Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Deliverance, Book III, The Revenge 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. In Which Tobacco is Hero

On an October afternoon some four years later, at the season of the year when the whole county was fragrant with the curing tobacco, Christopher Blake passed along the stretch of old road which divided his farm from the Weatherbys', and, without entering the porch, called for Jim from the little walk before the flat whitewashed steps. In response to his voice, Mrs. Weatherby, a large, motherly looking woman, appeared upon the threshold, and after chatting a moment, directed him to the log tobacco barn, where the recently cut crop was "drying out."

"Jim and Jacob are both over thar," she said; " an' a few others, for the matter of that, who have been helpin' us press new cider an' drinkin' the old. I'm sure I don't see why they want to lounge out thar in all that smoke, but thar's no accountin' for the taste of a man that ever I heard tell of an' I reckon they kin fancy pretty easy that they are settin' plum in the bowl of a pipe. It beats me, though, that it do. Why, one mouthful of it is enough to start me coughin' for a week, an' those men thar jest swallow it down for pure pleasure." Clean, kindly, hospitable, she wandered garrulously on, remembering at intervals to press the young man to "come inside an' try the cakes an' cider."

"No, I'll look them up out there," said Christopher, resisting the invitation to enter. "I want to get a pair of horseshoes from Jim; the gray mare cast hers yesterday, and Dick Boxley is laid up with a sprained arm. Oh, no, thanks; I must be going back." With a friendly nod he turned from the steps and went rapidly along the path which led to the distant barn.

As Mrs. Weatherby had said, the place was like the bowl of a pipe, and it was a moment before Christopher discovered the little group gathered about the doorway, where a shutter hung loosely on wooden hinges.

The ancient custom of curing tobacco with open fires, which had persisted in Virginia since the days of the early settlers, was still commonly in use; and it is possible that had one of Christopher's colonial ancestors appeared at the moment in Jacob Weatherby's log barn it would have been difficult to convince him that between his death and his resurrection there was a lapse of more than two hundred years. He would have found the same square, pen-like structure, built of straight logs carefully notched at the corners; the same tier-poles rising at intervals of three feet to the roof; the same hewn plates to support the rafters; the same "daubing" of the chinks with red clay; and the same crude door cut in the south wall. From the roof the tobacco hung in a fantastic decoration, shading from dull green to deep bronze, and appearing, when viewed from the ground below, to resemble a numberless array of small furled flags. On the hard earth floor there were three parallel rows of "unseasoned" logs which burned slowly day and night, filling the barn with gray smoke and the pungent odour of the curing tobacco.

"It takes a heap of lookin' arter, an' no mistake," old Jacob was remarking, as he surveyed the fine crop with the bland and easy gaze of ownership. "Why, in a little while them top leaves thar will be like tinder, an' the first floatin' spark will set it all afire. That's the way Sol Peterkin lost half a crop last year, an' it's the way Dick Moss lost his whole one the year before." At Christopher's entrance he paused and turned his pleasant, ruddy face from the fresh logs which he had been watching. "So you want to have a look at my tobaccy, too?" he added, with the healthful zest of a child. "Well, it's worth seein', if I do say so; thar hasn't been sech leaves raised in this county within the memory of man."

"That's so," said Christopher, with an appreciative glance. "I'm looking for Jim, but he's keeping up the fires, isn't he?" Then he turned quickly, for Tom Spade, who with young Matthew Field had been critically weighing the promise of Jacob's crop, broke out suddenly into a boisterous laugh.

"Why, I declar', Mr. Christopher, if you ain't lost yo' shadow!" he exclaimed.

Christopher regarded him blankly for a moment, and then joined lightly in the general mirth. "Oh, you mean Will Fletcher," he returned. "There was a pretty girl in the road as we came up, and I couldn't get him a step beyond her. Heaven knows what's become of him by now!"

"I bet my right hand that was Molly Peterkin," said Tom. "If anybody in these parts begins to talk about 'a pretty gal,' you may be sartain he's meanin' that yaller-headed limb of Satan. Why, I stopped my Jinnie goin' with her a year ago. Sech women, I said to her, are fit for nobody but men to keep company with."

"That's so; that's so," agreed old Jacob, in a charitable tone; "seein' as men have most likely made 'em what they are, an' oughtn't to be ashamed of thar own handiwork."

"Now, when it comes to yaller hair an' blue eyes," put in Matthew Field, "she kin hold her own agin any wedded wife that ever made a man regret the day of his birth. Many's the time of late I've gone a good half-mile to git out of that gal's way, jest as I used to cut round old Fletcher's pasture when I was a boy to keep from passin' by his redheart cherry-tree that overhung the road. Well, well, they do say that her young man, Fred Turner, went back on her, an' threw her on her father's hands two days befo' the weddin'."

"It was hard on Sol, now you come to think of it," said Tom. "He told me himself that he tried to git the three who ought to marry her to draw straws for the one who was to be the happy man, but they all backed out an' left her high an' dry an' as pretty as a peach. Fred Turner would have taken his chance, he said, like an honest man, an' he was terrible down in the mouth when I saw him, for he was near daft over the gal."

"Well, he was right," admitted Matthew, after reflection. "Why, the gal sins so free an' easy you might almost fancy her a man."

He drew back, coughing, for Jim came in with a long green log and laid it on the smouldering fire, which glowed crimson under the heavy smoke.

"Here's Sol," said the young man, settling the log with his foot. "I told him you were on your way to the house, pa, but he said he had only a minute, so he came out here."

"Oh, I've jest been to borrow some Jamaica ginger from Mrs. Weatherby," explained Sol Peterkin, carefully closing the shutter after his entrance.

"My wife's took so bad that I'm beginnin' to fear she'll turn out as po' a bargain as the last. It's my luck—I always knew I was ill-fated—but, Lord a-mercy, how's a man goin' to tell the state of a woman's innards from the way she looks on top? All the huggin' in the world won't make her wink an eyelash, an' then there'll crop out heart disease or dropsy befo' the year is up. When I think of the trouble I had pickin' that thar woman it makes me downright sick. It ain't much matter about the colour or the shape, I said—a freckled face an' a scrawny waist I kin stand—only let it be the quality that wears. If you believe it, suh, I chose the very ugliest I could find, thinkin' that the Lord might be mo' willin' to overlook her—an' now this is what's come of it. She's my fourth, too, an' I'll begin to be a joke when I go out lookin' for a fifth. Naw, suh; if Mary dies, pure shame will keep me a widower to my death."

"Thar ain't but one thing sartain about marriage, in my mind," commented Matthew Field, "an' that is that it gits most of its colour from the distance that comes between. The more your mouth waters for a woman, the likelier 'tis that 'tain't the woman for you—that's my way of thinkin'. The woman a man don't git somehow is always the woman he ought to have had. It's a curious, mixed-up business, however you look at it."

"That's so," said Tom Spade; "I always noticed it. The woman who is your wife may be a bouncin' beauty, an' the woman who ain't may be as ugly as sin, but you'd go twice as far to kiss her all the same. Thar is always a sight more spice about the woman who ain't."

"Jest look at Eliza, now," pursued Matthew, wrapped in the thought of his own domestic infelicities. "What I could never understand about Eliza was that John Sales went clean to the dogs because he couldn't git her. To think of sech a thing happenin', jest as if I was to blame, when if I'd only known it I could hev turned about an' taken her sister Lizzie. Thar were five of 'em in all, an' I settled on Eliza, as it was, with my eyes blindfold. Poor John—poor John! It was sech a terrible waste of wantin'."

"Well, it's a thing to stiddy about," said old Jacob, with a sigh. "They tell me now that that po' young gal of Bill Fletcher's has found it a thorny bed, to be sho'. Her letters are all bright an' pleasant enough, they say, filled with fine clothes an' the names of strange places, but a gentleman who met her somewhar over thar wrote Fletcher that her husband used her like a dumb brute."

Christopher started and looked up inquiringly.

"Have you heard anything about that, Jim?" he asked in a queer voice.

"Nothin' more. Fletcher told me he had written to her to come home, but she answered that she would stick to Wyndham for better or for worse. It's a great pity—the marriage promised so well, too."

"Oh, the gal's got a big heart; I could tell it from her eyes," said old Jacob. "When you see those dark, solemn eyes, lookin' out of a pale, peaked face, it means thar's a heart behind 'em, an' a heart that bodes trouble some day, whether it be in man or woman."

Christopher passed his hand across his brow and stood staring vacantly at the smouldering logs. He could not tell whether the news saddened or rejoiced him, but, at least, it brought Maria's image vividly before his eyes. The spell of her presence was over him again, and he felt, as he had felt on that last evening, the mysterious attraction of her womanhood. So intense was the visionary appeal that it had for the moment almost the effect of hallucination; it was as if she still entreated him across all the distance. The brooding habit of his mind had undoubtedly done much to conserve his emotion, as had the rural isolation in which he lived. In a city life the four years would probably have blotted out her memory; but where comparison was impossible, and lighter distractions almost unheard of, what chance was there for him to forget the single passionate experience he had known? Among his primitive neighbours Maria had flitted for a time like a bewildering vision; then the great distant world had caught her up into its brightness, and the desolate waste country was become the guardian of the impression she had left.

"If thar's a man who has had bad luck with his children, it's Bill Fletcher," old Jacob was saying thoughtfully. "He's been a hard man an' a mean one, too, an' when he couldn't beg or borrow it's my opinion that he never hesitated to put forth his hand an' steal. Thar's a powerful lot of judgment in dumb happenin's, an' when you see a family waste out an' run to seed like that it usually means that the good Lord is havin' His way about matters. It takes a mighty sharp eye to tell the difference between judgment an' misfortune, an' I've seen enough in this world to know that, no matter how skilfully you twist up good an' evil, God Almighty may be a long time in the unravelling, but He'll straighten 'em out at last. Now as to Bill Fletcher, his sins got in the bone an' they're workin' out in the blood. Look at his son Bill—didn't he come out of the army to drink himself to death? Then his granddaughter Maria has gone an' mismarried a somebody, an' this boy that he'd set his heart on is goin' to the devil so precious fast that he ain't got time to look behind him."

"Oh, he's young yet," suggested Tom Spade, solemnly wagging his head, "an' Fletcher says, you know, that he's all right so long as he keeps clear of Mr. Christopher. It's Mr. Christopher, he swears, that's been the ruin of him."

Christopher met this with a sneer. "Why does he let him dog my footsteps, then?" he inquired with a laugh. "I never go to the Hall, and yet he's always after me."

"Bless you, suh, it ain't any question of lettin' an' thar never has been sence the boy first put on breeches. Why, when I refused to sell him whisky at my sto', what did he do but begin smugglin' it out from town! Fletcher found it out an' blew him sky-high, but in less than a month it was all goin' on agin."

"An' the funny part is," said Jim Weatherby, "that you can't dislike Will Fletcher, however much you try. He's a kindhearted, jolly fellow, in spite of the devil."

"Or in spite of Mr. Christopher," added Tom, with a guffaw.

Frowning heavily, Christopher turned toward the door.

"Oh, you ask Will Fletcher who is his best friend," he said, "and let me hear his answer."

With an abrupt nod to Jacob, he went out of the tobacco barn and along the little path to the road. He had barely reached the gate, however, when Jim Weatherby ran after him with the horseshoes, and offered eagerly to come over in the morning and see that the gray mare was properly shod.

"I'm handy at that kind of thing, you know," he explained, with a blush.

"Well, if you don't mind, I wish you would come," Christopher replied, "but to save my life I can't see why you are so ready with other people's jobs."

Then, taking the horseshoes, he opened the gate and started rapidly toward home. His mind was still absorbed by old Jacob's news, and upon reaching the house he was about to pass up to his room, when Cynthia called him from the little platform beyond the back door, and going out, he found her standing pale and tearful on the kitchen threshold. Looking beyond her, he saw that Lila and Tucker were in the room, and from the intense and resolute expression in the younger sister's face he judged that she was the central figure in what appeared to be a disturbing scene.

"Christopher, you can't imagine what has happened," Cynthia began in her beautiful, tragic voice. "Lila went to church yesterday— with whom, do you suppose?"

Christopher thought for a moment.

"Not with Bill Fletcher?" he gave out at last.

"Come, come, now, it's a long ways better than that, you'll admit, Cynthia," broke in Tucker, with a peaceful intention. "I can't help reminding you, my dear, to be thankful that it wasn't so unlikely a person as Bill Fletcher."

With a decisive gesture such as he had never believed her capable of, Lila came up to Christopher and stood facing him with beaming eyes. He had never before seen her so lovely, and he realised at the instant that it was this she had always needed to complete her beauty. From something merely white and warm and delicate she had become suddenly as radiant as a flame.

"I went with Jim Weatherby, Christopher," she said slowly, "and I'm not ashamed of it."

The admission wrung a short groan from Cynthia, who stood twisting her gingham apron tightly about her fingers.

"Oh, Lila, who was his grandfather?" she cried. "Well, there's this thing certain, she doesn't want to marry his grandfather," put in Tucker, undaunted by the failure of his former attempts at peace-making. "Not that I have anything against the old chap, for that matter; he was an honest, well-behaved old body, and used to mend my boots for me up to the day of his death. Jim gets his handy ways from him, I reckon."

Cynthia turned upon him angrily.

"Uncle Tucker, you will drive me mad," she exclaimed, the tears starting to her lashes. "It does seem to me that you, at least, might show some consideration for the family name. It's all we've left."

"And it's a good enough relic in its way," returned Tucker amicably, "though if you are going to make a business of sacrificing yourself, for heaven's sake let it be for something bigger than a relic. A live neighbour is a much better thing to make sacrifices for than a dead grandfather."

"I don't care one bit what his grandfather was or whether he ever had any or not!" cried Lila, in an outburst of indignation; "and more than that, I don't care what mine was, either. I am going to marry him—I am—I am! Don't look at me like that, Cynthia. Do you want to spoil my whole life?"

Cynthia threw out her hands with a despairing grasp of the air, as if she were reaching for the broken remnants of the family pride. "To marry a Weatherby!" she gasped. "Oh, mother! mother! Lila, is it possible that you can be so selfish?" But Lila had won her freedom too dearly to surrender it to an appeal.

"I want to be selfish," she said stubbornly. "I have never been selfish in my life, and I want to see what it feels like. Oh, you are cruel, all of you, and you will break my heart."

