backward to its beginning and he saw himself not as he was to-day, but as he might have been in a period of time which had no being.

Before him were his knotted and blistered hands, his long limbs outstretched in their coarse clothes, but in the vision beyond the little spring he walked proudly with his rightful heritage upon him—a Blake by force of blood and circumstance. The world lay before him—bright, alluring, a thing of enchanting promise, and it was as if he looked for the first time upon the possibilities contained in this life upon the earth. For an instant the glow lasted—the beauty dwelt upon the vision, and he beheld, clear and radiant, the happiness which might have been his own; then it grew dark again, and he faced the brutal truth in all its nakedness; he knew himself for what he was—a man debased by ignorance and passion to the level of the beasts. He had sold his birthright for a requital, which had sickened him even in the moment of fulfilment.

To do him justice, now that the time had come for an acknowledgment he felt no temptation to evade the judgment of his own mind, nor to cheat himself with the belief that the boy was marked for ruin before he saw him—that Will had worked out, in vicious weakness, his own end. It was not the weakness, after all, that he had played upon—it was rather the excitable passion and the whimpering fears of the hereditary drunkard. He remembered now the long days that he had given to his revenge, the nights when he had tossed sleepless while he planned a widening of the breach with Fletcher. That, at least was his work, and his alone—the bitter hatred, more cruel than death, with which the two now stood apart and snarled. It was a human life that he had taken in his hand—he saw that now in his first moment of awakening—a life that he had destroyed as deliberately as if he had struck it dead before him. Day by day, step by step, silent, unswerving, devilish, he had kept about his purpose, and now at the last he had only to sit still and watch his triumph.

With a sob, he bowed his head in his clasped hands, and so shut out the light.

CHAPTER X. By the Poplar Spring

The next day he watched for her anxiously until she appeared over the low brow of the hill, her arms filled with books, and Agag trotting at her side. As she descended slowly into the broad ravine where he awaited her under six great poplars that surrounded the little spring, he saw that she wore a dress of some soft, creamy stuff and a large white hat that shaded her brow and eyes. She looked younger, he noticed, than she had done in her black gown, and he recalled while she neared him the afternoon more than six years before when she had come suddenly upon him while he worked in his tobacco.

"So you are present at the roll-call?" she said, laughing, as she sat down on the bench beside him and spread out the books that she had brought.

"Why, I've been sitting here for half an hour," he answered.

"What a shame—that's a whole furrow unploughed, isn't it?"

"Several of them; but I'm not counting furrows now. I'm getting ready to appall you by my ignorance." He spoke with a determined, reckless gaiety that lent a peculiar animation to his face.

"If you are waiting for that, you are going to be disappointed," she replied, smiling, "for I've put my heart into the work, and I was born and patterned for a teacher; I always knew it. We're going to do English literature and a first book in Latin."

"Are we?" He picked up the Latin grammar and ran his fingers lightly through the pages. "I went a little way in this once," he said. "I got as far as 'omnia vincit amor' and stopped. Tobacco conquered me instead."

She caught up his gay laugh. "Well, we'll try it over again," she returned, and held out the book.

An hour later, when the first lesson was over and he had gone back to his work, he carried with him a wonderful exhilaration—a feeling as if he had with a sudden effort burst the bonds that had held him to the earth. By the next day the elation vanished and a great heaviness came in its place, but for a single afternoon he had known what it was to thrill in every fiber with a powerful and pure emotion—an emotion beside which all the cheap sensations of his life showed stale and colourless. While the strangeness of this mood was still upon him he chanced upon Lila and Jim Weatherby standing together by the gate in the gray dusk, and when presently the girl came back alone across the yard he laid his hand upon her arm and drew her over to Tucker's bench beside the rose-bush.

"Lila, I've changed my mind about it all," he said.

"About what, dear?"

"About Jim and you. We were all wrong—all of us except Uncle Tucker—wrong from the very start. You musn't mind mother; you musn't mind anybody. Marry Jim and be happy, if he can make you so."

"Oh, Christopher!" gasped Lila, with a long breath, lifting her lovely, pensive face. "Oh, Christopher!"

"Don't wait; don't put it off; don't listen to any of us," he urged impatiently. "Good God! If you love him as you say you do, why have you let all these years slip away?"

"But you thought it was best, Christopher. You told me so."

"Best! There's nothing best except to be happy if you get the chance."

"He wants me to marry him now," said Lila, lowering her voice. "Mother will never know, he thinks, her mind grows so feeble; he wants me to marry him without any getting ready—after church one Sunday morning."

Putting his arm about her, Christopher held her for a moment against his side. "Then do it," he said gravely, as he stooped and kissed her.

And several weeks later, on a bright first Sunday in May, Lila was married, after morning services, in the little country church, and Christopher watched her almost eagerly as she walked home across the broad meadows powdered white with daisies. To the reproachful countenance which Cynthia presented to him upon his return to the house he gave back a careless and defiant smile.

"So it's all over," he announced gaily, "and Lila's married at last."

"Then you're satisfied, I hope," rejoined Cynthia grimly, "now that you've dragged us down to the level of the Weatherbys and— the Fletchers? There's nothing more to be said about it, I suppose, and you may as well come in to dinner."

She held herself stiffly aloof from the subject, with her head flung back and her chin expressing an indignant protest. There was a kind of rebellious scorn in the way in which she carved the shoulder of bacon and poured the coffee.

"Good Lord! It's such a little thing to make a fuss about," said Tucker, "when you remember, my dear, that our levels aren't any bigger than chalk lines in the eyes of God Almighty."

Cynthia regarded him with squinting displeasure.

"Oh, of course; you have no family pride," she returned; "but I had thought there was a little left in Christopher."

