Pain by Rupert Hughes
How much more bitter, dearly beloved, are the anguishes of the soul
than any mere bodily distress! When the heart under conviction of sin
for the violation of one of God's laws writhes and cries aloud in
repentance and remorse, then, ah, then, is true suffering. What are the
fleeting torments of this tenement of clay, mere bone and flesh, to the
soul's despair? Nothing! Noth
The clergyman's emphatic fist did not thump the Scriptures the
second time. He checked it in air; for a woman stood up straight and
stared at him straight. Her thin mouth seemed to twist with a sneer. He
thought he read on her lips words not quite uttered. He read:
You fool! You fool!
Then Miss Straley sidled from the family pew to the aisle and
marched up it and out of the church.
Doctor Crosson was shocked doubly. The woman's action was an outrage
upon the holy composure of the Sabbath, and it would remind everybody
that he was an old lover of Irene Straley's.
The neatly arranged congregational skulls were disordered now, some
still tilted forward in sleep, some tilted back to see what the pastor
would do, some craned round to observe the departer, some turned inward
in whispering couples.
Such a thing had never happened before in all the parsoning of
Doctor Crossonthe D.D. had been conferred on him by the small
theological institute where he had imbibed enough dogmas in two years
to last him a lifetime.
Some of his dogmas were so out of fashion that he felt them a trifle
shabby even for village wear. He had laid aside the old red hell-fire
dogma for a new one of hell-as-a-state-of-mind. He was expounding that
doctrine this morning again. He had never heard any complaint of it.
But his mind was so far from his memory that he hardly knew what he had
just uttered. He wondered what he could have said to offend Miss
But he must not stand there gaping and wondering before his gaping
and wondering congregation. He must push on to his lastly's. His
mind retraced his words, and he repeated:
What are the fleeting torments of this tenement of clay, mere bone
and flesh, to the soul's despair? Nothing! As I said beforenothing!
And then he understood why Irene Straley had walked out. The
realization deranged him so that only the police-force every one has
among his faculties coerced him into going on with his sermon.
It was a good sermon. It was his own, too; for at last he had paid
the final instalment on the clergyman's library which contained a
thousand sermons as aids to overworked, underinspired evangelists. He
had built this discourse from well-seasoned timbers. He had used it in
two pulpits where he had visited, and now he was giving it to his own
flock. He knew it well enough to trust his oratorical machinery with
its delivery, while the rest of his mind meditated other things.
Often, while preaching, a portion of his brain would be watching the
effect on his congregation, another watching the clock, another
thinking of dinner, another musing over the scandals he knew in the
lives of the parishioners.
But now all his by-thoughts were scattered at the abrupt deed of
Irene Straley. She was the traffic of his other brains now, while his
lips went on enouncing the phrases of his discourse and his fists
thudded the Bible for emphasis. He was remembering his boyhood and his
infatuation for Irene Straley. That was before he was sure of his call
to the ministry. If he had married her, he might not have heard the
Doctor Crosson hoped that he was not regretting that sacrament!
Sweat came out on his brow as he understood the blasphemy of noting
(even here on the rostrum with his mouth pouring forth sacred
eloquence) that Irene Straley as she marched out of the church was
still slender and flexile, virginal. Doctor Crosson mopped his brow at
the atrocity of his thoughts this morning. The springtime air was to
blame. The windows were open for the first time. The breeze that lolled
through the church had no right there. It was irreverent and frivolous.
It was amused at the people. It rippled with laughter at the preacher's
heavy effort to start a jealousy between the pangs of the flesh and the
pangs of the soul.
It brought into church a savor of green rushes growing in the warm,
wet thickets where Doctor Crossononce Eddie Crossonhad loved to go
hunting squirrels and rabbits, and wild duck in season. Those were
years of depravity, but they were entrancing in memory. He felt a
Satanic whisper: Order these old fogies out into the fields and let
them worship there. It is May, you fool!
You fool! That was what Irene Straley had seemed to whisper. Only,
the breeze made a soft, sweet coo of the word that had been so bitter
on her lips.
Across the square of a window near the pulpit a venerable
locust-tree brandished a bough dripping with blossoms. Countless little
censers of white spice swung frankincense and myrrh for pagan nostrils.