Christopher's face paled and grew stern.

"We must all think of mother's wishes, Lila," he said gravely.

For the first time the girl lost her high fortitude, and a babyish quiver shook her lips. Her glance wavered and fell, and with a pathetic gesture she turned from Christopher to Cynthia and from Cynthia to Tucker.

"Oh, you can't understand, Christopher!" she cried; "you have never been in love, nor has Cynthia. None of you can understand but Uncle Tucker!"

She ran to him sobbing, and he, steadying himself on a single crutch, folded his arm about her.

"I understand, child, thank God," he said softly.

CHAPTER II. Between Christopher and Will

An hour later Christopher was at work in the stable, when he heard a careless whistle outside, and Will Fletcher looked in at the open door.

"I say, Chris, take a turn off and come down to Tom Spade's," he urged.

Christopher, who was descending from the loft with an armful of straw, paused midway of the ladder and regarded his visitor with perceptible hesitation.

"I can't this evening," he answered; "the light is almost gone, and I've a good deal to get through with after dark. I'll manage better to-morrow, if I can. By the way, why didn't you show up at Weatherby's?"

Will came in and sat down on the edge of a big wooden box which contained the harness. In the four years he had changed but little in appearance, though his slim figure had shot up rapidly in height. His chestnut hair grew in high peaks from his temples and swept in a single lock above his small, sparkling eyes, which held an expression of intelligent animation. On the whole, it was not an unpleasing face, despite the tremulous droop of the mouth, already darkened by the faint beginning of a brown mustache.

"Oh, Molly Peterkin stopped me in the road," he replied readily. "I'd caught her eye once or twice before, but this was the first chance we'd had to speak. I tell you she's a peach, Christopher."

Christopher came down from the ladder and spread the straw evenly in the horses' stalls.

"So they say," he responded; "but I haven't much of an eye for women, you know. Now, when it comes to judging a leaf of tobacco, I'm a match for any man."

"Well, one can't be everything," remarked Will consolingly. He snatched at a piece of straw that had fallen on the lowest rung of the ladder and began idly chewing it. "As for me I know a blamed sight more about women than I do about tobacco," he added, with a swagger.

Christopher glanced up, and at sight of the boyish figure burst into a hearty laugh.

"Oh, you're a jolly old sport, I know, and to think that Tom Spade has been accusing me of leading you astray! Why, you are already twice the man that I am."

"Pshaw! That's just grandpa's chatter! The old man rails at me day and night about you until it's a mortal wonder he doesn't drive me to the dogs outright. I'd like to see another fellow that would put up with it for a week. Captain Morrison told him, you know, that I hadn't done a peg of study for a year, and it brought on a scene that almost shook the roof. Now he swears I'm to go to the university next fall or hang."

"Well, I'd go, by all means."

"What under heaven could I do there? All those confounded languages Morrison poured into my head haven't left so much as a single letter of the alphabet. Ad nauseam is all I learned of Latin. I tell you I'd rather be a storekeeper any time than a scholar—books make me sick all over—and, when it comes to that, I don't believe I know much more to-day than you do."

A smile crossed Christopher's face, leaving it very grim. The words recalled to him his own earlier ambition—that of the gentlemanly scholar of the old order—and there flickered before his eyes the visionary library, suffused with firelight, and the translation of the "Iliad" he had meant to finish.

"I always told you it wasn't worth anything," he said roughly. "She'd love you any better if you could spurt Greek?"

Will broke into a pleased laugh, his mind dwelling upon the fancy the other had conjured up so skilfully.

"Did you ever see such lips in your life?" he inquired.

Christopher shook his head. "I haven't noticed them, but Sol's have a way of sticking in my memory."

"Oh, you brute! It's a shame that she should have such a father. He's about the worst I ever met."

"Some think the shame is on the other side, you know."

"That's a lie—she told me so. Fred Turner started the whole thing because she refused to marry him at the last moment. She found out suddenly that she wasn't in love with him. Girls are like that, you see. Why, Maria—" Christopher looked up quickly. "I've nothing to do with your sister," he observed. "I know that; but it's true, all the same. Maria couldn't tell her own mind any better. Why, one day she was declaring that she was over head and ears in love with Jack, and the next she was wringing her hands and begging him to go away." "What are you going to do down at the store?" asked Christopher abruptly. "Oh, nothing in particular—just lounge, I suppose; there's never anything to do. By the way, can't we have a hunt to-morrow?" "I'll see about it. Look here, is your grandfather any worse than usual? He stormed at me like mad yesterday because I wouldn't turn my team of oxen out of the road." "It's like blasting rock to get a decent word out of him. The only time he's been good-humoured for four years was the week we were away together. He offered me five thousand dollars down if I'd never speak to you again." "You don't say so!" exclaimed Christopher. He bent his head and stood looking thoughtfully at the matted straw under foot. "Well, you had a chance to turn a pretty penny," he said, in a tone of gentle raillery. "Oh, hang it! What do you mean?" demanded Will. "Of course, I wasn't going back on you like that just to please grandpa. I'd have been a confounded sneak if I had!" "You're a jolly good chap and no mistake! But the old man would have been pleased, I reckon?" Will grinned.

"You bet he would! I could twist him round my finger but for you, Aunt Saidie says." "It will be all the same in the end, though. The whole thing will come to you some day." "Oh, yes. Maria got her share, and Wyndham has made ducks and drakes of it." "Your grandfather's aging, too, isn't he?"

"Rather," returned Will, with a curious mixture of amiable lightness and cool brutality. "He's gone off at least twenty years since that time I had pneumonia in your barn. That wrecked him, Aunt Saidie says, and all because he knew he'd have to put up with you when the doctor told him to let me have my way. His temper gets worse, too, all the time. I declare, he sometimes makes me wish he were dead and buried." "Oh, he'll live long enough yet, never fear—those wiry, cross-grained people are as tough as lightwood knots. It's a pity, though, he wants to bully you like that—it would kill me in a day." A flush mounted to Will's forehead. "I knew you'd think so," he said, "and it's what I tell him all the time. He's got no business meddling with me so much, and I won't stand it." "He ought to get a dog," suggested Christopher indifferently. "Well, I'm not a dog, and I'll make him understand it yet. Oh, you think I'm an awful milksop, of course, but I'll show you otherwise some day. I'd like to know if you could have done any better in my place?" "Done! Why, I shouldn't have been in your place long, that's all." "I shan't, either, for that matter; but I've got to humour him a little, you see, because he holds the purse-strings." "He'd never go so far as to kick you out, would he?" "Well, hardly. I'm all he has, you know. He doesn't like Maria because of her fine airs, much as he thinks of education. I've got to be a gentleman, he says; but as for him, he wouldn't give up one of his vulgar habits to save anybody's soul. His trouble with Maria all came of her reproving him for drinking out of his saucer. Now, I don't mind that kind of thing so much, but Maria used to say she'd rather have him steal, any day, than gulp his coffee. Why are you laughing so?" "Oh, nothing. Are you going to Tom's now? I've got to work." Will slid down from the big box and sauntered toward the door, pausing on the little wooden step to light a cigarette. "Drop in if you get a chance," he threw back over his shoulder, with a puff of smoke. In a few moments Christopher finished his work, and, coming outside, closed the stable door. Then he walked a few paces along the little path stopping from time to time to gaze across the darkening landscape. A light mist was wreathed about the tops of the old lilac-bushes, where it glimmered so indistinctly that it seemed as if one might dispel it by a breath; and farther away the soft evening colours had settled over the great fields, beyond which a clear yellow line was just visible above the distant woods. The wind was sharp with an edge of frost, and as it blew into his face he raised his head and drank long, invigorating drafts. From the cattle-pen hard by he smelled the fresh breath of the cows, and around him were those other odours, vague, familiar, pleasant, which are loosened at twilight in the open country. The time had been when the mere physical contact with the air would have filled him with a quiet satisfaction, but during the last four years he had lost gradually his sensitiveness to external things—to the changes of the seasons as to the beauties of an autumn sunrise. A clear morning had ceased to arouse in him the old buoyant energy, and he had lost the zest of muscular exertion which had done so much to sweeten his labour in the fields. It was as if a clog fettered his simplest no less than his greatest emotion; and his enjoyment of nature had grown dull and spiritless, like his affection for his family. With his sisters he was aware that a curious constraint had become apparent, and it was no longer possible for him to meet his mother with the gay deference she still exacted. There were times, even, when he grew almost suspicious of Cynthia's patience, and at such moments his irritation was manifested in a sullen reserve. To himself he could give no explanation of his state of mind; he knew merely that he retreated day by day farther into the shadow of his loneliness, and that, while in his heart he still craved human sympathy, an expression of it even from those he loved was, above all, the thing he most bitterly resented. A light flashed in the kitchen, and he went on slowly toward the house. As he reached the back porch he saw that Lila was sitting at the kitchen window looking wearily out into the dusk. The firelight scintillated in her eyes, and as she turned quickly at a sound within the room he noticed with a pang that the sparkles were caused by teardrops on her lashes. His heart quickened at the sight of her drooping figure, and an impulse seized him to go in and comfort her at any cost. Then his severe constraint laid an icy hold upon him, and he hesitated with his hand upon the door.

"If I go in and speak to her, what is there for me to say?" he thought, overcome by his horror of any uncontrolled emotion. "We will merely go over the old complaints, the endless explanations. She will probably weep like a child, and I shall feel a brute when I look on and keep silent. In the first place, if I speak to her, what is there for me to say? If I simply beg her to stop crying, or if I rush in and urge her to marry Jim Weatherby to-morrow, what good can come of either course? She doesn't wait for my consent to the marriage, for she is as old as I am, and knows her own heart much better than I know mine. It is true that she is too beautiful to waste away like this, but how can I prevent it, or what is there for me to do?"

Again came the impulse to go in and fold her in his arms, but before he had taken the first step he yielded, as always, to his strange reserve, and he realised that if he entered it would be but to assume his customary unconcern, from the shelter of which he would probably make a few commonplace remarks on trivial subjects. The emotional situation would be ignored by them all, he knew; they would treat it absolutely as if it had no existence, as if its voice was not speaking to them in the silence, and they would break their bread and drink their coffee in apparent unconsciousness that supper was not the single thing that engrossed their thoughts. And all the time they would be face to face with the knowledge that they had demanded that Lila should sacrifice her life.

Presently Cynthia came out and called him, and he went in carelessly and sat down at the table. Lila left the window and slipped into her place, and when Tucker joined them she cut up his food as usual and prepared his coffee.

"Uncle Tucker's cup has no handle, Cynthia," she said with concern. "Let me take this one and give him another."

"Well, I never!" exclaimed Cynthia, bending over to examine the break with her near-sighted squint. "We'll soon have to begin using Aunt Susannah's set, if this keeps up. Uncle Boaz, you've broken another cup to-day."

Her tone was sharp with irritation, and the fine wrinkles caused by ceaseless small worries appeared instantly between her eyebrows. Christopher, watching her, remembered that she had worn the same expression during the scene with Lila, and it annoyed him unspeakably that she should be able to descend so readily, and with equal energy, upon so insignificant a grievance as a bit of broken china.

Uncle Boaz hobbled round the table and peered contemptuously at the cup which Lila held.

"Dar warn' no use bruckin' dat ar one," he observed, "'caze 'twuz bruck a'ready." " Oh, there won't be a piece left presently," pursued Cynthia indignantly; and Christopher felt suddenly that there was something contemptible in the passion she expended upon trifles. He wondered if Tucker noticed how horribly petty it all was to lament a broken cup when the tears were hardly dried on Lila's cheeks. Finishing hurriedly, he pushed back his chair and rose from the table, shaking his head in response to Cynthia's request that he should go in to see his mother. "Not now," he said impatiently, with that nervous avoidance of the person he loved best. "I'll be back in time to carry her to bed, but I've got to take a half-hour off and look in on Tom Spade." "She really ought to go to bed before sundown," responded Cynthia, "but nothing under heaven will persuade her to do so. It's her wonderful will that keeps her alive, just as it keeps her sitting bolt upright in that old chair. I don't believe there's another woman on earth who could have done it for more than twenty years." Taking down his hat from a big nail in the wall, Christopher stood for a moment abstractedly fingering the brim. "Well, I'll be back shortly," he said at last, and went out hurriedly into the darkness. At the instant he could not tell why he had so suddenly decided to follow Will Fletcher to the store, but, as usual, when the impulse came to him he proceeded to act promptly as it directed. Strangely enough, the boy was the one human being whom he felt no inclination to avoid, and the least oppressive moments that he knew were the reckless ones they spent together. While his daily companion was mentally and morally upon a lower plane than his own, the association was not without a balm for his wounded pride; and the knowledge that it was still possible to assume superiority to Fletcher's heir was, so far as he himself admitted, the one consolation that his life contained. As for his feeling toward Will Fletcher as an individual, it was the outcome of so curious a mixture of attraction and repulsion that he had long ceased from any attempt to define it as pure emotion. For the last four years the boy had been, as Tom Spade put it, "the very shadow on the man's footsteps," and yet at the end of that time it was almost impossible for Christopher to acknowledge either his liking or his hatred. He had suffered him for his own end, that was all, and he had come at last almost to enjoy the tolerance that he displayed. The hero worship—the natural imitation of youth— was at least not unpleasant, and there had been days during a brief absence of the boy when Christopher had, to his surprise, become aware of a positive vacancy in his surroundings. So long as Will made no evident attempt to rise above him—so long, indeed, as Fletcher's grandson kept to Fletcher's level, it was possible that the companionship would continue as harmoniously as it had begun. In the store he found Tom Spade and his wife—an angular, strong-featured woman, in purple calico, who carried off the reputation of a shrew with noisy honours. When he asked for Will, the storekeeper turned from the cash-drawer which he was emptying and nodded toward the half-open door of the adjoining room.

"Several of the young fellows are in thar now," he remarked offhand, "an' I've jest had to go in an' git between Fred Turner an' Will Fletcher. They came to out an' out blows, an' I had to shake 'em both by the scuff of thar necks befo' they'd hish

snarlin'. Bless yo' life, all about a woman, too, every last word of it. Well, well, meanin' no disrespect to you, Susan, it's a queer thing that a man can't be born, married, or buried without a woman gittin' herself mixed up in the business. If she ain't wrappin' you in swaddlin' bands, you may be sho' she's measurin' off yo' windin'-sheet. Mark my words, Mr. Christopher, I don't believe thar's ever been a fight fought on this earth—be it a battle or a plain fisticuff—that it warn't started in the brain of somebody's mother, wife, or sweetheart an' it's most likely to have been the sweetheart. It is strange, when you come to study 'bout it, how sech peaceable-lookin' creaturs as women kin have sech hearty appetites for trouble."

