Chariot by Joseph Hergesheimer
Lemuel Doret walked slowly home from the prayer meeting with his
being vibrating to the triumphant beat of the last hymn. It was a good
hymn, filled with promised joy for every one who conquered sin. The
long twilight of early summer showed the surrounding fields still
bright green, but the more distant hills were vague, the sky was remote
and faintly blue, and shadows thickened under the heavy maples that
covered the single street of Nantbrook. The small frame dwellings of
the village were higher than the precarious sidewalk; flights of steps
mounted to the narrow porches; and though Lemuel Doret realized that
his neighbors were sitting outside he did not look up, and no voices
called down arresting his deliberate progress.
An instant bitterness, tightening his thin metallic lips and
narrowing a cold fixed gaze, destroyed the harmony of the assured
salvation. Lemuel Doret silently cursed the pinched stupidity of the
country clods. The slow helpless fools! If instead of muttering in
groups one of the men would face him with the local hypocrisy he'd sink
a heel in his jaw. The bitterness expanded into a hatred like the gleam
on a knife blade; his hands, spare and hard, grew rigid with the desire
to choke a thick throat.
Then the rage sank before a swift self-horror, an overwhelming
conviction of his relapse into unutterable sin. He stopped and in a
spiritual agony, forgetful of his surroundings, half lifted quivering
arms to the dim sky: “O Christ, lean down from the throne and hold me
He stood for a moment while a monotonous chatter on a porch above
dropped to a curious stillness. It seemed to him that his whisper was
heard and immediately answered; anyhow peace slowly enveloped him once
more, the melody of hope was again uppermost in his mind. He went
forward, procuring a cigarette from a mended ragged pocket.
His house, reached by a short steep path and sagging steps, was
dark; at first he saw no one, then the creak of a rocking-chair in the
open doorway indicated Bella, his wife.
“Give me a cigarette,” she demanded, her penetrating voice
“You know I don't want you to smoke anywhere you can be seen,” he
answered. “Since we've come here to live we have to mind the customs.
The women'll never take to you smoking cigarettes.”
“Ah, hell, what do I care! We came here, but it ain't living. It
makes me sick, and you make me sick I Can't you sing and pray in the
city as well as among these hicks?”
“I'm afraid of it,” he said, brief and somber. “And I don't want
Flavilla brought up with any of the gang we knew. Where is she?”
“I sent her to bed. She fussed round till she got me nervous.”
“Did she feel good?”
“If she didn't a smack would have cured her.”
He passed Bella, rocking sharply, into the dank interior.
On the right was the bare room where he had his dilapidated barber's
chair and shelf with a few mugs, brushes and other scant necessities.
There had been no customers to-day nor yesterday; still, it was the
middle of the week and what trade there was generally concentrated on
Saturday. Beyond he went upstairs to Flavilla's bed. She was awake,
twisting about in a fragmentary nightgown, dark against the disordered
“It's dreadful hot,” she complained shortly; “my head's hot too. The
window won't go up.”
Lemuel Doret crossed the narrow bare floor and dragged the sash
open; then he moved his daughter while he smoothed the bed and
freshened a harsh pillow. She whimpered.
“You're too big to cry without any reason,” he informed her, leaving
to fetch a glass of water from the tap in the kitchen.
Usually she responded to his intimations of her increasing age and
wisdom, but to-night she was listless. She turned away from him, her
arms flung above her head and wispy hair veiling her damp cheek.
“Keep still, can't you?” and he gathered her hair into a clumsy
The darkness about him seeped within, into his hope and courage and
resolution; all that he had determined to do seemed impossibly removed.
The whole world resembled Nantbrook—a place of universal condemnation,
forgiving nothing. He felt a certainty that even the few dollars he had
honestly earned would now be stopped.
The air grew clearer and deeper in color, and stars brightened.
Lemuel Doret wondered about God. There was no doubt of His power and
glory or of the final triumph of heaven established and earth, sin,
His mind was secure in these truths; his comprehension of the
paths of wickedness was equally plain; it was the ways of the righteous
that bewildered him—the conduct of the righteous and, in the face of
his supreme recognition, the extreme difficulty of providing life for
He consciously added his wife's name. Somehow his daughter was the
sole objective measure of his determination to build up, however late,
a home here and in eternity.
It was not unreasonable, in view of the past, to suppose that he had
no chance of succeeding. Yet religion was explicit upon that
particular; it was founded on the very hopes of sinners, on redemption.
But he could do nothing without an opportunity to make the small living
they required; if the men of Nantbrook, of the world, wouldn't come to
him to be barbered, and if he had no money to go anywhere else to begin
again, he was helpless. Everything was conspiring to thrust him back
into the city, of which he had confessed his fear, back——
He rose and stood above the child's thin exposed body—suddenly
frozen into a deathlike sleep—chilled with a vision, a premonition,
the insidious possibility of surrender. He saw, too, that it was a
solitary struggle; even his devotion to Flavilla, shut in the single
space of his own heart, helped to isolate him in what resembled a
surrounding blackness rent with blinding flashes of lightning.
The morning sun showed him spare, with a curious appearance of being
both wasted and grimly strong; he moved with an alert, a watchful ease,
catlike and silent; and his face was pallid with gray shadows. He stood
in trousers and undershirt, suspenders hanging down, before the small
dim mirror in the room where he had the barber chair, pasting his hair
down with an odorous brilliantine. This was his intention, but he saw
with sharp discomfort that bristling strands defied his every effort.
The hot edge of anger cut at him, but, singing, he dissipated it:
“Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows fall?