Christopher shook his head, smiling indifferently. "Not enough to want blood sacrifices," he responded, and fell into a detached and thoughtful silence. The vision of Lila in her radiant happiness remained with him like a picture that one has beheld by some rare chance in a vivid and lovely light; and it was still before him when he left the house presently and strolled slowly down to meet Maria by the poplar spring.

The bloom of the meadows filled his nostrils with a delicate fragrance, and from the bough of an old apple-tree in the orchard he heard the low afternoon murmurs of a solitary thrush. May was on the earth, and it had entered into him as into the piping birds and the spreading trees. It was at last good to be alive— to breathe the warm, sweet air, and to watch the sunshine slanting on the low, green hill. So closely akin were his moods to those of the changing seasons that, at the instant, he seemed to feel the current of his being flow from the earth beneath his feet—as if his physical nature drew strength and nourishment from that genial and abundant source.

When he reached the spring he saw Maria appear on the brow of the hill, and with a quick, joyous bound his heart leaped up to meet her. As she came toward him her white dress swept the tall grass from her feet, and her shadow flew like a winged creature straight before her. There was a vivid softness in her face—a look at once bright and wistful—which moved him with a new and strange tenderness.

"I was a little late," she explained, as they met before the long bench and she laid her books upon it, "and I am very warm. May I have a drink?"

"From a bramble cup?"

"How else?" She took off her hat and tossed it on the grass at her feet; then, going to the spring, she waited while he plucked a leaf from the bramble and bent it into shape. When he filled it and held it out, she placed her lips to the edge of the leaf and looked up at him with smiling eyes while she drank slowly from his hand.

"It holds only a drop, but how delicious!" she said, seating herself again upon the bench and leaning back against the great body of a poplar. Then her eyes fell upon his clothes. "Why, how very much dressed you look!" she added.

"Oh, there's a reason besides Sunday—I've just come from a wedding. Lila has married after twelve years of waiting."

"Your pretty sister! And to whom?"

"To Jim Weatherby—old Jacob's son, you know. Now, don't tell me that you disapprove. I count on your good sense to see the wisdom of it."

"So it is your pretty sister," she said slowly, "the woman I passed in the road the other day and held my breath as I did before Botticelli's Venus."

"Is that so? Well, she doesn't know much about pictures, nor does Jim. She has thrown herself away, Cynthia says, but what could she have waited for, after all? Nothing had ever come to her, and she had lived thirty years. Besides, she will be very happy, and that's a good deal, isn't it?"

"It's everything," said Maria quietly, looking down into her lap.

"Everything? And if you had been born in her place?"

"I am not in her place and never could be; but six years ago, if I had been told that I must live here all my life, I think I should have fretted myself to death; that would have happened six years ago, for I was born with a great aching for life, and I thought then that one could live only in the big outside world."

"And now?" he questioned, for she paused and sat smiling gravely at the book she held.

"Now I know that the fulness of life does not come from the things outside of us, and that we ourselves must create the beauty in which we live. Oh, I have learned so much from misery," she went on softly, "and worst of all, I have learned what it is to starve for bread in the midst of sugar-plums."

"And it was worth learning?"

"The knowledge that I gained? Oh, yes, yes; for it taught me how to be happy. I went down into hell," she said passionately, "and I came out—clean. I saw evil such as I had never heard of; I went close to it, I even touched it, but I always kept my soul very far away, and I was like a person in a dream. The more I saw of sin and ugliness the more I dreamed of peace and beauty. I builded me my own refuge, I fed on my own strength day and night —and I am what I am—"

"The loveliest woman on God's earth," he said.

"You do not know me, "she answered, and opened the book before her. "It was the story of the Holy Grail," she added, "and we left off here. Oh, those brave days of King Arthur! It was always May then."

He touched the page lightly with a long blade of grass.

"Read yourself—this once," he pleaded, "and let me listen."

Leaning a little forward, she looked down and slowly turned the pages, her head bent over the book, her long lashes shading the faint flush in her cheeks. Over her white dress fell a delicate lacework from the young poplar leaves, flecked here and there with pale drops of sunshine, which filtered through the thickly clustered boughs. When the wind passed in the high tree-tops, the shadows, soft and fine as cobweb, rippled over her dress, and a loose strand of her dark hair waved gently about her ear. The life—the throbbing vitality within—her seemed to vivify the very air she breathed, and he felt all at once that the glad thrill which stirred his blood was but a response to the fervent spirit which spoke in her voice.

"For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May," she read, "in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month—for then all herbs and trees renew a man and woman, and in likewise lovers call again to mind old gentleness and old service and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence."

The words went like wine to his head, and he saw her shadowy figure recede and dissolve suddenly as in a mist. A lump rose in his throat, his heart leaped, and he felt his pulses beating madly in his temples. He drew back, closing his eves to shut out her face; but the next instant, as she stirred slightly to hold down the rippling leaves, he bent forward and laid his hand upon the one that held the open book.

Her voice fluttered into silence, and, raising her head, she looked up in tremulous surprise. He saw her face pale slowly, her lids quiver and droop above her shining eyes, and her teeth gleam milk white between her parted lips. A tremor of alarm ran through her, and she made a swift movement to escape; then, lifting her eyes again, she looked full into his own, and, stooping quickly, he kissed her on the mouth.

An instant afterward the book fell to the ground, and he rose to his feet and stood trembling against the body of the poplar.

"Forgive me," he said; "forgive me—I have ruined it."

Standing beside the bench, she watched him with a still, grave gentleness before which his gaze dropped slowly to the ground.

"Yes, you have ruined this," she answered, smiling, "but Latin is still left."

"It's no use," he went on breathlessly. "I can't do it; it's no use."

His eyes sought hers and held them while he made a single step forward; then, turning quickly away, he went from her across the meadow to the distant wood.

 
 
 

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