"Well, trouble may be born of a woman, but it generally manages to take the shape of a man," observed Mrs. Spade from behind the counter, where she was filling a big glass jar with a fresh supply of striped peppermint candy. "And as far as that goes, ever sence the Garden of Eden, men have taken a good deal mo' pleasure in layin' the blame on thar wives than they do in layin' blows on the devil. It's a fortunate woman that don't wake up the day after the weddin' an' find she's married an Adam instid of a man. However, they are as the Lord made 'em, I reckon," she finished charitably, "which ain't so much to thar credit as it sounds, seein' they could have done over sech a po' job with precious little trouble."

"Oh, I warn't aimin' at you, Susan," Tom hastened to assure her, aware from experience that he entered an argument only to be worsted. "You've been a good wife to me, for all yo' sharp tongue, an' I've never had to git up an' light the fire sence the day I married you. Yes, you've been a first-rate wife to me, an' no mistake."

"I'm the last person you need tell that to," was Mrs. Spade's retort. "I don't reckon I've b'iled inside an' sweated outside for mo' than twenty years without knowin' it. Lord! Lord! If it took as hard work to be a Christian as it does to be a wife, thar'd be mighty few but men in the next world—an' they'd git thar jest by followin' like sheep arter Adam—"

"I declar', Susan, I didn't mean to rile you," urged Tom, breaking in upon the flow of words with an appealing effort to divert its course. "I was merely crackin' a joke with Mr. Christopher, you know."

"I'm plum sick of these here jokes that's got to have a woman on the p'int of 'em," returned Mrs. Spade, tightly screwing on the top of the glass jar. "I've always noticed that thar ain't nothin' so funny in this world but it gits a long sight funnier if a man kin turn it on his wife."

"Now, my dear—" helplessly expostulated Tom.

"My name's Susan, Tom Spade, an' I'll have you call me by it or not at all. If thar's one thing I hate on this earth it's a 'dear' in the mouth of a married man that ought to know better. I'd every bit as lief you'd shoot a lizard at me, an' you ain't jest found it out. If you think I'm the kind of person to git any satisfaction out of improper speeches you were never mo' mistaken in yo' life; an' I kin p'int out to you right now that I ain't never heard one of them words yit that I ain't had to pay for it. A 'dear' the mo' is mighty apt to mean a bucket of water the less. Oh, you can't turn my head with yo' soft tricks, Tom Spade. I'm a respectable woman, as my mother was befo' me, an' I don't want familiar doin's from any man, alive or dead. The woman who does, whether she be married or single, ain't no better than a female—that's my opinion!"

She paused to draw breath, and Tom was quick to take advantage of the intermission. "Good Lord, Mr. Christopher, those darn young fools are at it agin! " he exclaimed, darting toward the adjoining room.

With a stride, Christopher pushed past him and, opening the door, stopped uncertainly upon the threshold.

At the first glance he saw that the trouble was between Will and Fred Turner, and that Will, because of his slighter weight, had got very much the worst of the encounter. The boy stood now, trembling with anger and bleeding at the mouth, beside an overturned table, while Fred—a stout, brawny fellow—was busily pummelling his shoulders.

"You're a sneakin', puny-livered liar, that's what you are!" finished Turner with a vengeance.

Christopher walked leisurely across the room.

"And you're another," he observed in a quiet voice—the voice of his courtly father, which always came to him in moments of white heat. "You are exactly that—a sneaking, puny-livered liar." His manner was so courteous that it came as a surprise when he struck out from the shoulder and felled Fred as easily as he might have knocked over a wooden tenpin. "You really must learn better manners," he remarked coolly, looking down upon him.

Then he wiped his brow on his blue shirt-sleeve and called for a glass of beer.

CHAPTER III. Mrs. Blake Speaks her Mind on Several Matters

Breakfast was barely over the next morning when Jim Weatherby appeared at the kitchen door carrying a package of horseshoe nails and a small hammer.

"I thought perhaps Christopher might want to use the mare early," he explained to Cynthia, who was clearing off the table. There was a pleasant precision in his speech, acquired with much industry at the little country school, and Cynthia, despite her rigid disfavour, could not but notice that when he glanced round the room in search of Lila he displayed the advantage of an aristocratic profile. Until to-day she could not remember that she had ever seen him directly, as it were; she had looked around him and beyond him, much as she might have obliterated from her vision a familiar shrub that chanced to intrude itself into her point of view. The immediate result of her examination was the possibility she dimly acknowledged that a man might exist as a well-favoured individual and yet belong to an unquestionably lower class of life.

"Well, I'll go out to the stable," added Jim, after a moment in which he had patiently submitted to her squinting observation. "Christopher will be somewhere about, I suppose?"

"Oh, I suppose so," replied Cynthia indifferently, emptying the coffee-grounds into the kitchen sink. The asperity of her tone was caused by the entrance of Lila, who came in with a basin of corn-meal dough tucked under her bared arm, which showed as round and delicate as a child's beneath her loosely rolled-up sleeve.

"Cynthia, I can't find the hen-house key," she began; and then, catching sight of Jim, she flushed a clear pink, while the little brown mole ran a race with the dimple in her check.

"The key is on that nail beside the dried hops," returned Cynthia sternly. "I found it in the lock last night and brought it in. It's a mercy that the chickens weren't all stolen."

Without replying, Lila took down the key, strung it on her little finger, and, going to the door, passed with Jim out into the autumn sunshine. Her soft laugh pulsed back presently, and Cynthia, hearing it, set her thin lips tightly as she carefully rinsed the coffee-pot with soda.

Christopher, who had just come up to the wellbrink, where Tucker sat feeding the hounds from a plate of scraps, gave an abrupt nod in the direction of the lovers strolling slowly down the hen-house path.

"It will end that way some day, I reckon," he said with a sigh, "and you know I'm almost of a mind with Cynthia about it. It does seem a downright pity. Not that Jim isn't a good chap and all that, but he's an honest, hard-working farmer and nothing more— and, good heavens! just look at Lila! Why, she's beautiful enough to set the world afire."

Smiling broadly, Tucker tossed a scrap of cornbread into Spy's open jaws; then his gaze travelled leisurely to the hen-house, which Lila had just unlocked. As she pushed back the door there was a wild flutter of wings, and the big fowls flew in a swarm about her feet, one great red-and-black rooster craning his long neck after the basin she held beneath her arm. While she scattered the soft dough on the ground she bent her head slightly sideways, looking up at Jim, who stood regarding her with enraptured eyes.

"Well, I don't know that much good ever comes of setting anything afire," answered Tucker with his amiable chuckle; "the danger is that you're apt to cause a good deal of trouble somewhere, and it's more than likely you'll get singed yourself in putting out the flame. You needn't worry about Lila, Christopher; she's the kind of woman—and they're rare—who doesn't have to have her happiness made to order; give her any fair amount of the raw material and she'll soon manage to fit it perfectly to herself. The stuff is in her, I tell you; the atmosphere is about her- -can't you feel it—and she's going to be happy, whatever comes. A woman who can make over a dress the sixth time as cheerfully as she did the first has the spirit of a Caesar, and doesn't need your lamentations. If you want to be a Jeremiah, you must go elsewhere."

"Oh, I dare say she'll grow content, but it does seem such a terrible waste. She's the image of that Saint-Memin portrait of Aunt Susannah, and if she'd only been born a couple of generations ago she would probably have been the belle of two continents. Such women must be scarce anywhere."

"She's pretty enough, certainly, and I think Jim knows it. There's but one thing I've ever seen that could compare with her for colour, and that's a damask rose that blooms in May on an old bush in the front yard. When all is said, however, that young Weatherby is no clodhopper, you know, and I'm not sure that he isn't worthier of her than any highsounding somebody across the water would have been. He can love twice as hard, I'll wager, and that's the chief thing, after all; it's worth more than big titles or fine clothes—or even than dead grandfathers, with due respect to Cynthia. I tell you, Lila may never stir from the midst of these tobacco fields; she may be buried alive all her days between these muddy roads that lead heaven knows where, and yet she may live a lot bigger and fuller life than she might have done with all London at her feet, as they say it was at your Greataunt Susannah's. The person who has to have outside props to keep him straight must have been made mighty crooked at the start, and Lila's not like that."

Christopher stooped and pulled Spy's ears.

"That's as good a way to look at it as any other, I reckon," he remarked; "and now I've got to hurry the shoeing of the mare."

He crossed over and joined Lila and Jim before the henhouse door, where he put the big fowls to noisy flight.

"Well, you're a trusty neighbour, " he cried good-humoredly, striking Jim a friendly blow that sent him reeling out into the path.

Lila passed her hand in a sweeping movement round the inside of the basin and flirted the last drops of dough from her finger-tips.

"A few of your pats will cripple Jim for a week," she observed, "so you'd better be careful; he's too useful a friend to lose while there are any jobs to do."

"Why, if I had that muscle I could run a farm with one hand," said Jim. "Give a plough a single push, Christopher, and I believe it would run as long as there was level ground."

Cynthia, standing at the kitchen window with a cuptowel slung across her arm, watched the three chatting merrily in the sunshine, and the look of rigid resentment settled like a mask upon her face. She was still gazing out upon them when Docia opened the door behind her and informed her in a whisper that "Ole miss wanted her moughty quick."

"All right, Docia. Is anything the matter?"

"Naw'm, 'tain' nuttin' 'tall de matter. She's des got fidgetty."

"Well, I'll come in a minute. Are you better to-day? How's your heart?"

"Lawd, Miss Cynthia, hit's des bruised all over. Ev'y breaf I draw hits it plum like a hammer. I hyear hit thump, thump, thump all de blessed time."

"Be careful, then. Tell mother I'm coming at once."

She hung the cup-towel on the rack, and, taking off her blue checked apron, went along the little platform to the main part of the house and into the old lady's parlour, where the morning sunshine fell across the faces of generations of dead Blakes. The room was still furnished with the old rosewood furniture, and the old damask curtains hung before the single window, which gave on the overgrown front yard and the twisted aspen. Though the rest of the house suggested only the direst poverty, the immediate surroundings of Mrs. Blake revealed everywhere the lavish ease so characteristic of the old order which had passed away. The carving on the desk, on the book-cases, on the slender sofa, was all wrought by tedious handwork; the delicate damask coverings to the chairs were still lustrous after almost half a century; and the few vases scattered here and there and filled with autumn flowers were, for the most part, rare pieces of old royal Worcester. While it was yet Indian summer, there was no need of fires, and the big fireplace was filled with goldenrod, which shed a yellow dust down on the rude brick hearth.

The old lady, inspired by her indomitable energy, was already dressed for the day in her black brocade, and sat bolt upright among the pillows in her great oak chair.

"Some one passed the window whistling, Cynthia. Who was it? The whistle had a pleasant, cheery sound."

"It must have been Jim Weatherby, I think: old Jacob's son."

"Is he over here?"

"To see Christopher—yes."

"Well, be sure to remind the servants to give him something to eat in the kitchen before he goes back, and I think, if he's a decent young man, I should like to have a little talk with him about his family. His father used to be one of our most respectable labourers."

"It would tire you, I fear, mother. Shall I give you your knitting now?"

"You have a most peculiar idea about me, my child. I have not yet reached my dotage, and I don't think that a little talk with young Weatherby could possibly be much of an ordeal. Is he an improper person?"

"No, no, of course not; you shall see him whenever you like. I was only thinking of you."

"Well, I'm sure I am very grateful for your consideration, my dear, but there are times, occasionally, you know, when it is better for one to judge for oneself. I sometimes think that your only fault, Cynthia, is that you are a little—just a very little bit, you understand—inclined to manage things too much. Your poor father used to say that a domineering woman was like a kicking cow; but this doesn't apply to you, of course."

"Shall I call Jim now, mother?"

"You might as well, dear. Place a chair for him, a good stout one, and be sure to make him wipe his feet before he comes in. Does he appear to be clean?"

"Oh, perfectly."

"I remember his father always was—unusually so for a common labourer. Those people sometimes smell of cattle, you know; and besides, my nose has grown extremely sensitive in the years since I lost my eyesight. Perhaps it would be as well to hand me the bottle of camphor. I can pretend I have a headache."

"There's no need, really; he isn't a labourer at all, you know, and he looks quite a gentleman. He is, I believe, considered a very handsome young man."

Mrs. Blake waved toward the door and the piece of purple glass flashed in the sunlight. "In that case, I might offer him some sensible advice," she said. "The Weatherbys, I remember, always showed a very proper respect for gentle people. I distinctly recall how well Jacob behaved when on one occasion Micajah Blair—a dreadful, dissolute character, though of a very old family and an intimate friend of your father's—took decidedly too much egg-nog one Christmas when he was visiting us, and insisted upon biting Jacob's cheek because it looked so like a winesap. Jacob had come to see your father on business, and I will say that he displayed a great deal of good sense and dignity; he said afterward that he didn't mind the bite on his cheek at all, but that it pained him terribly to see a Virginia gentleman who couldn't balance a bowl of egg-nog. Well, well, Micajah was certainly a rake, I fear; and for that matter, so was his father before him."

"Father had queer friends," observed Cynthia sadly. "I remember his telling me when I was a little girl that he preferred that family to any in the county."

"Oh, the family was all right, my dear. I never heard a breath against the women. Now you may fetch Jacob. Is that his name?"

"No; Jim."

"Dear me; that's very odd. He certainly should have been called after his father. I wonder how they could have been so thoughtless."

Cynthia drew forward an armchair, stooped and carefully arranged the ottoman, and then went with stern determination to look for Jim Weatherby.

He was sitting in the stable doorway, fitting a shoe on the old mare, while Lila leaned against an overturned barrel in the sunshine outside. At Cynthia's sudden appearance they both started and looked up in amazement, the words dying slowly on their lips.

"Why, whatever is the matter, Cynthia?" cried Lila, as if in terror.