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for heaven——”
He broke off at the thought of Flavilla, still in bed, her head, if
anything, hotter than last night. Lemuel Doret wished again that he had
not allowed Bella to call their child by that unsanctified name. Before
the birth they had seen a vaudeville, and Bella, fascinated by a
golden-and-white creature playing a white accordion that bore her name
in ornamental letters, had insisted on calling her daughter, too,
Flavilla. In spite of the hymn, dejection fastened on him as he
remembered this and a great deal more about his wife.
If she could only be brought to see the light their marriage and
life might still be crowned with triumph. But Bella, pointing out the
resulting poverty of his own conviction and struggle, said freely that
she had no confidence in promises; she demanded fulfillment now. She
regarded him as more than a little affected in the brain. Yet there had
been no deep change in him—from the very first he had felt a growing
uneasiness at the spectacle of the world and the flesh. The throb of
the Salvation Army drum at the end of an alley, the echo of the fervent
exhortations and holy songs, had always filled him with a surging
emotion like homesickness.
Two impulses, he recognized, held a relentless warfare within him;
he pictured them as Christ and Satan; but the first would overthrow all
else. “Glory!” he cried mechanically aloud. He put down the hairbrush
and inspected the razors on their shelf. The bright morning light
flashed along the rubbed fine blades; they were beautiful, flawless,
without a trace of defilement. He felt the satin smoothness of the
steel with an actual thrill of pleasure; his eyes narrowed until they
were like the glittering points of knives; he held the razor firmly and
easily, with a sinewy poised wrist.
Finally, his suspenders in position over a collarless striped shirt,
he moved out to the bare sharp descent before his house and poured
water onto the roots of a struggling lilac bush. Its leaves were now
coated with dust; but the week before it had borne an actual cluster of
scented blossom; and he was still in the wonder of the lavender
fragrance on the meager starved stem.
The beat of hoofs approached, and he turned, seeing Doctor Frazee in
his yellow cart.
“Oh, doctor!” he called instinctively.
The other stopped, a man with a lean face, heavy curved nose and
penetrating gaze behind large spectacles. He was in reality a
veterinary, but Lemuel Doret, out of a profound caution, had discovered
him to be above the narrow scope of local prejudice.
“I wish you'd look at Flavilla,” Doret continued.
The doctor hesitated, and then turned shortly in at the sidewalk.
“It will hurt no one if I do that.” Above Flavilla's flushed face, a
tentative finger on her wrist, Frazee's expression grew serious. “I'll
tell you this,” he asserted; “she's sick. You had better call Markley
to-day. And until he comes don't give her any solids. You can see she's
in a fever.”
“Can't you tend her? I'd put more on you than any fresh young
“Certainly not,” he responded.
When the latter had gone Lemuel Doret found his wife in the kitchen.
She wore a pale-blue wrapper with a soiled scrap of coarse lace at her
full throat, her hair was gathered into a disorderly knot, and already
there was a dab of paint on either cheek. She had been pretty when he
married her, pretty and full of an engaging sparkle, a ready wit; but
the charm had gone, the wit had hardened into a habit of sarcasm. They
had been married twelve years, and in itself, everything considered,
that was remarkable and held a great deal in her favor. She had been
faithful. It was only lately, in Nantbrook, that her dissatisfaction
had materialized in vague restless hints.
“Frazee says Flavilla is sick,” he told her. “He thinks we ought to
She made a gesture of skepticism. “All those doctors send you to
each other,” she proclaimed. “Like as not he'll get half for doing it.”
“She don't look right.”
Bella's voice and attitude grew exasperated. “Of course you know all
about children; you've been where you could study on them. And of
course I have no sense; a woman's not the person to say when her child
is sick or well. Have a doctor if you can pay one, and buy a lot of
medicine too. There's some calomel upstairs, but that's no good. I'd
like to know where you have all the money! God knows I need a little,
to put inside me and out.”
“It's right scarce,” he admitted, resolutely ignoring her tone.
“Perhaps Flavilla will be better later in the day; I'll wait.”
He spoke without conviction, denying the impulse to have her cared
for at once, in an effort to content and still Bella. However, he
failed in both of these aims. Her voice swept into a shrill complaint
and abuse of Nantbrook—a place, she asserted, of one dead street,
without even a passing trolley car to watch. She had no intention of
being buried here for the rest of her life. Turning to a cigarette and
yesterday's paper she drooped into a sulky shape of fat and slovenly
blue wrapper beside the neglected dishes of their insufficient
He went through the empty house to the front again, where at least
the sun was warm and bright. The air held a faint dry fragrance that
came from the haymaking of the deep country in which Nantbrook lay.
Lemuel Doret could see the hotel at a crossing on the left, a small
gray block of stone with a flat portico, a heavy gilt beer sign and
whitewashed sheds beyond. The barkeeper stood at a door, a huge girth
circled by a soiled apron; nearer a bundle of brooms and glittering
stacked paint cans marked the local store. It was, he was forced to
admit, far from gay; but he found a great contentment in the sunny
peace, in the limitless space of the unenclosed sky; the air, the
fields, the birds in the trees were free.
As he stood frowning in thought he saw the figure of a strange man
walking over the road; Lemuel knew that he was strange by the formality
of the clothes. He wore a hard straw hat, collar and diamond-pinned
tie, and a suit with a waistcoat. At first Doret's interest was
perfunctory, but as the other drew nearer his inspection changed to a
painful absorption. Suddenly his attitude grew tense; he had the
appearance of a man gazing at an enthralling but dangerous spectacle,
such—for example—as a wall that might topple over, crushing anything
human within its sweep.
The object of this scrutiny had a pale countenance with a carefully
clipped mustache, baggy eyes and a blue-shaved heavy jaw. An
indefinable suggestion of haste sat on a progress not unduly hurried.