Cynthia came forward until she stood directly at the mare's head, where she delivered her message with a gasp:

"Mother insists upon talking to Jim. There's no help for it; he must come."

Weatherby dropped the mare's hoof and raised a breathless question to Cynthia's face, while Lila asked quickly:

"Does she know?"

"Know what?" demanded Cynthia, turning grimly upon her. "Of course she knows that Jim is his father's son."

The young man rose and laid the hammer down on the overturned barrel; then he led the mare back to her stall, and coming out again, washed his hands in a tub of water by the door.

"Well, I'm ready," he observed quietly. "Shall I go in alone?"

"Oh, we don't ask that of you," said Lila, laughing. "Come; I'll take you." She slipped her hand under his arm and they went gaily toward the house, leaving Cynthia to pick up the horseshoe nails lying loose upon the ground.

Hearing the young man's step on the threshold, Mrs. Blake turned her head with a smile of pleasant condescension and stretched out her delicate yellowed hand.

"This is Jim Weatherby, mother," said Lila in her softest voice. "Cynthia says you want to talk to him."

"I know, my child; I know," returned Mrs. Blake, with an animated gesture. "Come in, Jim, and don't trouble to stand. Find him a chair, Lila. I knew your father long before you were born," she added, turning to the young man, "and I knew only good of him. I suppose he has often told you of the years he worked for us?"

Jim held her hand for an instant in his own, and then, bending over, raised it to his lips.

"My father never tires of telling us about the old times, and about Mr. Blake and yourself," he answered in his precise English, and with the simple dignity which he never lost. Lila, watching him, prayed silently that a miracle might open the old lady's eyes and allow her to see the kind, manly look upon his face.

Mrs. Blake nodded pleasantly, with evident desire to put him wholly at his ease.

"Well, his son is becoming quite courtly," she responded, smiling, "and I know Jacob is proud of you—or he ought to be, which amounts to the same thing. There's nothing I like better than to see a good, hard-working family prosper in life and raise its station. Not that I mean to put ideas into your head, of course, for it is a ridiculous sight to see a person dissatisfied with the position in which the good Lord has placed him. That was what I always liked about your mother, and I remember very well her refusing to wear some of my old finery when she was married, on the ground that she was a plain, honest woman, and wanted to continue so when she was a wife. I hope, by the way, that she is well."

"Oh, quite. She does not walk much, though; her joints have been troubling her."

To Lila's surprise, he was not the least embarrassed by the personal tone of the conversation, and his sparkling blue eyes held their usual expression of blithe good-humour.

"Indeed!" Mrs. Blake pricked at the subject in her sprightly way. "Well, you must persuade her to use a liniment of Jamestown weed steeped in whisky. There is positively nothing like it for rheumatism. Lila, do we still make it for the servants? If so, you might send Sarah Weatherby a bottle."

"I'll see about it, mother. Aren't you tired? Shall I take Jim away?"

"Not just yet, child. I am interested in seeing what a promising young man he has become. How old are you, Jim?"

"Twenty-nine next February. There are two of us, you know—I've a sister Molly. She married Frank Granger and moved ten miles away."

"Ah, that brings me to the very point I was driving at. Above all things, let me caution you most earnestly against the reckless marriages so common in your station of life. For heaven's sake, don't marry a woman because she has a pretty face and you cherish an impracticable sentiment for her. If you take my advice, you will found your marriage upon mutual respect and industry. Select a wife who is not afraid of work, and who expects no folderol of romance. Love-making, I've always maintained, should be the pastime of the leisure class exclusively."

"I'm not afraid of work myself," replied Jim, laughing as he looked boldly into the old lady's sightless eyes, "but I'd never stand it for my wife—not a—a lick of it!"

"Tut, tut! Your mother does it."

Jim nodded. "But I'm not my father," he mildly suggested.

"Well, you're a fine, headstrong young fool, and I like you all the better for it," declared Mrs. Blake. "You may go now, because I feel as if I needed a doze; but be sure to come in and see me the next time you're over here. Lila, put the cat on my knees and straighten my pillows."

Lila lifted the cat from the rug and placed it in the old lady's lap; then, as she arranged the soft white pillows, she bent over suddenly and kissed the piece of purple glass on the fragile hand.

CHAPTER IV. In Which Christopher Hesitates

Following his impulsive blow in defense of Will Fletcher, Christopher experienced, almost with his next breath, a reaction in his feeling for the boy; and meeting him two days later at the door of the tobacco barn, he fell at once into a tone of contemptuous raillery.

"So you let Fred smash you up, eh?" he observed, with a sneer.

Will flushed.

"Oh, you needn't talk like that," he answered; "he's the biggest man about here except you. By the way, you're a bully friend to a fellow, you know, and it's not a particle of use pretending you don't like me, because you can't help hitting back jolly quick when anybody undertakes to give me a licking."

"Why were you such a fool as to go at him?" inquired Christopher, glancing up at his evenly hanging rows of tobacco, and then coming outside to lock the door. "You'll never get a reputation as a fighter if you are always jumping on men over your own size. Now, next time I should advise you to try your spirit on Sol Peterkin."

"Oh, it was all about Molly," explained Will frankly. "I told Fred that he was a big blackguard to use the girl so, and then he called me a 'white-livered liar.'"

"I heard him," remarked Christopher quietly.

"Well, I don't care what he says—he is a blackguard. I'm glad you knocked him down, too; it was no more than he deserved."

"I didn't do it on Molly Peterkin's account, you know. Tobacco takes up quite enough of my time without my entering the lists as a champion of light women. But if you aren't man enough to fight your own battles, I suppose I'll have to keep my muscle in proper shape."

Will smarted from the words, and the corners of his mouth took a dogged droop.

"I don't see how you expect me to be a match for Fred Turner," he returned angrily.

"Why, I don't expect it," replied Christopher coolly, as he turned the key in the padlock, drew it out, and slipped it into his pocket. "I expect you merely to keep away from him, that's all."

Will stared at him in perplexity. "What a devil of a humour you are in!" he exclaimed.

"Am I?" Christopher broke into a laugh. "You are accustomed to the sunny temper of your grandfather. How is he to-day? In his usual cheerful vein?"

"Oh, he's awful," answered the boy, relieved at the change of subject. "If you could only have heard him yesterday! Somebody told him about the fight at the store, and, as luck would have it, he found out that Molly Peterkin was at the bottom of it all. When he called me into his room and locked the door I knew something was up; and sure enough, we had blood and thunder for two mortal hours. He threatened to sell the horses and the hounds, and to put me at the plough, if I ever so much as looked at the girl again—'gal,' he called her, and a 'brazen wench.' That is the way he talks, you know."

"I know," Christopher nodded gravely.

"But the funny part is, that the thing that made him hottest was your knocking over Fred Turner. That he simply couldn't stand. Why, he'd have paid Fred fifty dollars down to thrash me black and blue, he said. He called you—Oh, he has a great store of pet names!"

"What?" asked Christopher, for the other caught himself up suddenly.

"Nothing much—he's always doing it, you know."

"You needn't trouble yourself on my account. I'm familiar with his use of words."

"Oh, he called you 'a crazy pauper who ought to be in gaol.'"

"He did, did he? Well, for once in his life he drew it mild." Then he gave a long whistle and kicked away a rock in the path. " "'A crazy pauper who ought to be in gaol.' I've a pretty good-sized debt to settle with your grandfather, when I come to think of it."

"Just suppose you were in my place now," insisted Will. "Then I reckon you'd have cause forswearing, sure enough. I tell you I couldn't get out of that room yesterday until I promised him I'd turn over a new leaf—that I'd start in with Mr. Morrison to-morrow, and dig away at Latin and Greek until I go to the university next fall."

Christopher turned quickly.

"To-morrow?" he repeated. "Why, that's the day I had planned we'd go hunting. Make Morrison's Friday."

The boy wavered.

"Can't we go another day?" he asked. "He's so awfully set on to-morrow. I'd have to be mighty sharp to fool him again."

"Oh, well, but it's the only day I've free. There's a lot of fall ploughing to do; then the apples are ready to be gathered; and I must take some corn to the mill before the week's up. I've wasted too much time with you as it is. It's the only wealth I have, you see."

"Then I'll go—I'll go," declared Will, jumping to a decision. "There'll be a terrific fuss if he finds it out, but perhaps he won't. I'll bring my gun over to the barn to-night, and get Zebbadee to meet us with the hounds at the bend in the road. Well, I must get back now. I don't want him to suspect I've seen you to-day."

He started off at a rapid pace, and Christopher, turning in the other direction, went to bring the horses from the distant pasture. It was a mellow afternoon, and a golden haze wrapped the broad meadow, filled with autumn wild flowers, and the little bricked-up graveyard on the low, green hill. As he swung himself over the bars at the end of the path he saw Lila and Jim Weatherby gathering goldenrod in the center of the field. When they caught sight of him, Jim laid his handful of blossoms in a big basket on the ground and came to join him on his way to the pasture.

"They are for Mrs. Blake's fireplace," he remarked with a friendly smile, as he glanced back at Lila standing knee-deep amid the October flowers.

"It's a queer idea," observed Christopher, finding himself at a loss for a reply.

Jim strolled on leisurely, snatching at the heads of wild carrot as he passed.

"There's something I've wanted to tell you, Christopher," he said after a moment, turning his pleasant, manly face upon the other.

"Is that so?" asked Christopher, with a sudden desire to avert the impending responsibility. "Oh, but I hardly think I'm the proper person, " he added, laughing.

Jim met his eyes squarely.

"I'm a plain man," he said slowly, "and though I'm not ashamed of it, I know, of course, that my family have always been plain people. As things are, I had no business on earth to fall in love with your sister, but all the same it's what I've gone and done."

Christopher nodded and walked on.

"Well, I suppose it's what I should have done, too, in your place," he returned quietly.

"I've reproached myself for it often enough," pursued Jim; "but when all is said, how can a man prevent a thing like that? I might as well try to shut my eyes to the sun when it is shining straight on me. Why, everybody else seems dull and lifeless when I look at her—and I seem such a brute myself that I hardly dare touch her hand. All I ask is to be her servant until I die."

It took courage to speak such words, and Christopher, knowing it, stopped midway of the little path and regarded Jim with the rare smile which gave a boyish brightness to his face.

"By George, you are a trump!" he said heartily. "And as far as that goes, you're good enough for Lila or for anybody else. It isn't that, you see; it's only—"

"I know," finished Jim quietly and without resentment; "it's my grandfather. Your sister, Cynthia, told me, and I reckon it's all natural, but somehow I can't make myself ashamed of the old man— nor is Lila, for that matter. He was an honest, upright body as ever you saw, and he never did a mean thing in his life, though he lived to be almost ninety."

"You're right," said Christopher, flushing suddenly; "and as far as I'm concerned, I'd let Lila marry you to-morrow; but as for mother, she would simply never consent. The idea would be impossible to her, and we could never explain things; you must see that yourself."

"I see," replied Jim readily; "but the main point is that you yourself would have no objection to our marriage, provided it were possible."

"Not a bit; not a bit."

He held out his hand, and Jim shook it warmly before he picked up his basket and went to rejoin Lila.

Turning in the path, Christopher saw the girl, who was sitting alone on the lowered bars, rise and wave a spray of goldenrod above her head. Then, as the lovers met, she laid her hand upon Jim's arm and lifted her glowing face as if to read his words before he uttered them. Something in the happy surrender of her gesture, or in the brooding mystery of the Indian summer, when one seemed to hear the earth turn in the stillness, touched Christopher with a sudden melancholy, and it appeared to him when he went on again that a shadow had fallen over the brightness of the autumn fields. Disturbed by the unrest which follows any illuminating vision of ideal beauty, he asked himself almost angrily, in an effort to divert his thoughts, if it were possible that he was weakening in his purpose, since he no longer found the old zest in his hatred of Fletcher. The deadness of his emotions had then affected this one also—the single feeling which he had told himself would be eternal; and the old nervous thrill, so like the thrill of violent love, no longer troubled him when he chanced to meet his enemy face to face. To-day he held Will Fletcher absolutely in his hand, he knew; in a few year's at most his debt to Fletcher would probably be cancelled; the man and the boy would then be held together by blood ties like two snarling hounds in the leash—and yet, when all was said, what would the final outcome yield of satisfaction? As he put the question he knew that he could meet it only by evasion, and his inherited apathy enfeebled him even while he demanded an answer of himself.

As the months went on, his indifference to success or failure pervaded him like a physical lethargy, and he played his game so recklessly at last that he sometimes caught himself wondering if it were, after all, worth a single flicker of the candle. He still saw Will Fletcher daily; but when the spring came he ceased consciously, rather from weariness than from any nobler sentiment, to exert an influence which he felt to be harmful to the boy. For four years he had wrought tirelessly to compass the ruin of Fletcher's ambition; and now, when he had but to stretch forth his arm for the final blow, he admitted impatiently that what he lacked was the impulsive energy the deed required.

He was still in this mood when, one afternoon in April, as he was driving his oxen to the store, he met Fletcher in the road behind the pair of bays. At sight of him the old man's temper slipped control, and at the end of a few minutes they were quarrelling as to who should be the one to turn aside.

"Git out of the road, will you?" cried Fletcher, half rising from his seat and jerking at the reins until the horses reared. "Drive your brutes into the bushes and let me pass!"

"If you think I'm going to swerve an inch out of my road to oblige you, Bill Fletcher, you are almost as big a fool as you are a rascal," replied Christopher in a cool voice, as he brought his team to a halt and placed himself at the head of it with his long rawhide whip in his hand.

As he stood there he had the appearance of taking his time as lightly as did the Olympian deities; and it was clear that he would wait patiently until the sun set and rose again rather than yield one jot or tittle of his right upon the muddy road. While he gazed placidly over Fletcher's head into the golden distance, he removed his big straw hat and began fanning his heated face.

There followed a noisy upbraiding from Fletcher, which ended by his driving madly into the underbrush and almost overturning the heavy carriage. As he passed, he leaned from his seat and slashed his whip furiously into Christopher's face; then he drove on at a wild pace, bringing the horses in a shiver, and flecked with foam, into the gravelled drive before the Hall.

The bright flower-beds and the calm white pillars were all in sunshine, and Miss Saidie, with a little, green wateringpot in her hand, was sprinkling a tub of crocuses beside the steps.

"You look flustered, Brother Bill," she observed, as Fletcher threw the reins to a Negro servant and came up to where she stood.

"Oh, I've just had some words with that darned Blake," returned Fletcher, chewing the end of his mustache, as he did when he was in a rage. "I met him as I drove up the road and he had the impudence to keep his ox-cart standing plumb still while I tore through the briers. It's the third time this thing has happened, and I'll be even with him for it yet."

"I'm sure he must be a very rude person," remarked Miss Saidie, pinching off a withered blossom and putting it in her pocket to keep from throwing it on the trim grass. "For my part, I've never been able to see what satisfaction people git out of being ill-mannered. It takes twice as long as it does to be polite, and it's not nearly so good for the digestion afterward."

Fletcher listened to her with a scowl. "Well, if you ever get anything but curses from Christopher Blake, I'd like to hear of it," he said, with a coarse laugh.

Why, he was really quite civil to me the other day when I passed him," replied Miss Saidie, facing Fletcher with her hand resting on the belt of her apron. "I was in the phaeton, and he got down off his wagon and picked up my whip. I declare, it almost took my breath away, but when I thanked him he raised his hat and spoke very pleasantly."

"Oh, you and your everlasting excuses!" sneered Fletcher, going up the steps and turning on the porch to look down upon her. "I tell you I've had as many of 'em as I'm going to stand. This is my house, and what I say in it has got to be the last word. If you squirt any more of that blamed water around here the place will rot to pieces under our very feet."

Miss Saidie placed her watering-pot on the step and lifted to him the look of amiable wonder which he found more irritating than a sharp retort.

"I forgot to tell you that Susan Spade has been waiting to speak to you," she remarked, as if their previous conversation had been of the friendliest nature.

"Oh, drat her! What does she want?"

"She wouldn't tell me—it was for you alone, she said. That was a good half-hour ago, and she's been waiting in your setting-room ever sence. She's such a sharp-tongued woman I wonder how Tom manages to put up with her."

"Well, if he does, I won't," growled Fletcher, as he went in to meet his visitor.

Mrs. Spade, wearing a severe manner and a freshly starched purple calico, was sitting straight and stiff on the edge of the cretonne-covered lounge, and as he entered she rose to receive him with a visible unbending of her person. She was a lank woman, with a long, scrawny figure which appeared to have run entirely to muscle, and very full skirts that always sagged below the belt-line in the back. Her face was like that of a man— large-featured, impressive, and not without a ruddy masculine comeliness.

"It's my duty that's brought me, Mr. Fletcher," she began, as they shook hands. "You kin see very well yo'self that it's not a pleasure, as far as that goes, for if it had been I never should have come-not if I yearned and pined till I was sore. I never saw a pleasure in my life that didn't lead astray, an' I've got the eye of suspicion on the most harmless-lookin' one that goes. As I tell Tom—though he won't believe it—the only way to be sartain you're followin' yo' duty in this world is to find out the thing you hate most to do an' then do it with all yo' might. That rule has taken me through life, suh: it married me to Tom Spade, an' it's brought me here to-day. 'Don't you go up thar blabbin' on Will Fletcher,' said Tom, when I was tyin' on my bonnet. 'You needn't say one word mo' about it,' was my reply. 'I know the Lord's way, an' I know mine. I've wrastled with this in pra'r, an' I tell you when the Lord turns anybody's stomach so dead agin a piece of business, it means most likely that it's the very thing they've got to swallow down."

"Oh, Will!" gasped Fletcher, dropping suddenly into his armchair. "Please come to the point at once, ma'am, and let me hear what the rascal has done last."

"I'm comin', suh; I'm comin'," Mrs. Spade hastened to assure him. "Yes, Tom an' I hev talked it all down to the very bone, but I wouldn't trust a man's judgment on morals any mo' than I would on matchin' calico. Right an' wrong don't look the same to 'em by lamplight as they do by day, an' if thar conscience ain't set plum' in the pupils of thar eyes, I don't know whar 'tis, that's sho'. But, thank heaven, I ain't one of those that's always findin' an excuse for people—not even if the backslider be my own husband. Thar's got to be some few folks on the side of decency, an' I'm one of 'em. Virtue's a slippery thing—that's how I look at it—an' if you don't git a good grip on it an' watch it with a mighty stern eye it's precious apt to wriggle through yo' fingers. I'm an honest woman, Mr. Fletcher, an' I wouldn't blush to own it in the presence of the King of England

"Great Scott!" exclaimed Fletcher, with a brutal laugh; "do you mean to tell me the precious young fool has fallen in love with you?"

"Me, suh? If he had, a broomstick an' a spar' rib or so would have been all you'd ever found of him agin. I've never yit laid eyes on the man I couldn't settle with a single sweep, an' when a lone woman comes to wantin' a protector, I've never seen the husband that could hold a candle to a good stout broom. That's what I said to Jinnie when she got herself engaged to Fred Boxley. 'Married or single,' I said, 'gal, wife, or widow, a broom is yo' best friend.'"

Fletcher twisted impatiently in his chair.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, stop your drivelling," he blurted out at last, "and tell me in plain language what the boy has done."

"Oh, I don't know what he's done or what he hasn't," rejoined Mrs. Spade, "but I've watched him courtin' Molly Peterkin till I told Tom this thing had to stop or I would stop it. If thar's a p'isonous snake or lizard in this country, suh, it's that tow-headed huzzy of Sol Peterkin's; an' if thar's a sex on this earth that I ain't go no patience with, it's the woman sex. A man may slip an' slide a little because he was made that way, but when it comes to a woman she's got to w'ar whalebones in her clothes when I'm aroun'. Lord! Lord! What's the use of bein' honest if you can't p'int yo' finger at them that ain't? Virtue gits mighty little in the way of gewgaws in this world, an' I reckon it's got to make things up in the way it feels when it looks at them that's gone astray—"

"Molly Peterkin!" gasped Fletcher, striking the arm of his chair a blow that almost shattered it. "Christopher Blake was bad enough, and now it's Molly Peterkin! Out of the frying-pan right spang into the fire. Oh, you did me a good turn in coming, Mrs. Spade. I'll forgive you the news you brought, and I'll even forgive you your blasted chatter. How long has this thing been going on, do you know?"

"That I don't, suh, that I don't; though I've been pryin' an' peekin' mighty close. All I know is, that every blessed evenin' for the last two weeks I've seen 'em walkin' together in the lane that leads to Sol's. This here ain't goin' to keep up one day mo'; that's what I put my foot down on yestiddy. I'd stop it if I didn't have nothin' agin that gal but the colour of her hair. I don' know how 'tis, suh, but I've always had the feelin' that thar's somethin' indecent about yaller hair, an' if I'd been born with it I'd have stuck my head into a bowl of pitch befo' I'd have gone flauntin' those corn-tassels in the eyes of every man I met. Thar's nothin' in the looks of me that's goin' to make a man regret he's got a wife if I can help it; an' mark my word, Mr. Fletcher, if they had dyed Molly Peterkin's hair black she might have been a self-respectin' woman an' a hater of men this very day. A light character an' a light head go precious well together, an' when you set one a good sober colour the other's pretty apt to follow."

Fletcher rose from his chair and stood gripping the table hard.

"Have you any reason to think—does it look likely—that young Blake has had a hand in this?" he asked.

"Who? Mr. Christopher? Why, I don't believe he could tell a petticoat from a pair of breeches to save his soul. He ain't got no fancy for corn-tassels and blue ribbons, I kin tell you that. It's good honest women that are the mothers of families that he takes to, an' even then it ain't no mo' than 'How are you, Mrs. Spade? A fine mornin'!'"

"Well, thar's one thing you may be sartain of," returned Fletcher, breaking in upon her, "and that is that this whole business is as good as settled. I leave here with the boy to-morrow morning at sunrise, and he doesn't set foot agin in this county until he's gone straight through the university. I'll drag him clean across the broad ocean before he shall do it."

Then, as Mrs. Spade took a noisy departure, he stood, without listening to her, gazing morosely down upon the pattern of the carpet.

CHAPTER V. The Happiness of Tucker

Early in the following November, Jim Weatherby, returning from the cross-roads one rainy afternoon, brought Christopher a long, wailing letter from Will.

"Oh, I've had to walk a chalk-line, sure enough," he wrote, "since that awful day we left home in a pouring rain, with grandpa wearing a whole thunderstorm on his forehead. It has been cram, cram, cram ever since, I can tell you, and here I am now, just started at the university, with my head still buzzing with the noise of those confounded ancients. If grandpa hadn't gone when he did, I declare I believe he would have ended by driving me clean crazy. Since he left I've had time to take a look about me, and I find there's a good deal of fun to be got here, after all. How I'll manage to mix it in with Greek I don't see, but luck's with me, you know—I've found that out—so I shan't bother.

"By the way, I wish you would make Molly Peterkin understand how it was I came away so hastily. Tell her I haven't forgotten her, and give her the little turquoise pin I'm sending. It just matches her eyes. Be sure to let me know if she's as pretty as ever."

By the next mail the turquoise brooch arrived, and Christopher, putting it in his pocket, went over to Sol Peterkin's to bear the message to the girl. As it happened, she was swinging on the little sagging gate when he came up the lane, and at sight of him her eyebrows shot up under her flaxen curls, which hung low upon her forehead. She was a pretty, soulless little animal, coloured like peach-blossoms, and with a great deal of that soft insipidity which is usually found in a boy's ideal of maiden innocence.

"Why, I couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw you," she said, arranging her curls over her left shoulder with a conscious simper.

The old Blake gallantry rose to meet her challenging eyes, and he regarded her smilingly a moment before he answered.

"Well, I could hardly believe mine, you know," he responded carelessly. "I thought for an instant that a big butterfly had alighted on the gate."

She pouted prettily.

"Won't you come in?" she asked after a moment, with an embarrassed air, as she remembered that he was one of the "real Blakes" for whom her father used to work.

A light retort was on his lips, but while he looked at her a little weary frown darkened her shallow eyes, and with the peculiar sympathy for all those oppressed by man or nature which was but one expression of his many-sided temperament he quickly changed the tone of his reply. At the instant it seemed to him that Molly Peterkin and himself stood together defrauded of their rightful heritage of life; and as his thought broadened he felt suddenly the pathos of her forlorn little figure, of her foolish blue eyes, of her trivial vanities, of her girlish beauty, soiled and worn by common handling. A look very like compassion was in his face, and the girl, seeing it, reddened angrily and kicked at a loose pebble in the path. When he went away a moment later he left a careless message for Sol about the tobacco crop, and the little white box containing the turquoise brooch was still in his pocket.

That afternoon the trinket went back to Will with a curt letter. "If you take my advice, you'll leave Molly Peterkin alone," he wrote in his big, unformed hand, "for as far as I can see you are too good a match to get on well together. She's a fool, you know, and from the way you're going on just now it looks very much as if you were one also. At any rate, I'm not your man for gallantries. I'd rather hunt hares than women, any day—and game's plentiful just now."

It was a long winter that year, and for the first time since her terrible illness Mrs. Blake was forced to keep her bed during a bitter spell of weather, when the raw winds whistled around the little frame house, entering the cracks at the doors and the loosened sashes of the windows. Cynthia grew drawn and pinched with a sickly, frost-bitten look, and even Lila's rare bloom drooped for a while like that of a delicate plant starving for the sunshine. Christopher, who, as usual, was belated in his winter's work, was kept busy hauling and chopping wood, shovelling the snow away from the porch and the paths that led to the well, the stable, and the barn. Once a day, most often after breakfast, Jim Weatherby appeared, smiling gaily beneath his powdering of snow; and sometimes, in defiance of Cynthia, he would take Lila for a sleigh-ride, from which she would return blossoming like a rose.

Mrs. Blake, from her tester bed, complained bitterly of the cold, and drew from the increasing severity of the winters, which she declared became more unbearable each year, warrant for her belief in the gradual "decline of the world as a dwelling-place."

"You may say what you please, Tucker," she remarked one morning when she had awakened with an appetite to find that her eggs had frozen in the kitchen, "but you can hardly be so barefaced as to compliment this weather. I'm sure I never felt anything like it when I was young."

"Well, at least I have a roof over my head now, and I didn't when I marched to Romney with old Stonewall," remarked Tucker from the hearth, where he was roasting an apple before the big logs. "Many's the morning I waked then with the snow frozen stiff all over me, and I had to crack through it before I could get up."

The old lady made a peevish gesture.

"It may sound ungrateful," she returned, "but I'm sometimes tempted to wish that you had never marched to Romney, or that General Jackson had been considerate enough to choose a milder spell. I really believe when you come to die you will console yourself with the recollection of something worse that happened in the war."

Tucker laughed softly to himself as he watched the apple revolving in the red heat on its bit of string. "Well, I'm not sure that I shan't, Lucy," he said.

"Habit's mighty strong, you know, and when you come to think of it there's some comfort in knowing that you'll never have to face the worst again. A man doesn't duck his head at the future when he's learned that, let be what will; it can't be so bad as the thing he's gone through with and yet come out on top. It gives him a pretty good feeling, after all, to know that he hasn't funked the hardest knock that life could give. Well, my birds are hungry, I reckon, and I'll hobble out and feed 'em while this apple is roasting to the core."

Raising himself with difficulty, he got upon his crutches and went to scatter his crumbs from the kitchen window.

By the first of March the thaw came, and the snow melted in a day beneath the lavish spring sunshine. It was a week later that Christopher, coming from the woods at midday, saw Tucker sitting on his old bench by the damask rose-bush, in which the sap was just beginning to swell. The sun shone full on the dead grass, and the old soldier, with his chin resting in the crook of his crutch, was gazing straight down upon the earth. The expression of his large, kindly face was so radiant with enjoyment that Christopher quickened his steps and slapped him affectionately upon the shoulder.

"Is Fletcher dead, Uncle Tucker?" he inquired, laughing.

"No, no; nobody's dead that I've heard of," responded Tucker in his cheerful voice; "but something better than Bill Fletcher's death has happened, I can tell you. Why, I'd been sitting out here an hour or more, longing for the spring to come, when suddenly I looked down and there was the first dandelion—a regular miracle—blooming in the mould about that old rose-bush."

"Well, I'll be hanged!" exclaimed Christopher, aghast. "Mark my words, you'll be in an asylum yet."