But as he caught sight of Lemuel Doret he walked more and more slowly,
returning his fixed attention. When the two men were opposite each
other, only a few feet apart, he almost stopped. For a moment their
sharpened visions met, parried, and then the stranger moved on. He made
a few steps, hesitated, then directly returned.
“Come inside,” he said in a slightly hoarse voice.
“It suits me here,” Doret replied.
The other regarded him steadily. “I've made no mistake,” he
asserted. “I could almost say how long you were up for, and a few other
little things too. I don't know what you're doing in this dump, but
here we both are.”
He waited for nothing more, ascending quickly to the hall. The two
made their way into the improvised barber shop.
“You've got me wrong,” Doret still insisted.
“Who is it, Lem?” Bella demanded at the door.
As she spoke an expression of geniality overspread her face, daubed
with paint and discontent.
“Why, I'll tell you—I'm June Bowman.”
“That don't mean anything to us,” Lemuel continued. “The best thing
you can do is keep right on going.”
“Not that Fourth Ward stew?” Bella asked eagerly.
“Lem's kind of died on his feet,” she explained in a palpable excuse
of her husband's ignorance; “he don't read the papers nor nothing. But
of course I've heard of you, Mr. Bowman. We're glad to see you.”
“Keep right along,” Lemuel Doret repeated. His face was dark and his
mouth hardly more than a pinched line.
“Now, who are you?” Bowman inquired.
“I'll tell you,” Bella put in, “since his manners have gone with
everything else. This is Snow Doret. If you know the live men that name
will be familiar to you.”
“I seem to remember it,” he admitted.
“If Snow went in the city it's Lemuel here,” Doret told him. His
anger seethed like a kettle beginning to boil.
“Well, if Snow ever went I guess I'm in right. The truth is I got to
lay off for a little, and this seems first-rate. I can explain it in a
couple of words: Things went bad——”
“Wasn't it the election?” Bella asked politely.
“In a way,” he answered with a bow. “You're all right. A certain
party, you see, was making some funny cracks—a reform dope; and he got
in other certain parties' light, see? Word was sent round, and when a
friend and me come on him some talk was passed and this public nuisance
got something. It was all regular and paid for——”
“I read about it,” Bella interrupted. “He died in the ambulance.”
“Then I was slipped the news that they were going to elect me the
pretty boy, and I had to make a break. Only temporary, till things are
fixed. Thus you see me scattered with hayseed. I was walking through
for a lift to Lancaster, where there are some good fellows; but when I
saw Snow here taking the air I knew there was one nearer.”
“Lemuel; and I'm no good fellow.”
“That's the truth,” his wife added thinly. “Here is the only one in
this house.” She touched her abundant self.
“Then I can put up?”
“No,” Lemuel Doret told him. “This is a house of God's.”
Bella laughed in a rising hysterical key.
“Listen to him,” she gasped; “listen to Snow Doret. It's no wonder
you might have forgotten him,” she proclaimed; “he's been in the pen
for ten and a half years with a bunch off for good conduct. But fifteen
years ago—say! He went in for knifing a drug store keeper who held out
on a 'coke' deal. If this here's a house of God's I'd like to know what
he called the one he had then. I couldn't tell you half of what went
on, not half, with fixing drinks and frame-ups and skirts. Why, he run
a hop joint with the Chinese and took a noseful of snow at every other
breath. That was after his gambling room broke up—it got too raw even
for the police. It was brandy with him, too, and there ain't a gutter
in his district he didn't lay in. The drug store man wasn't the first
he cut neither.”
She stopped from sheer lack of breath.
Curiously all that filled Lemuel Doret's mind was the thought of the
glory of God. Everything Bella said was true; but in the might of the
Savior it was less than nothing. He had descended into the pit and
brought him, Snow, up, filling his ears with the sweet hymns of
redemption, the promise of Paradise for the thieves and murderers who
acknowledged His splendor and fought His fight. This marvelous charity,
the cleansing hope for his blackened soul, swept over him in a warm
rush of humble praise and unutterable gratitude. Nothing of the Lord's
was lost: “His eye is on the sparrow.”
“Certainly, lay off your coat,” Bella was urging; “it's fierce hot.
Lem can rush a can of beer from the hotel. Even he wouldn't go to turn
out one of the crowd in a hard fix. I'm awful glad you saw him.”
With June Bowman in his house, engaged in verbal agreements with
Bella and spreading comfortably on a chair, Lemuel was powerless. AH
his instinct pressed him to send the other on, to refuse—in the
commonest self-preservation—shelter. But both the laws of his old life
and the commands of the new were against this act of simple precaution.
Bowman eyed him with a shrewd appraisement.
“A clever fellow,” he said, nodding; “admire you for coming out here
for a while. Well, how about the suds?”
He produced a thick roll of yellow-backed currency and detached a
small bill. “I'll finance this campaign.”
Lemuel Doret was confused by the rapidity with which the discredited
past was re-created by Bowman's mere presence. He was at the point of
refusing to fetch the beer when he saw that there was no explanation
possible; they would regard him as merely crabbed, and Bella would
indulge her habit of shrill abuse. It wasn't the drink itself that
disturbed him but the old position of “rushing the can”—a symbol of so
much that he had left forever. Forever; he repeated the word with a
silent bitter force. The feel of the kettle in his hand, the thin odor
of the beer and slopping foam, seemed to him evidences of acute
degeneration; he was oppressed by a mounting dejection. God seemed very
His wife was talking while Bowman listened with an air of
“It wasn't so bad then,” she said; “I was kind of glad to get away,
and Lem was certain everything would open right out. But he's awful
hard to do with; he wouldn't take a dollar from parties who had every
right to stake him good, and borrowed five from no more than a stranger
to buy that secondhand barber chair. What he needed was chloroform to
separate these farmers from their dimes and whiskers.” Bowman laughed
loudly, and a corresponding color invaded Bella. “Of course no one knew
Lem had done time, then. They wouldn't have either, but for the Law and
Order. Oh, dear me, no, your child ain't none of your own; they lend it
to you like and then sneak up whenever the idea takes them, to see if
it's getting a Turkish bath. I guess the people on the street wondered
who was our swell automobile friend till they found out.”