The other chuckled softly.

"When you put me there you'll shut up the only wise man in the county," he returned. "If your sanity doesn't make you happy, I can tell you it's worth a great deal less than my craziness. Look at that dandelion, now—it has filled two hours chock full of thought and colour for me when I might have been puling indoors and nagging at God Almighty about trifles. The time has been when I'd have walked right over that little flower and not seen it, and now it grows yellower each minute that I look at it, and each minute I see it better than I did the one before. There's nothing in life, when you come to think of it—not Columbus setting out to sea nor Napoleon starting on a march—more wonderful than that brave little blossom putting up the first of all through the earth."

"I can't see anything in a dandelion but a nuisance," observed Christopher, sitting down on the bench and baring his head to the sunshine; "but you do manage to get interest out of life, that's certain."

"Interest! Good Lord!" exclaimed Tucker. "If a man can't find something to interest him in a world like this, he must be a dull fellow or else have a serious trouble of the liver. So long as I have my eyes, and there's a different sky over my head each day, and earth, and trees, and flowers all around me, I don't reckon I'll begin to whistle to boredom. If I were like Lucy, now, I sometimes think things would be up with me, and yet Lucy is one of the very happiest women I've ever known. Her brain is so filled with pleasant memories that it's never empty for an instant."

Christopher's face softened, as it always did at an allusion to his mother's blindness.

"You're right," he said; "she is happy."

"To be sure, she's had her life," pursued Tucker, without noticing him. "She's been a beauty, a belle, a sweetheart, a wife, and a mother—to say nothing of a very spoiled old woman; but all the same, I don't think I have her magnificent patience. Oh, I couldn't sit in the midst of all this and not have eyes to see."

With a careless smile Christopher glanced about him—at the bright blue sky seen through the bare trees, at the dried carrot flowers in the old field across the road, at the great pine growing on the little knoll.

"I hardly think she misses much," he said, and added after a moment, "Do you know I'd give twenty—no forty, fifty years of this for a single year of the big noisy world over there. I'm dog-tired of stagnation."

"Well, it's natural," admitted Tucker gently. "At your age I doubtless felt the same. The young want action, and they ought to have it, because it makes the quiet of middle age seem all the sweeter. You've missed your duels and your flirtations and your pomades, and you've been put into breeches and into philosophy at the same time. Why, one might as well stick a brier pipe in the mouth of a boy who is crying for his first gun and tell him to go sit in the chimney-corner and be happy. When I was twenty-five I travelled all the way to New York for the latest Parisian waistcoat, but I can't remember that I ever strolled round the corner to see a peach-tree in full bloom. I'm a lot happier now, heaven knows, in my homespun coat, than I was then in that waistcoat of satin brocade, so I sometimes catch myself wishing that I could see again the people I knew then—the men I quarrelled with and the women I kissed. I'd like to apologise for the young fool of thirty years ago."

Christopher stirred restlessly, and, clasping his hands behind his head, stared at a small white cloud drifting slowly above the great pine.

"Well, it's the fool part I envy you, all the same," he remarked.

"You're welcome to it, my boy," answered Tucker; then he paused abruptly and bent his ear. "Ah, there's the bluebird! Do you hear him whistling in the meadow? God bless him; he's a hearty fellow and has spring in his throat."

"I passed one coming up," said Christopher.

"The same, I reckon. He'll be paying me a visit soon, and I've got my crumbs ready." He smiled brightly and then sat with his chin on his crutch, looking steadily across the road. "You haven't had your chance, my boy," he resumed presently; "and a man ought to have several chances to look round him in this world, for otherwise the things he misses will always seem to him the only things worth having. I'm not much of a fellow to preach, you'll say—a hundred and eighty pounds of flesh that can't dress itself nor hobble about without crutches that are strapped on- -but if it's the last word I speak I wouldn't change a day in my long life, and if it came to going over it again I'd trust it all in the Lord's hands and start blindfolded. And yet, when I look back upon it now, I see that it wasn't much of a life as lives go, and the two things I wanted most in it I never got."

Christopher turned quickly with a question.

"Oh, you think I have always been a contented, prosaic chap," pursued Tucker, smiling, "but you were never more mistaken since you were born. Twice in my life I came mighty near blowing out my brains—once when I found that I couldn't go to Paris and be an artist, and the second time when I couldn't get the woman I wanted for my wife. I wasn't cut out for a farmer, you see, and I had always meant from the time I was a little boy to go abroad and study painting. I'd set my heart on it, as people say, but when the time came my father died and I had to stay at home to square his debts and run the place. For a single night I was as clean crazy as a man ever was. It meant the sacrifice of my career, you know, and a career seemed a much bigger thing to me then than it does to-day."

"I never heard that," said Christopher, lowering his voice.

"There's a lot we don't know even about the people we live in a little house with. You never heard, either, I dare say, that I was so madly in love once that when the woman threw me over for a better man I shut myself up in a cabin in the woods and did not speak to a human being for six months. I was a rare devil, sure enough, though you'd never believe it to see me now. It took two blows like that, a four years' war, and the surgeon's operating table to teach me how to be happy."

"It was Miss Matoaca Bolling, I suppose?" suggested Christopher, with a mild curiosity.

The old soldier broke into his soft, full laugh.

"Matoaca! Bless your soul, no. But to think that Lucy should have kept a secret for more than thirty years! Never talk to me again about a woman's letting anything out. If she's got a secret that it mortifies her to tell it will be buried in the grave with her, and most likely it will never see the light at judgment Day. Lucy was always ashamed of my being jilted, you know."

"It's a new story then, is it?"

"Oh, it's as old as the hills by now. What's the funny part, though, is that Lucy has always tried to persuade herself it was really Matoaca I cared for. You know, I sometimes think that a woman can convince herself that black is white if she only keeps trying hard enough—and it's marvellous that she never sees the difference between wanting to believe a thing and believing it in earnest. Now, if Matoaca had been the last woman on this earth, and I the last man, I could never have fallen in love with her, though I may as well confess that I had my share of fancies when I was young. It's no use attempting to explain a man's feelings, of course. Matoaca was almost as great a belle as Lucy, and she was the handsomest creature you ever laid eyes on—one of those big, managing women who are forever improving things around them. Why, I don't believe she could stay two seconds in a man's arms without improving the set of his cravat. Some men like that kind of thing, but I never did, and I often think the reason I went so mad about the other woman was that she came restful after Matoaca. She was the comforting kind, who, you might be sure, always saw you at your best; and no matter the mood you were in, she never wanted to pat and pull you into shape. Lucy always said she couldn't hold a candle to Matoaca in looks, and I suppose she was right; but, pretty or plain, that girl had something about her that went straight to my heart more than thirty years ago and stays there still. Strange to say, I've tried to believe that it was half compassion, for she always reminded me of a little wild bird that somebody had caught and shut up in a cage, and it used to seem to me sometimes that I could almost hear the fluttering of her soul. Well, whatever it was, the feeling was the sort that is most worth while, though she didn't think so, of course, and broke her great heart over another man. She married him and had six children and died a few years ago. He was a fortunate fellow, I suppose, and yet I can't help fancying that I've had the better part and the Lord was right. She was not happy, they said, and he knew it, and yet had to face those eyes of hers every day. It was like many other marriages, I reckon; he got used to her body and never caught so much as a single glimpse of her soul. Then she faded away and died to him, but to me she's just the same as when I first saw her, and I still believe that if she could come here and sit on this old bench I should be perfectly happy. It's a lucky man, I tell you, who can keep the same desire for more than thirty years."

He shook his head slowly, smiling as he listened to the bluebird singing in the road. "And now I'll be fetching my crumbs," he added, struggling to his crutches.

When he had helped Tucker to the house, Christopher came back and sat down again on the bench, closing his eyes to the sunshine, the spring sky, and the dandelion blooming in the mould. He was very tired, and his muscles ached from the strain of heavy labour, yet as he lingered there in the warm wind it seemed to him that action was the one thing he desired. The restless season worked in his blood, and he felt the stir of old impulses that had revived each year with the quickening sap since the first pilgrimage man made on earth. He wanted to be up and away while he was still young, and his heart beat high, and at the moment he would have found positive delight in any convulsion of the natural order, in any excuse for a headlong and impetuous plunge into life.

He heard the door open again, and Tucker shuffled out into the path and began scattering his crumbs upon the gravel. When Christopher passed a moment later, on his way to the house, the old soldier was merrily whistling an invitation to a glimpse of blue in a tree-top by the road.

The spring dragged slowly, and with June came the transplanting of the young tobacco. This was the busiest season of the year with Christopher, and so engrossed was he in his work that for a week at the end of the month he did not go down for the county news at Tom Spade's store. Fletcher was at home, he knew, but he had heard nothing of Will, and it was through the storekeeper at last that he learned definitely of the boy's withdrawal from the university. Returning from the field one afternoon at sunset, he saw Tom sitting beside Tucker in the yard, and in response to a gesture he crossed the grass and stopped beside the long pine bench.

"I say, Mr. Christopher, I've brought you a bit of news," called the storekeeper at the young man's approach.

"Well, let's have it," returned Christopher, laughing. "If you're going to tell me that Uncle Tucker has discovered a rare weed, though, I warn you that I can't support it."

"Oh, I'm not in this, thank heaven," protested Tucker; "but to tell the truth, I'm downright sorry for the boy—Fletcher or no Fletcher,"

"Ah," said Christopher under his breath, "so it's Will Fletcher?"

"He's in a jolly scrape this time, an' no mistake," replied Tom. "He's been leadin' a wild life at the university, it seems, an' to-day Fletcher got a telegram saying that the boy had been caught cheatin' in his examinations. The old man left on the next train, as mad as a hornet, I can tell you. He swore he'd bring the young scamp back an' put him to the plough. Well, well, thar are worse dangers than a pretty gal, though Susan won't believe it."

"Then he'll bring him home?" asked Christopher, blinking in the sunlight. At the instant it seemed to him that sky and field whirled rapidly before his eyes, and a strange noise started in his ears which he found presently to be the throbbing of his arteries.

"Oh, he's been given a hard push down the wrong road," answered Tom, "an' it's more than likely he'll never pull up till he gits clean to the bottom."

CHAPTER VI. The Wages of Folly

Two days later Fletcher's big new carriage crawled over the muddy road, and Christopher, looking up from his work in the field, caught a glimpse of the sullen face Will turned on the familiar landscape. The younger Fletcher had come home evidently nursing a grievance at his heart; his eyes held a look of dogged resentment, and the hand in which he grasped the end of the linen dust-robe was closed in an almost convulsive grip. When he met Christopher's gaze he glanced angrily away without speaking, and then finding himself face to face with his grandfather's scowl he jerked impatiently in the opposite direction. It was clear that the tussle of wills had as yet wrung only an enforced submission from the younger man.

Lifting his head, Christopher stood idly watching the carriage until it disappeared between the rows of flowering chestnuts; then, returning in a half-hearted fashion to his work, he found himself wondering curiously if Fletcher's wrath and Will's indiscretions were really so great as public rumour might lead one to suppose.

An answer to his question came the next evening, when he heard a light, familiar whistle outside the stable where he was at work, and a moment afterward Will appeared in the shadow of the doorway.

"So it wasn't a cut, after all?" said Christopher with a laugh, as he held out his hand.

"I'll be hanged if I know what it was," was Will's response, turning away after a limp grasp and seating himself upon the big box in the corner. "To tell the truth, grandpa has put me into such a fluster that I hardly know my head from my heels. There's one thing certain, though; if he doesn't take his eye off me for a breathing space he'll send me to the dogs before he knows it."

His face had lost its boyish freshness of complexion and his weak mouth had settled into lines of sullen discontent. Even his dress displayed the carelessness which is one of the outward marks of a disordered mind, and his bright blue tie was loosely knotted in unequal lengths.

"What's the trouble now?" demanded Christopher, coming from the stall and hanging his lantern from a nail beside the ladder, where the light fell full on Will's face. "Out with it and have done. I thought yesterday that you had been driving a hard bargain with the old man on my account."

"Oh, it's not you this time, thank heaven," returned Will. "It's all about that confounded scrape I got into at the university. I told him it would mean trouble if he sent me there, but he would do it whether or no. He dragged me away from here, you remember, and had me digging at my books with a scatter-brained tutor for a good six months; then when I knew just about enough to start at the university he hauled me there with his own hands and kept watch over me for several weeks. I'm quick at most things like that, so after he went away I thought I'd have a little fun and trust luck to make it up to me at the end—but it all went against me somehow, and then they stirred up that blamed rumpus about the examinations."

Yawning more in disgust than in drowsiness, he struck a match on the edge of the box and lighted a cigarette. His flippant manner was touched with the conscious resentment which still lingered in his eyes, and from the beginning to the end of his account he betrayed no hint of a regret for his own shabby part in the affair. When it was not possible to rest the blame upon his grandfather, he merely shrugged his shoulders and lightly tossed the responsibility to fate.

"This is one of the things I daren't do at the house," he remarked after a moment, inhaling a cloud of smoke and blowing it in spirals through his nostrils; "the old man won't tolerate anything more decent than a pipe, unless it happens to be a chew. Oh, I'm sick to death of the whole business," he burst out suddenly. "When I woke up this morning I had more than half a mind to break loose and go abroad to Maria. By the way, Wyndham's dead, you know; he died last fall just after we went away."

"Ah, is that so!" exclaimed Christopher. "She'll come home, then, will she?"

"That's the queer part—she won't, and nobody knows why. Wyndham turned out to be a regular scamp, of course; he treated her abominably and all that, but he no sooner died than she turned about and picked up one of his sisters to nurse and coddle. Oh, it's all foolishness, but I've half a mind to run away, all the same. A life like this will drive me crazy in six months, and I'll be hanged if it is my fault, after all. He knew I never had a head for books, but he drove me at them as if I were no better than a black slave. Things have all been against me from the start, and yet I used to think that I was born to be lucky—"

"What does he mean to do with you now?" inquired Christopher.

"Put me to the plough, he says; but I can't stand it—I haven't the strength. Why, this morning he made me hang around that tobacco field in the blazing sun for two mortal hours, minding those shiftless darkies. If I complain; or even go off to sit down in a bit of shade, he rushes up and blusters about kicking me out of doors unless I earn my bread. Oh, his temper is simply awful, and he gets worse every day. He's growing stingy, too, and makes us live like beggars. All the vegetables go to market now, and most of the butter, and this morning he blew Aunt Saidie's head off because she had spring chickens on the breakfast table. I don't dare ask him for a penny, and yet he's rich—one of the richest men in the State, they say."

"Well, it sounds jolly," observed Christopher, smiling.

"Oh, you can't imagine the state of things, and you'd never believe it if I told you. It's worse than any fuss you ever heard of or ever saw. I used to be able to twist him round my finger, you know, and now he hates me worse than he does a snake. He hasn't spoken a word to me since that scene we had at the university, except to order me to go out and watch the Negroes plant tobacco. If he finds out I want a thing he'll move heaven and earth to keep me from getting it—and then sit by and grin. He's got a devil in him, that's the truth, and there's nothing to do except keep out of his way as much as possible. I'm patient, too—Aunt Saidie knows it—and the only time I ever hit back was when he jumped on you the other day. Then I got mad and struck out hard, I tell you."

Christopher leaned over and began buckling and unbuckling a leather strap in the harness-box.

"Don't get into hot water on my account," he returned; "the more he abuses me, you know, the better I like it. But it's odd that after all these years he should want to turn you into an overseer."

"Well, he shan't do it; that's certain. It will be a cold day when he gets me masquerading in the family character. Let him go just one step too far and I'll shake him off for good, and strike out on a freight-train. Life couldn't be any worse than it is now, and it might be a great deal better. As to my hanging round like this much longer and swearing at a pack of worthless darkies—well, it's more than I bargain for, that's all."

"There's not much excitement in it, to be sure. I would rather be a freight-hand myself, I think, when all is said."

"Oh, you needn't joke. You were brought up to it and it doesn't come so hard."

"Doesn't it?"

"Not so hard as it does to me, at any rate. There's got to be some dash about life, I tell you, to make it suit my taste. I wasn't born to settle down and count my money and my tobacco from morning till night. It's spice I want in things, and—hang it! I don't believe there's a pretty woman in the county."

For a moment Christopher stared silently down at the matted straw. His face had grown dark, and the reckless lines about his mouth became suddenly prominent.

"Why, where's Molly Peterkin?" he asked abruptly, with a laugh that seemed to slip from him against his will.

The other broke into a long whistle and tossed the end of his cigarette through the doorway.

"You needn't think I've forgotten her," he replied; "she's the one bright spot I see in this barren hole. By the way, why do you think her a fool?"

"Because she is one."

"And you're a brute. What does a man want with brains in a woman, anyway. Maria had them and they didn't keep her from coming to shipwreck."

Christopher reached for the lantern.

"Well, I've got to go now," he broke in, "and you'd better be trotting home or you'll have the old man and the hounds out after you."

With the lantern swinging from his hand, he went to the door and waited for Will; then passing out, he turned the key in the lock, and with a short "Good-night!" started briskly toward the house.

Will followed him to the kitchen steps, and then keeping to the path that trailed across the yard, he passed through the whitewashed gate and went on along the sunken road which led by the abandoned ice-pond. Here he turned into the avenue of chestnuts, and with the lighted windows of the Hall before him, walked slowly toward the impending interview with his grandfather.

As he entered the house, Miss Saidie looked out from the dining-room doorway and beckoned in a stealthy fashion with the hen-house key.

"He has been hunting everywhere for you," she whispered, "and I told him you'd gone for a little stroll along the road."

An expression of anger swept over Will's face, and he made a helpless gesture of revolt.

"I won't stand it any longer," he answered, with a spurt of resolution which was exhausted in the feeble speech.

Miss Saidie put up her hand and straightened his necktie with an affectionate pat.

"Only for a little while, dear," she urged; "he's in one of his black humours, and it will blow over, never fear. Things are never so bad but there's hope of a mending some day. Try to please him and go to work as he wants you to do. It all came of the trouble at the university—he had set his heart on your carrying off the honours."

"It was his fault," said Will stubbornly. "I begged him not to send me there. It was his fault."

"Well, that can't be helped now," returned the little woman decisively. "All we can do is to make things as easy as we can, and if thar's ever to be any peace in this house again you must try to humour him. I never saw him in such a state before, and I've known him for sixty years and slept in a trundle-bed with him as a baby. The queerest thing about it, too, is that he seems to get closer and closer every day. Just now thar was a big fuss because I hadn't sent all the fresh butter to market, and I thought he'd have a fit when he found I was saving some asparagus for dinner to-morrow."

"Where is he now?" asked Will in a whisper.

"Complaining over some bills in his setting-room; and he actually told me a while ago, when I went in, that he had been a fool to give Maria so much money for Wyndham to throw away. Poor Maria! I'm sure she has had a hard enough time without being abused for something she couldn't help. But it really is a passion with him, thar's no use denying it. He spends his whole time adding up the cost of what we eat."

Then, as the supper-bell rang in the hall, she finished hurriedly, and assuming a cheerful manner, took her place behind the silver service.

Fletcher entered with a heavy step, his eyes lowering beneath his bushy eyebrows. The weight of his years appeared to have fallen upon him in a night, and he was no longer the hale, ruddy man of middle age, with his breezy speeches and his occasional touches of coarse humour. The untidiness of his clothes was still marked-his coat, his cravat, his fingér nails, all showed the old lack of neatness.

"Won't you say grace, Brother Bill?" asked Miss Saidie, as he paused abstractedly beside his chair.

Bending his head, he mumbled a few hurried words, and then cast a suspicious glance over the long table.

"I told you to use the butter with onions in it," he said, helping himself and tasting a little on the end of his knife. "This brings forty cents a pound in market, and I'll not have the waste."

"Oh, Brother Bill, the other is so bad," gasped Miss Saidie nervously.

"It's good enough for you and me, I reckon. We wan't brought up on any better, and what's good enough for us is good enough for my grandson." Then he turned squarely upon Will. "So you're back, eh? Whar did you go?" he demanded

Will tried to meet his eyes, failed, and stared gloomily at the white-and-red border of the tablecloth.

"I went out for a breath of air," he answered in a muffled voice. "It's been stifling all day."

"You've got to get used to it, I reckon," returned the old man with a brutal laugh. "I'll have no idlers and no fancy men about me."

An ugly smile distorted his coarse features, and, laying down his knife and fork, he sat watching his grandson with his small, bloodshot eyes.

CHAPTER VII. The Toss of a Coin

A fortnight passed before Will came to Christopher's again, and then he stole over one evening in the shadow of the twilight. Things were no better, he said; they were even worse than usual; the work in the tobacco field was simply what he couldn't stand, and his grandfather was growing more intolerable every day. Besides this, the very dullness of the life was fast driving him to distraction. He had smuggled a bottle of whisky from the town, and last night, after a hot quarrel with the old man, he had succeeded in drugging himself to sleep. "My nerves have gone all to pieces," he finished irritably, "and it's nothing on earth but this everlasting bickering that has done it. It's more than flesh and blood can be expected to put up with."

His hand shook a little when he lighted a cigarette, and his face, which was burned red from wind and sun, contracted nervously as he talked. It was the wildness in his speech, however, the suppressed excitement which ran in an undercurrent beneath his words, that caused the other to turn sharply and regard him for a moment with gathered brows.

"Well, take my advice and don't try that dodge too often," remarked Christopher in a careless tone.

"What in the deuce does it matter?" returned Will desperately. "It was the only quiet night I've had for three weeks: I slept like a log straight through until the breakfast-bell. Then I was late, of course, and he threatened to take an hour's time from my day's wages. By the way, he pays me now, you know, just as he does the other labourers."

For a time he kept up his rambling complaint, but, breaking off abruptly at last, made some trivial excuse, and started homeward across the fields. Christopher, looking after him, was hardly surprised when he saw him branch off into the shaded lane that led to Sol Peterkin's.

There followed a month when the two met only at long intervals, and then with a curious constraint of manner. Sometimes Christopher, stopping on his way to the pasture, would exchange a few words over the rail fence with Will, who lounged on the edge of his grandfather's tobacco crop; but the old intimacy had ceased suddenly to exist, and it was evident that a newer interest had distracted the boy's ardent fancy.

It was not until August that the meaning of the change was made clear to Christopher, when, coming one day to a short turn in a little woodland road upon his land, he saw Will and Molly Peterkin sitting side by side on a fallen log. The girl had been crying, and at the sight of Christopher she gave a frightened sob and pulled her blue gingham sunbonnet down over her forehead; but Will, inspired at the instant by some ideal of chivalry, drew her hand through his arm and came out boldly into the road.

"You know Molly," he said in a brave voice that was not without pathos, "but you don't know that she has promised to be my wife."

Whatever the purpose of the girl's tears, she had need of them no longer, for with an embarrassed little laugh she flushed and dimpled into her pretty smile.

"Your wife?" repeated Christopher blankly. "Why, you're no better than two children and deserve to be whipped. If I were in your place, I'd start to catching butterflies, and quit fooling."

He passed on laughing merrily; but before the day was over he began to wonder seriously if Will could be really sincere in his intention to marry Molly Peterkin—poor, pretty Molly, whose fame was blown to the four corners of the county.

By night the question had come to perplex him in earnest, and it was almost with relief that he heard a familiar rattle on his window-pane as he undressed, and, looking out, saw Will standing in the long grass by the porch.

"Well, it's time you turned up," he said, when he had slipped cautiously down the staircase and joined him in the yard.

"Get your lantern," returned Will, "and come on to the barn. There's something I must see you about at once," and while the other went in search of the light, he stood impatiently uprooting a tuft of grass as he whistled a college song in unsteady tones.

At the end of a minute Christopher reappeared, bearing the lantern, which he declared was quite unnecessary because of the rising moon.

"Oh, but I must talk indoors," responded Will; "the night makes me creepy—it always did."

"So there is something to say, and it's no nonsense? Are the skies about to fall, or has your grandfather got a grip on his temper?"

"Pshaw! It's not that. Wait till we get inside." And when they had entered the barn, he turned and carefully closed the door, after flashing the light over the trampled straw in the dusky corners. In the shed outside a new-born calf bleated plaintively, and at the sound he started and broke into an apologetic laugh. "You thought I was joking to-day," he said suddenly.

Christopher nodded.

"So I presumed," he answered, wondering if drink or love or both together had produced so extreme an agitation.

"Well, I wasn't," declared Will, and, placing the lantern on the floor, he raised his head to meet the other's look. "I was as dead in earnest as I am this minute—and if it's the last word I ever speak, I mean to marry Molly Peterkin."

His excitable nerves were plainly on the rack of some strong emotion, and as he met the blank amazement in Christopher's face he turned away with a gesture of angry reproach.

"Then you're a fool," said Christopher, with a shrug of his shoulders.

Will quivered as if the words struck him like a whip.

"Because she's Sol Peterkin's daughter?" he burst out. Christopher smiled.

"It's not her father, but her character, that I was thinking of," he answered, and the next instant fell back in sheer surprise, for Will, flinging himself recklessly upon him, struck him squarely in the mouth.

As they fell breathlessly apart Christopher was conscious that for the first time in his life he felt something like respect for Will Fletcher—or at least for that expression of courageous passion which in the vivid moments of men's lives appears to raise the strong and the weak alike above the ordinary level of their surroundings. For a second he stood swallowing down the anger which the blow aroused in him—an anger as purely physical as the mounting of the hot blood to his cheek—then he looked straight into the other's face and spoke in a pleasant voice.

"I beg your pardon; it was all my fault," he said.

"I knew you'd see it," answered Will, appeased at once by the confession, "and I counted on you to help us; that's why I came."

"To help you?" repeated Christopher, a little startled.

"Well, we've got to be married, you know—there's simply nothing else to do. All this confounded talk about Molly has come near killing her, and the poor child is afraid to look anybody in the face. She's so innocent, you know, that half the time she doesn't understand what their lies are all about."

"Good God!" said Christopher beneath his breath.

"And besides, what use is there in waiting?" urged Will. "Grandpa won't be any better fifty years from now than he is to-day, and by that time we'd be old and gray-haired. This life is more than I can stand, anyway, and it makes mighty little difference whether it ends one way or another. Just so I have Molly I don't care much what happens. "

"But you can't marry—it's simply out of the question. Why, you're not yet twenty."

"Oh, we can't marry here, of course, but we're going on to Washington to-morrow—all our plans are made, and that's why I came to see you. I want to borrow your horses to take us to the crossroads at midnight. "

Seizing him by the shoulder, Christopher shook him roughly in a powerful grasp.

"Wake up," he said impatiently; "you are either drunk or asleep, and you're going headlong to the devil. If you do this thing you'll be ashamed of it in two weeks." Then he released him, laughing as he watched him totter and regain his balance. "But if you're bent on being an ass, then, for heaven's sake, go and be one," he added irritably.

A shiver passed through Will, and he stuttered an instant before he could form his words.

"She told me you'd say that," he replied. "She told me you'd always hated her."

"Hate her? Nonsense! She isn't worth it. I'd as soon hate a white kitten. As far as that goes, I've nothing against the girl, and I don't doubt she'd be a much better wife than most men deserve. I'm not prating about virtue, mind you; I'm only urging common sense. You're too young and too big a fool to marry anybody."

"Well, you disapprove of her, at any rate—you're against her, and that's why I haven't talked about her before. She's the most beautiful creature alive, I tell you, and I wouldn't give her up if to keep her meant I'd be a beggar."

"It will mean that, most likely."

Turning away, Will drew a small flask from his pocket and, unscrewing the stopper, raised the bottle to his lips. "I'd go mad but for this," he said; "that's why I've carried it about with me for the last week. It's the only thing that drives away this horrible depression."

As he drank, Christopher regarded him curiously, noting that the whisky lent animation to his face and an unnatural luster to his eyes. The sunburn on his forehead appeared to deepen all at once, and there was a bright red flush across his cheeks.

"You won't take my advice," said Christopher at last, "but I can't help telling you that unless you're raving mad you'd better drop the whole affair as soon as possible."

"Not now—not now, " protested Will gaily, consumed by an artificial energy. "Don't preach to me while the taste of a drink is still in my mouth, for there's no heart so strong as the one whisky puts into a man. When I feel my courage oozing from my fingers I can reinforce it in less time than it takes to sneak away."