“I suppose,” Bowman put in, “they all came round and offered you the
helping hand, wanted to see you happy and successful.”
She laughed. “Them?” she demanded. “Them? The man that owns this
house said that if he'd known, Lem would never had it; they don't want
convicts in this town. This is a moral burg. That's more than the women
said to me though—the starved buzzards; if they've spoke a word to me
since I never heard it.” Her voice rose in sharp mimicry: “You, Katie,
come right up on the porch, child! Don't you know—! See, I'm going
“I could have warned you of all that,” June Bowman asserted; “for
the reason they're narrow, don't know anything about living or affairs;
hypocritical too; long on churchgoing——”
Doret regarded him solemnly. How blind he was, a mound of
corruptible flesh! He put the beer down and turned abruptly away, going
up to Flavilla. She seemed better; her face was white but most of the
fever had gone. He listened to her harsh breathing with the conviction
that she had caught a cold; and immediately after he was back from the
store with a bottle of cherry pectoral. She liked the sweet taste of
the thick bright-pink sirup and was soon quiet. Lemuel sniffed the
mouth of the bottle suspiciously. It was doped, he finally decided, but
not enough to hurt her; tasting it, a momentary desire for stinging
liquor ran like fire through his nerves. He laughed at it, crushing and
throwing aside the longing with a sense of contempt and triumph.
He could hear occasionally Bowman's smooth periods and his wife's
eager enjoyment of the discourse. His sense of worldly loneliness
deepened; Flavilla seemed far away. All life was inexplicable—yes, and
profitless, ending in weariness and death. The hunger for perfection,
for God, that had been a constant part of his existence, the longing
for peace and security, were almost unbearable. He had had a long
struggle; the devil was deeply rooted in him. He could laugh at the
broken tyranny of drugs and drink, but the passion for fine steel
cutting edges was different, and twisted into every fiber. The rage
that even yet threatened to flood him, sweeping away his painfully
erected integrity, was different too. These things had made him a
“... not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
He had a sudden muddled vision of another world, a world where
sturdy men gave him their hands and in reality fulfilled June Bowman's
mocking words. There the houses, the streets of his youth would have
been impossible. Ah, he was thinking of another kind of heaven; it was
a hop dream.
There was a stir below and he heard the clatter of plates. Dinner
was in preparation. “Lem!” his wife called. “Mr. Bowman wants you to go
to the butcher's.”
“Call me June,” he put in; adding: “Sure, Lem; the butcher's; we
want a tenderloin, cut thick. You can't get any pep on greens; we ain't
Doret felt that he would have been infinitely happier with his own
thin fare. In a manner he got comfort from a pinch of hunger; somehow
the physical deprivation gave him a sense of purification. The other
man, purple with the meat and beer, shook out a cigarette from a paper
“Always smoke caporal halves,” he proclaimed.
The blue vapor from the three burning cigarettes rose and mingled.
Bella was quiet, reflective; Bowman sat with half-shut speculative
eyes; Lemuel Doret was again lost in visions.
“How long are you taking the milk cure?” Bowman asked.
Lemuel made no reply, but his wife smiled bitterly.
“I had an idea,” the other continued; “but it's a little soon to
spring anything. And I don't know but you might prefer it here.”
“Try me,” Bella proclaimed; “that's all I want!”
Doret still said nothing of his determination to conquer life in
Nantbrook. A swift impulse seized him to take June Bowman by the collar
and fling him into the street.
“Just try me!” Bella repeated.
He would be helpless in his, Doret's, hands. It was hard enough to
be upright without an insinuating crook in the place. There was a heavy
movement of feet in the front of the house, and he went out to meet a
Sliding the sensitive razor blade over a young tanned cheek he
pondered moodily on the undesirable fact of June Bowman.
Returning from this exercise of his trade he saw Bella descending
the stair with a plate.
“With all your going on over Flavilla,” she told him, “it never came
to you that she'd like a piece of steak.”
“But Doctor Frazee told us nothing solid. I took her up two eggs in
“Yes, and you'd had two dollars to pay as well if I hadn't showed
you different. Flavilla's probably as well as any of us. I wish you
would fix yourself a little, Lem. I'm tired of having you about the
house in your suspenders.”
He viewed her silently. Bella had on a dress he had never seen
before, thin red-spotted yellow silk drawn tightly over a pronounced
figure, a red girdle, and high-heeled patent-leather slippers.
“If you're going to look like this,” he admitted, “I'll have to get
a move on.”
When they were first in Nantbrook she had worn a denim apron, and
that, too, with all the other differences had seemed to express their
new life; but now in yellow silk she was back in the old. Lemuel Doret
studied his wife with secret doubt; more than the dress had changed.
She seemed younger; rather she was adopting a younger manner. In the
presence of June Bowman it intensified.
“That idea I spoke about,” the latter advanced: “I've been sizing
you up, the both of you, and you look good. Well, I've got hold of a
concession on the Atlantic Boardwalk and the necessary cash is in
sight.” He turned to Lemuel. “How would you like to run a bowling game?
It's on the square and would give you a lead into something bigger.
You're wise; why, you might turn into a shore magnate, with Bella here
dressed up in stones.”
Doret shook his head. “Treasure on earth,” he thought; “moth and
rust.” But it would be hopeless to attempt any explanation. “No,” he
said; “we'll play it out here.”