Growing boisterous, he assumed a ridiculous swagger, and broke into a fragment of a college song. Until morning he would not probably become himself again, and, knowing this, Christopher desisted helplessly from his efforts at persuasion.

"You will lend me the horses?" asked Will, keeping closely to his point.

"Are you steady enough?"

"Of course—of course, " he stretched out his hands and moved a pace or two away; "and besides, Dolly drives like old Nick."

"Well, I'll see," said Christopher, and going to the window, he flung back the rude shutter and looked out into the August night. The warm air touched his face like a fragrant breath, and from the darkness a big white moth flew over his shoulder to where the lantern burned dimly on the floor.

"I may take them?" urged Will again, pulling him by the sleeve.

At the words Christopher turned and walked slowly back across the barn.

"Yes, I'll lend them to you," he answered, without meeting the other's eyes.

"You're a jolly good chap; I always knew it, " cried Will heartily. "I'll take them out at midnight, when there's a good moon, and get Jerry Green to drive them back to-morrow. Hurrah! It's the best night's work you ever did!"

He went out hurriedly, still singing his college song, and Christopher, without moving from his place, stood watching the big white moth that circled dizzily about the lantern. At the instant he regretted that Will had appealed to him—regretted even that he had promised him the horses. He wished it had all come about without his knowledge—that Fletcher's punishment and Will's ruin had been wrought less directly by his own intervention. Next he told himself that he would have stopped this thing had it been possible, and then with the thought he became clearly aware that it was still in his power to prevent the marriage. He had but to walk across the fields to Fletcher's door, and before sunrise the foolish pair would be safely home again. Will would probably be sent off to recover, and Molly would go back to making butter and to flirting with Fred Turner. On the other hand, let the marriage but take place—let him keep silent until the morning—and the revenge of which he had dreamed since childhood would be accomplished at a single stroke. Bill Fletcher's many sins would find him out in a night.

The big moth, fluttering aimlessly from the lantern, flew suddenly in his face, and the touch startled him from his abstraction. With a laugh he shook the responsibility from his shoulders, and then, as he hesitated again for a breath, the racial instinct arose, as usual, to decide the issue.

Taking a dime from his pocket, he tossed it lightly in the air and waited for it to fall.

"Heads for me, tails for Fletcher."

The coin spun for an instant in the gloom above him and then dropped noiselessly to the floor. When he lifted the lantern and bent over it he saw that the head lay uppermost.

CHAPTER VIII. In Which Christopher Triumphs

When he entered the house a little later Cynthia met him in the kitchen doorway with an anxious frown.

"I heard a noise, Christopher. What was it?"

"A man wanted me about something. How is mother resting?"

"Not well. Her dreams trouble her. She grows weaker every day, and the few hours she insists upon spending in her chair tire her dreadfully."

"There is nothing that she needs, you say?"

"No; nothing. She has never felt our poverty for an instant."

The furrow between his eyebrows grew deeper.

"And you?" he asked abruptly, regarding her fixedly with his intent gaze. "What under heaven are you up to at this hour?"

Glancing down at the ironing-board before her, she flushed painfully through the drawn grayness of her face.

"I had a little ironing to do," she answered, "and I wanted it all finished to-night. Mother needs me in the day."

Pushing her aside, he seized the iron and ran it in a few hasty strokes over the rough-dry garment which she had spread on the board. "Go to bed and leave these things alone," he insisted.

"Oh, Christopher, you'll spoil it!" cried Cynthia, clutching his arm.

He returned the iron to the stand and met her reproachful look with a gesture of annoyance. "Well, I'm going to sleep, if you aren't," he said, and treading as lightly as possible in his heavy boots, went along the little platform and upstairs to his garret room.

Once inside, he undressed hastily and flung himself upon the bed, but his thoughts spun like a top, and wild visions of Will, of Fletcher, and of Molly Peterkin whirled confusedly through his brain. When at last he lost consciousness for a time, it was to dream restlessly of the cry of a hare that the hounds had caught and mangled. The scream of the creature came to him from a thick wood, which was intersected by innumerable small green paths, and when he tried vainly to go to the rescue he lost himself again and again in the wilderness of trails. Back and forth he turned in the twilight, crushing down the underbrush and striking in a frenzy at the forked boughs the trees wrapped about him, while suddenly the piteous voice became that of a woman in distress. Then, with a great effort, he fought his way through the wood, to see the mangled hare change slowly into Maria Fletcher, who opened her eyes to ask him why he hunted her to death.

He awoke in a cold sweat, and, sitting up in bed, leaned for air toward the open window. A dull ache gnawed at his heart, and his lips were parched as if from fever. Again it seemed to him that Maria entreated him across the distance.

When he came down at sunrise he found Jerry Green awaiting him with the horses, and learned in answer to his questions that the lovers had taken a light wagon at the cross-roads and driven on to town.

"They were that bent on gittin' thar that they couldn't even wait for the stage, " the man told him. "Well, they're a merry pair, an' I hope good will come of it—seein' as 'tain't no harm to hope."

"Oh, they think so now, at any rate," Christopher replied, as he turned away to unharness the patient horses.

At breakfast, an hour or two later, he learned that his mother was in one of her high humours, and that, awaking early and prattling merrily of the past, she insisted that they should dress her immediately in her black brocade. When the meal was over he carried her from her bed to the old oak chair, in which she managed to keep upright among her pillows. Her gallant spirit was still youthful and undaunted, and the many infirmities of her body were powerless to distort the cheerful memories behind her sightless eyes.

Leaving her presently, after a careless chat about the foibles of Bolivar Blake, he took his hoe from an outhouse and went to "grub" the young weeds from the tobacco, which had now reached its luxuriant August height. By noon his day's work on the crop was over, and he was resting for a moment in the shadow of a locust tree by the fence, when he heard rapid footsteps approaching in the new road, and Bill Fletcher threw himself over the crumbling rails and came panting into the strip of shade. At sight of the man's face Christopher flung his hoe out into the field, where it bore down a giant plant, and bracing his body against the tree, prepared himself to withstand the shock of the first blow; but the other, after glaring at him for a breathless instant, fell back and rapped out a single thundering oath. "You hell-hound! This is all your doing!"

Throwing off the words with a gesture of his arm, Christopher stared coolly into the other's distorted face; then, yielding to the moment's vindictive impulse, he broke into a sneering laugh.

"So you have heard the good news?" he inquired lightly.

Before the rage in the old man's eyes—before the convulsed features and the quivering limbs—he felt a savage joy suddenly take possession of him.

"It's all your doing, every last bit of it," repeated Fletcher hoarsely, "and I'll live to pay you back if I hang for it in the end!"

"Go ahead, then," retorted Christopher; "you might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb, you know."

"Oh, you think I'm fooling?" said the other, wiping a fleck of foam from his mouth, "but you'll find out better some day, unless the devil gets you mighty quick. You've made that boy a scamp and a drunkard, and now you've gone and married him to a—" He swallowed the words and stood gasping above his loosened collar.

Christopher paled slightly beneath his sunburn; then, as he recovered his assurance, a brutal smile was sketched about his mouth.

"Come, come, go easy," he protested flippantly; "there's such a thing, you remember, as the pot calling the kettle black."

His gay voice fell strangely on the other's husky tones, and for the moment, in spite of his earth-stained hands and his clothes of coarse blue jean, he might have been a man of the world condescending to a peasant. It was at such times, when a raw emotion found expression in the primitive lives about him, that he realised most vividly the gulf between him and his neighbours. To his superficial unconcern they presented the sincerity of naked passion.

"You've made the boy what he is," repeated the old man, in a quiver from head to foot. "You've done your level best to send him to the devil."

"Well, he had a pretty good start, it seems, before I ever laid eyes on him."

"You set out to ruin him from the first, and I watched you," went on Fletcher, choking over each separate word before he uttered it; "my eye was on your game, and if you were anything but the biggest villain on earth I could have stopped it. But for you he'd be a decent chap this very minute."

"And the pattern of his grandfather," sneered Christopher.

Fletcher raised his arm for a blow and then let it fall limply to his side. "Oh, I'm done with you now, and I'm done with your gang," he said. "Play your devil's tricks as much as you please; they won't touch me. If that boy sets foot on my land again I'll horsewhip him as I would a hound. Let him see who'll feed him now when he comes to starve."

Catching his breath, Christopher stared at him an instant in silence; then he spoke in a voice which had grown serious.

"The more fool you, then," he said. "The chap's your grandson, and he's a better one than you deserve. Whatever he is, I tell you now, he's a long sight too good for such as you—and so is Molly Peterkin, for that matter. Heavens above! What are you that you should become a stickler for honesty in others? Do you think I've forgotten that you drove my father to his grave, and that the very land you live on you stole from me? Pshaw! It takes more than twenty years to bury a thing like that, you fool!"

Fletcher looked helplessly round for a weapon, and catching sight of the hoe, raised it in his hands; but Christopher, seizing it roughly from him, tossed it behind him in the little path.

"I'll have none of that," added the young man grimly.

"You're a liar, as your father was before you," burst out Fletcher, swallowing hard; "and as for that scamp you've gone and sent to hell, you can let him starve or not, jest as you please. He has made his choice between us, and he can stick to it till he rots in the poorhouse. Much good you'll do him in the end, I reckon."

"Well, just now it seems he hasn't chosen either of us," remarked Christopher, cooling rapidly as the other's anger grew red hot. "It rather looks as if he'd chosen Molly Peterkin."

"Damn you!" gasped Fletcher, putting up a nerveless hand to tear his collar apart, while a purple flush rose slowly from his throat to his forehead. "If you name that huzzy to me again I'll thrash you within an inch of your life!"

"Let's try it," suggested Christopher in an irritating drawl.

"Oh, I'm used to bullies like you," pursued the old man. "I know the kind of brute that thinks he can knock his way into heaven. Your father was jest sech another, and if you come to die a crazy drunkard like him it'll be about the end that you deserve!"

An impatient frown drew Christopher's brows together, and, picking up the hoe, he walked leisurely out into the field.

"Well, I can't stop to hear your opinion of me," he observed. "You'll have to keep it until another time," and breaking into a careless whistle, he strode off between the tobacco furrows on his way to bring the old mare from the pasture.

A little later, alone with the broad white noon and the stillness of the meadow, his gay whistle ended abruptly on his lips and the old sullen frown contracted his heavy brows. It was in vain that he tried to laugh away the depression of the moment; the white glare of the fields and the perfume of wild flowers blooming in hot sunshine produced in him a sensation closely akin to physical nausea—a disgust of himself and of the life and the humanity that he had known. What was it all worth, after all? And what of satisfaction was there to be found in the thing he sought? Fletcher's face rose suddenly before him, and when he tried to banish the memory the effort that he made brought but the more distinctly to his eyes the coarse, bloated features with the swollen veins across the nose. Trivial recollections returned to annoy him—the way the man sucked in his breath when he was angry, and the ceaseless twitching of the small muscles above his bloodshot eyes. "Pshaw! What business is it of mine?" he questioned angrily. "What am I to the man, that I cannot escape the disgust that he arouses? Is it possible that I should be haunted forever by a face I hate? There are times when I could kill him simply because of the repulsion that I feel. As for the boy—let him marry a dozen Molly Peterkins—who cares? Not I, surely. When he turns upon his grandfather and they fall to gnawing at each other's bones, the better I shall be pleased." He shook his head impatiently, but the oppression which in some vague way he associated with the white heat and the scent of wild flowers still weighed heavily upon his thoughts. "Is it possible that after all that has happened I am not yet satisfied?" he asked, with annoyance.

For awhile he lingered by the little brook in the pasture, and then slipping the bridle on the old mare, returned slowly to the house. At the bars he met Sol Peterkin, who had hurried over in evident consternation to deliver his news.

"Good Lord, Mr. Christopher! What do you think that gal of mine has gone and done now?"

Christopher slid the topmost bar from its place and lifted his head

"Don't tell me that she's divorced already," he returned. "Why, the last I heard of her she had run off this morning to marry Will Fletcher."

"That's it, suh; that's it," said Sol. "I'm meanin' the marriage. Well, well, it does seem that you can't settle down an' begin to say yo' grace over one trouble befo' a whole batch lights upon you. To think, arter the way I've sweated an' delved to be honest, that a gal of mine should tie me hand an' foot to Bill Fletcher."

In spite of his moodiness, the humour of the situation struck home to Christopher, and throwing back his head he burst into a laugh.

"Oh, you needn't poke yo' fun, suh," continued Sol. "Money is a mighty good thing, but you can't put it in the blood, like you kin meanness. All Bill Fletcher's riches ain't soaked in him blood an' bone, but his meanness is, an' that thar meanness goes a long sight further than his money. Thar ain't much sto' set by honesty in this here world, suh, an' you kin buy a bigger chaw of tobaccy with five cents than you kin with all the virtue of Moses on his Mount; but all the same it's a mighty good thing to rest yo' head on when you go to bed, an' I ain't sure but it makes easier lyin' than a linen pillow-slip an' a white goose tick—"

"Oh, I dare say," interrupted Christopher; "but now that it's over we must make the best of it. She didn't marry Bill Fletcher, after all, you know—"

He checked himself with a start, and the bridle slipped from his arm to the ground, for his name was called suddenly in a high voice from the house, and as he swung himself over the bars Lila came running barehead across the yard.

"Christopher!" she cried; "we could not find you, and Bill Fletcher has talked to mother like a madman. Come quickly! She has fainted!"

Before she had finished, he had dashed past her and through the house into the little parlour, where the old lady sat erect and unconscious in her Elizabethan chair.

"I found her like this," said Lila, weeping. "We heard loud voices and then a scream, and when we rushed in the man left, and she sat looking straight ahead like this—like this."

Throwing himself upon his knees beside the chair, Christopher caught his mother to his breast and turned angrily upon the women.

"Has nothing been done? Where is the doctor?" he cried.

"Jim has gone for him. Here, let me take her," said Cynthia, unclasping his arms. "There, stand back. She is not dead. In a little while she will come to herself again."

Rising from the floor, he stood motionless in the center of the room, where the atmosphere was heavy with the fragrance of camphor and tea-roses. A broad strip of sunshine was at his feet, and in the twisted aspen beside the window a catbird was singing. These remained with him for years afterward, and with them the memory of the blind woman sitting stiffy erect and staring vacantly into his face.

"He has told her everything," said Cynthia—"after twenty years."

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page