“We will?” Bella echoed him. “Indeed! We will?” Now the emphasis was
sharply on the first word. “What's going to keep me?”
“You're my wife,” he replied simply; “we have a child.”
“Times have changed, Snow,” Bowman interrupted. “You ought to read
the papers. This is ladies' day. The old harem stuff don't go no
longer. They are emancipated.”
“Lemuel,” Doret insisted, a narrowed hard gaze on the other man;
“He thinks nobody'll remember,” his wife explained. “Lem's
“Your name's what you say,” Bowman agreed, “but remember this—you
can't throw any scare into me. I'm no Fauntleroy, neither. Behave.”
The anger seethed again beneath Lemuel's restraint. It began to be
particular, personal, focused on Bowman; and joined to it was a petty
dislike for the details of the man's appearance, the jaunty bearing and
conspicuous necktie, the gloss of youth over the unmistakable signs of
degeneration, the fatty pouches of his eyes and loose throat.
“I wouldn't bother with scaring you,” he told him. “Why should I?
You've got no kick. I took you in, didn't I? And all I said was my
name. Snow Doret's dead; he died in prison; and this Lemuel's all
“I've heard about that too,” Bowman returned; “but somehow I don't
take stock in these miracles.”
“If you ever see me looking like I might be Snow, go quiet,” Lemuel
advised. “That's all.”
With clenched hands he abruptly departed. The cords of his neck were
swollen and rigid; there was a haze before his eyes. He went up to the
refuge of his daughter's room. She was lying still, breathing thickly,
with a finger print of scarlet on each cheek.
She was so thin, so wasted, the bed and room so stripped of every
comfort, that he dropped forward on his knees, his arms outflung across
her body in an inarticulate prayer for faith, for strength and
It was not much he wanted—only food for one child and help for a
woman, and a grip on the devil tearing at him in the form of hatred.
He got only a temporary relief, for when he went down Bella and June
Bowman were whispering together; he passed the door with his silent
tread and saw their heads close. Bella was actually pretty.
An astonishing possibility occurred to him—perhaps Bella would go
away with Bowman. An unbidden deep relief at such a prospect invaded
him; how happy he could be with Flavilla. They would get a smaller
house, which Flavilla would soon learn to keep for him; they would go
to church and prayer meeting together, her soprano voice and his bass
joined in the praise of the Lord, of the Almighty who raised the dead
and his Son, who took the thief to glory.
This speculation was overcome by a troubled mind; both his innate
pride in his wife as an institution of his honor, the feeling that he
would uphold it at any cost, and his Christianity interrupted the
vision of release. He must not let her stumble, and he would see that
June Bowman didn't interfere in his home. More beer made its
appearance, and the other man grew louder, boastful. He exhibited the
roll of money—that was nothing, four times that much could be had from
the same source. He was a spender, too, and treated all his friends
liberally. Lemuel was to see if there was any wine in the damned
jumping-off place; and when would they all go to Atlantic?
“Never,” Doret repeated.
Bowman laughed skeptically.
The rage stirred and increased, blinding Lemuel Doret's heart,
stinging his eyes. Bella, watching him, became quieter, and she gave
June—she called him June—a warning pressure of her fingers. Her
husband saw it with indifference; everything small was lost in the hot
tide enveloping him. His hands twitched, but there was no other outward
sign of his tumult. He smoked his cigarettes with extreme deliberation.
It was evening again, and they were sitting on the narrow porch. The
west was a serene lake of fading light against which the trees made
dark blots of foliage. Nantbrook seemed unreal, a place of thin shadow,
the future unsubstantial as well; only the past was actual in Lemuel
Doret's mind—the gray cold prison, the city at night, locked rooms
filled with smoke and lurid lights, avaricious voices in the mechanical
sentences of gambling, agonized tones begging for a shot, just a shot,
of an addicted drug, a girl crying.
He tried to sing a measure of praise beneath his breath but the tune
and words evaded him. He glanced furtively at Bowman's complacent bulk,
the flushed face turned fatuously to Bella. Under the other's left arm
his coat was drawn smoothly on a cushion of fat.
Later Lemuel stopped at Flavilla's bed, and though she was composed
he was vaguely alarmed at what seemed to him an unreal rigidity. She
was not asleep, but sunk in a stupor with a glimmer of vision and an
elusive pulse. He should not have listened to Bella but had a doctor as
Frazee had advised. It appeared now that—with all Flavilla held for
him—he had been strangely neglectful. At the same time he was
conscious of the steady increase of his hatred for Bowman. This was
natural, he told himself; Bowman in a way was the past—all that he,
Doret, had put out of his life. At least he had believed that
accomplished, yet here it was back again, alive and threatening;
drinking beer in his rooms, whispering to his wife, putting the thought
of Flavilla from his head.
In the morning even Bella admitted that Flavilla might be sick and a
doctor necessary. He took one look at his daughter's burning face,
heard the shrill labor of her breathing, and hurried downstairs with a
set face. He was standing with Bella in the hall when June Bowman
“Flavilla ain't right,” she told him.
The latter promptly exhibited the wad of money. “Whatever you need,”
“Put it away,” Lemuel replied shortly. “I don't want any of that for
Bowman studied him. Doret made no effort to mask his bitterness, and
the other whistled faintly. Bella laughed, turning from her husband.
“He's cracked,” she declared; “you'll get no decency off him. A body
would think I had been in jail and him looking out for her all those
ten years and more. I can say thank you, though; we'll need your help,
“Put it away,” Lemuel Doret repeated. He was more than ever catlike,
alert, bent slightly forward with tense fingers.
Bowman was unperturbed. “I told you about this flash stuff,” he
observed. “Nobody's forcing money on you. Get the bend out of you and
give me a shave. That'll start you on the pills.”
Lemuel Doret mechanically followed him into the rude barber shop; he
was fascinated by the idea of laying the razor across Bowman's throat.
The latter extended himself in the chair and Doret slowly, thoroughly,
covered his lower face with lather, through which the blade drew with a
clean smooth rip. A fever burned in the standing man's brain, he fought
constantly against a stiffening of his employed fingers—a swift turn,
a cutting twist. Subconsciously he called noiselessly upon the God that
had sustained him and, divided between apprehension and the increasing
lust to kill, his lips held the form in which they had pronounced that
impressive name. He had the sensation of battling against a terrific
wind, a remorseless force beating him to submission. His body ached
from the violence of the struggle to keep his hand steadily, evenly,
busied, following in a delicate sweep the cords of June Bowman's neck,
The other looked up at him and grinned confidently. “Little
children,” he said, “love one another.”
Lemuel stopped, the razor suspended in air; there was a din in his
ears, his vision blurred, his grip tightened on the bone handle. A
sweat started out on his brow and he found himself dabbing June
Bowman's face with a wet cold towel.
“Witch hazel?” he asked mechanically.
Suddenly he was so tired that his legs seemed incapable of support.
He wiped the razor blade and put it away with a lax nerveless hand. He
realized that he had been again at the point of murder. He had been
saved by the narrowest margin in the world. For a moment the fact that
he had been saved absorbed him, and then the imminent danger of his
position, his weakness, filled him with the sense of failure, a heavy
feeling of hopelessness. His prayers and singing, his plans for
redemption, for a godly life, had threatened to end at the first
assault of evil.
He temporarily overcame his dejection at the memory of Flavilla.
Doctor Markley lived in a larger town than Nantbrook, a dozen miles
beyond the fields and green hills, and he must get him by telephone.
Then there was the problem of payment. The doctor, he knew, would
expect his fee, two dollars, immediately from such an applicant as
himself; and he had less than a dollar. He explained something of this
over the wire, adding that if Markley would see Flavilla at the end of
the day the money would be forthcoming. That, the crisp, disembodied
tone replied, was impossible; he must call in the middle of the
morning, but no difficulty would be made about his bill; Doret could
send the amount to him promptly.
He hurried back to the house with this information, and found Bella
seated in the kitchen, the inevitable cigarette throwing up its ribbon
of smoke from her fingers, and June Bowman at her shoulder. Lemuel
ignored the latter.
“The doctor'll be here at about eleven,” he announced. “Mind you
listen to all he says and get Flavilla into a clean nightgown and
“What's the matter with your tending to her?” Bella demanded.
“I won't be here; not till night. I'm going to put up hay with one
of the farmers. I hear they're in a hurry and offering good money.”
Bella's expression was strange. She laughed in a forced way.
“We got to hand it to you,” Bowman admitted genially; “you're there.
I guess I'd starve before ever it would come to me to fork hay.”
Lemuel's wife added nothing; her lips twisted into a fixed smile at
once defiant and almost tremulous. Well, he was late now; he couldn't
linger to inquire into Bella's moods. Yet at the door he hesitated
again to impress on her the importance of attending the doctor's every
It seemed to him an hour later that he was burning up in a dry
intolerable haze of sun and hay. He awkwardly balanced heavy ragged
forkfuls, heaving them onto the mounting stack of the wagon in a paste
of sweat and dust. His eyes were filmed and his throat dry. He
struggled on in the soft unaccustomed tyranny of the grass, the glare
of sun, with his mind set on the close of day. He thought of cool
shadows, of city streets wet at night, and a swift plunge into a river
where it swept about the thrust of a wharf. He wondered what Doctor
Markley would say about Flavilla; probably the child wasn't seriously
The day drew apparently into a tormenting eternity; the physical
effort he welcomed; it seemed to exhaust that devil in him which had so
nearly betrayed and ruined him forever in the morning; but the shifting
slippery hay, the fiery dust, the incandescent blaze created an inferno
in the midst of which his mind whirled with monotonous giddy images and
half-meaningless phrases spoken and re-spoken. Yet the sun was not, as
he had begun to suppose, still in the sky; it sank toward the horizon,
the violet shadows slipped out from the western hills, and Lemuel
finished his toil in a swimming gold mist. It was two miles to
Nantbrook, and disregarding his aching muscles he hurried over the gray
undulating road. The people of the village were gathered on their
commanding porches, the barkeeper at the hotel bulked in his doorway.
The lower part of Lemuel's own house was closed; no one appeared as he
mounted the insecure steps.
“Bella!” he cried in an overwhelming anxiety before he reached the
There was no reply. He paused inside and called again. His voice
echoed about the bare walls; he heard a dripping from the kitchen sink;
“I'd better go up,” he said aloud with a curious tightening of his
throat. He progressed evenly up the stairs; suddenly a great weight
seemed to bow his shoulders; the illusion was so vivid that he actually
staggered; he was incapable of breaking from his measured progress. He
turned directly into Flavilla's room. She was there—he saw her at
once. But Bella hadn't put a fresh nightgown on her, and the sheets
were disordered and unchanged.
Lemuel took a step forward; then he stopped. “The fever's gone,” he
vainly told the dread freezing about his heart at a stilled white face.
“Yes,” he repeated with numb lips; “it's gone.”
He approached the bed and standing over it and the meager body he
cursed softly and wonderingly. The light was failing and it veiled the
sharp lines of the dead child's countenance. For a moment his gaze
strayed about the room and he felt a swift sorrow at its ugliness. He
had wanted pretty things, pictures and a bright carpet and ribbons, for
Flavilla. Then he was conscious of a tearing rage, but now he was
unmindful of it, impervious to its assault in the fixed necessity of
He was sitting again on his porch, after the momentary morbid stir
of curiosity and small funeral, when the unrestrained sweep of his own
emotion overcame him. His appearance had not changed; it was impossible
for his expression to become bleaker; but there was a tremendous change
within. Yet it was not strange; rather he had the sensation of
returning to an old familiar condition. There he was at ease; he moved
swiftly, surely forward in the realization of what lay ahead.
Bella and June Bowman had left the house almost directly after him,
and Markley, finding it empty, with no response to his repeated
knocking, had turned away, being as usual both impatient and hurried.
Yes, Bella had gone and left Flavilla without even a glass of water.
But Bella didn't matter. He couldn't understand this—except where he
saw at last that she never had mattered; yet it was so. June Bowman was
There was no rush about the latter—to-morrow, next week would do
equally. There was no doubt either. Lemuel Doret gave a passing
thought, like a half-contemptuous gesture of final dismissal, to so
much that had lately occupied him. The shadow of a smile disfigured his
The following noon he shut the door of his house with a sharp impact
and made his way over the single street of Nantbrook toward the city.
His fear of it had vanished; and when he reached the steel-bound
towering masonry, the pouring crowds, he moved directly to a theater
from which an audience composed entirely of men was passing out by the
posters of a hectic burlesque.
“Clegett?” he asked at the grille of the box office.
A small man with a tilted black derby came from the darkened
“Where have you been?” he demanded as he caught sight of Lemuel
Doret. “I asked two or three but you might have been dead for all of
“That's just about what I have,” Doret answered. “Mr. Clegett, I'd
like a little money.”
“A hundred would be plenty.”
The other without hesitation produced a fold of currency, from which
he transferred an amount to Lemuel Doret. It went into his pocket
without a glance. He hesitated a moment, then added: “This will be
Clegett nodded. “It might, and it might not,” he asserted; “but you
can't jam me. You're welcome to that, anyhow. It was coming to you. I
wondered when you'd be round.”
It was not far from the theater to a glittering hardware store, a
place that specialized in sporting goods. There were cases of fishing
reels, brilliant tied flies and varnished, gayly wrapped cane rods,
gaffs and coiled wire leaders, and an impressive assortment of modern
pistols, rifles and shotguns.
“Something small and neat,” Doret told the man in charge of the
He examined a compact automatic pistol, a blunted shape no larger
than his palm. It was a beautiful mechanism, and as with his silken
razors, merely to hold it, to test the smooth action, gave him a sense
Later, seated in a quiet cafe, an adjunct of the saloon below, he
could not resist the temptation of taking the pistol in its rubber
holster from his pocket, merely to finger the delicate trigger. There
was no hurry. He knew his world thoroughly: it was a small land in
which the inhabitants had constant knowledge of each other. A question
in the right place would bring all the information he needed. Lemuel
was absolutely composed, actually he was a little sleepy; longing and
inner strife, dreams, were at an end; only an old familiar state, a
thoroughly comprehensible purpose remained.
A girl—she could have been no more than fourteen—was hurriedly
slipping a paper of white crystalline powder into a glass of
sarsaparilla. She smiled at him as she saw his indifferent
“It's better rolled with a pencil first,” he said, and then returned
to the contemplation of his own affair.
The result of this was that, soon after, he was seated in the
smoking car of an electric train that, hurtling across a sedgy green
expanse of salt meadow, deposited him in a colorful thronging city
built on sand and the rim of the sea. It was best to avoid if possible
even a casual inquiry, and Bowman had spoken of Atlantic City. The
afternoon was hot and bright, the beach was still dotted with groups of
bathers; and Lemuel Doret found an inconspicuous place in a row of
swing chairs protected by an awning ... where he waited for evening.
Below him a young woman lay contentedly with her head in a youth's lap;
a child in a red scrap of bathing suit dug sturdily with an ineffectual
The day declined, the water darkened and the groups vanished from
the beach. An attendant was stacking the swing chairs, and Lemuel Doret
left his place. The boardwalk, elevated above him, was filled with a
gay multitude, subdued by the early twilight and the brightening lemon-yellow radiance of the strung globes. Drifting, with only his gaze
alert, in the scented mob, he stopped at an unremarkable lunch room for
coffee, and afterward turned down a side avenue to where some
automobiles waited at the curb. A driver moved from his seat as Lemuel
approached, but after a closer inspection the former's interest died.
Doret lighted a cigarette. “How are they hitting you?” he asked
“Bad; but the season ain't opened up right yet. It'll have to soon,
though, if they want me; gas has gone to where it's like shoving
champagne into your car.”
“The cafes doing anything?”
“None except the Torquay; but the cabaret they got takes all the
profits. That's on the front. Then there's the World, back of the town.
It's colored, but white go. Quite a place—I saw a sailor come out last
night hashed with a knife.”
He found the Torquay, a place of brilliant illumination and color,
packed with tables about a dancing floor, and small insistent
orchestra. He sat against the wall by the entrance, apparently sunk in
apathy, but his vision searched the crowd like the cutting bar of light
thrown on the intermittent singers. He renewed his order. Toward
midnight a fresh influx of people swept in; his search was unsatisfied.
The cigarette girl, pinkly pretty with an exaggerated figure,
carrying a wooden tray with her wares, stopped at his gesture.
“Why don't you hang that about your neck with something?” he
“And get round shouldered!” she demanded. Her manner became
confidential. “I do get fierce tired,” she admitted; “nine till two-thirty.”
He asked for a particular brand of cigarette.
“We haven't got them.” She studied him with a memorizing frown.
“They are hardly ever asked for; and now—yes, there was a man, last
night, I think——”
“He must have made an impression.”
“Another move and I'd slapped him if I lost my job. They got to be
some fresh when they disturb me, too.”
“That's right. Wanted me to meet him, and showed me a roll of money.
Me!” her contempt sharpened.
“He was young?”
“Young nothing, with gray in his shoebrush mustache.”
By such small things, Lemuel Doret reflected, the freshness that had
fixed June Bowman in the girl's memory, men were marked and followed.
“I told him,” she volunteered further, “he didn't belong on the
boardwalk but in the rough joints past the avenue.”
Paying for his drink Doret left the Torquay; and following the
slight pressure of two suggestions and a faint possibility he found
himself in a sodden dark district where a red-glass electric sign
proclaimed the entrance to the World. An automobile stopped and a
chattering group of young colored girls in sheer white with vivid
ribbons, accompanied by sultry silent negroes, preceded him into the
cafe. He was met by a brassy racket and a curiously musty heavy air.
The room was long and narrow, and on one wall a narrow long platform
was built above the floor for the cabaret. There was a ledge about the
other walls the width of one table, and below that the space was
crowded by a singular assembly. There were women faintly bisque in
shade, with beautiful regular features, and absolute blacks with
flattened noses and glistening eyes in burning red and green muslins.
Among them were white girls with untidy bright-gold hair, veiled gaze
and sullen painted lips; white men sat scattered through the darker
throng, men like Lemuel Doret, quiet and watchful, others laughing
carelessly, belligerent, and still more sunk in a stupor of drink.
Perhaps ten performers occupied the stage, and at one end was the
hysterical scraping on strings, the muffled hammered drums, that
furnished the rhythm for a slow intense waltz.
Yet in no detail was the place so marked as by an indefinable
oppressive atmosphere. The strong musk and edged perfumes, the races,
distinct and subtly antagonistic or mingled and spoiled, the rasping
instruments, combined in an unnatural irritating pressure; they
produced an actual sensation of cold and staleness like that from the
air of a vault.
Doret ordered beer in a bottle, and watched the negro waitress snap
off the cap. He had never seen a cafe such as this before, and he was
engaged, slightly; its character he expressed comprehensively in the
A wonderfully agile dancer caught the attention of the room. The
musicians added their voices to the jangle, and the minor half-inarticulate wail, the dull regular thudding of the bass drum were
savage. The song fluctuated and died; the dancer dropped exhausted into
Then Lemuel saw June Bowman. He was only a short distance away,
and— without Bella—seated alone but talking to the occupants of the
next table. Lemuel Doret was composed. In his pocket he removed the
automatic pistol from its rubber case. Still there was no hurry—Bowman
was half turned from him, absolutely at his command. The other twisted
about, his glance swept the room, and he recognized Doret. He half rose
from his chair, made a gesture of acknowledgment that died before
Lemuel's stony face, and sank back into his place. Lemuel saw Bowman's
hand slip under his coat, but it came out immediately; the fingers
drummed on the table.
The careless fool—he was unarmed.
There was no hurry; he could make one, two steps at Bowman's
slightest movement.... Lemuel thought of Flavilla deserted, dying alone
with a parched mouth, of all that had gone to wreck in the evil that
had overtaken him—the past that could not, it appeared, be killed. Yet
where Bowman was the past, it was nearly over. He'd finish the beer
before him, that would leave some in the bottle, and then end it. With
the glass poised in his hand he heard an absurd unexpected sound.
Looking up he saw that it came from the platform, from a black woman in
pale-blue silk, a short ruffled skirt and silver-paper ornaments in her
tightly crinkled hair. She was singing, barely audibly:
“Oh, children ... lost in Egypt
See that chariot....
... good tidings!”
Even from his table across the room he realized that she was sunk in
an abstraction; her eyes were shut and her body rocking in beat to the
“Good tidings,” she sang.
A negro close beside Doret looked up suddenly, and his voice joined
in a humming undertone, “See that chariot, oh, good tidings ... that
A vague emotion stirred within Lemuel Doret, the singing annoyed
him, troubled him with memories of perishing things. Another joined,
and the spiritual swelled slightly, haltingly above the clatter of
glasses and laughter. The woman who had begun it was swept to her feet;
she stood with her tinsel gayety of apparel making her tragic ebony
face infinitely grotesque and tormented while her tone rose in a clear
“Children of Israel, unhappy slaves,
Good tidings, good tidings,
For that chariot's coming,
God's chariot's coming, ... coming,
........... chariot out of Egypt.”
The magic of her feeling swept like a flame over the room; shrill
mirth, mocking calls, curses were bound in a louder and louder volume
of hope and praise. The negroes were on their feet, swaying in the
hysterical contagion of melody, the unutterable longing of their alien
“God's chariot's coming.” The song filled the roof, hung with bright
strips of paper, it boomed through the windows and doors. Sobbing cries
cut through it, profound invocations, beautiful shadowy voices chimed
above the weight of sound.
It beat like a hammer on Lemuel Doret's brain and heart. Suddenly he
couldn't breathe, and he rose with a gasp, facing the miracle that had
overtaken the place he called bad. God's chariot—was there! He heard
God's very tone directed at him. Borne upward on the flood of
exaltation he seemed to leave the earth far, far away. Something hard,
frozen, in him burst, and tears ran over his face; he was torn by fear
and terrible joy. His Lord....
He fell forward on his knees, an arm overturning the bottle of beer;
and, his sleeve dabbled in it, he pressed his head against the cold
edge of the table, praying wordlessly for faith, incoherently ravished
by the marvel of salvation, the knowledge of God here, everywhere.
The harmony wavered and sank, and out of the shuddering silence that
followed Lemuel Doret turned again from the city.