There was a beckoning in the locust bough, and in the air an
incantation that made a folly of sermons and souls and old maids'
resentments and gossips' queries. The preacher fought on, another Saint
Anthony in a cloud of witches.
He could hear himself intoning the long sermon with the familiar
pulpiteering rhythms and the final upsnap of the last syllable of each
sentence. He could see that the congregation was already drowsily
forgetful of Irene Straley's absence. But, to save his soul, he could
not keep his mind from following her out into the leafy streets and on
into the past where she had been the prize he and young Drury Boldin
had contended fora past in which he had never dreamed that his future
was a pulpit in his home town.
He was the manlier of the two, for Drury was a delicate boy, too
sensitive for the approval of his Spartan fellows. They made fun of his
gentleness. He hated to wreathe a fishing-worm on a hook! He loathed to
wrench a hook from a fish's gullet! The nearest he had ever come to
fighting was in defense of a thousand-legged worm that one of the boys
had stuck a pin through, to watch it writhe and bite itself behind the
Irene Straley was a sentimental girl. That was right in a girl, but
silly in a boy.
Once when Eddie Crosson stubbed his toe and it swelled up to great
importance, Irene Straley wept when she saw it, while Drury Boldin
turned pale and sat down hard. Once when Drury cut his thumb with a
penknife he fainted at the sight of his own blood!
Eddie Crosson was a real boy. He smoked cubeb cigarettes with an
almost unprecedented precocity. He nearly learned to chew tobacco. He
could snap a sparrow off a telegraph-wire with a nigger-shooter almost
infallibly. He had the first air-gun in town and a shot-gun at fifteen.
He thought that he was manlier than Drury because he was wiser and
stronger. It never occurred to him that Drury might suffer more because
he was more finely built, that his nerves were harp-strings while
Crosson's were fence-wire.
So Crosson called Drury a milksop because he would not go hunting.
He called himself one of the sons of Nimrod.
For a time he gained prestige with Irene Straley, especially as he
gave her bright feathers now and then, an oriole's gilded mourning, or
a tanager's scarlet vesture.
One day Drury Boldin was at her porch when Ed came in from across
the river with a brace of duck.
You can have these for your dinner to-morrow, Reny, he said, as he
laid the limp, silky bodies on the porch floor.
Their bills and feet were grotesque, but there was something about
their throats, stretched out in waning iridescence, that asked for
Oh, much obliged! Irene cried. That's awful nice of you, Eddie.
Duck cook awful good.
And then her enthusiasm ebbed, for she caught the look of Drury
Boldin as he bent down and stroked the glossy mantle of the birds, not
with zest for their flavor, nor envy of the skill that had fetched them
from the sky, but with sorrow for their ended careers, for the miracle
gone out of their wings, and the strange fact that they had once
quawked and chirruped in the high air and on hidden watersand would
never fly or swim again. I wonder if they had souls, he mumbled.
Eddie Crosson winked at Irene. There was no use getting mad at
Drury. Eddie only laughed:
'Course not, you darn galoot!
How do you know? Drury asked.
Anybody knows that much, was Crosson's sufficient answer, and
Drury changed to another topic. He asked:
Did it hurt 'em much to die?
'Course not, Eddie answered, promptly. Not the way I got 'em.
They just stopped sailin' and dropped. I lost one, though. He was goin'
like sixty when I drew bead on him. Light wasn't any too good and I
just nipped one wing. You ought to seen him turning somersets, Reny. He
lit in a swampy spot, though, and I couldn't find him. I hunted for an
hour or more, but I couldn't find him and it was growin' dark, so I
Drury spoke up quickly: You didn't kill him?
I don't guess so. He was workin' mighty hard when he flopped.
Oh, that's terrible! Drury groaned. He must be layin' out there
now somewheressufferin'. Oh, that's terrible!
Aw, what's it your business? was Crosson's gruff comment. But
there was uneasiness in his tone, for Drury had set Irene to wringing
her hands nervously, and Crosson felt a trifle uncomfortable himself.
Twilight always made him susceptible to emotions that daylight blinded
him to, as to the stars. He remembered that boyhood emotion now in his
pulpit, and his shoulder-blades twitched; an icy finger seemed to have
written something on them. He was casting up his eyes and his hands in
a familiar gesture and quoting a familiar text:
'Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from
the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and
under his wings shalt thou trust.'
From the roof of the church he seemed to see that wounded wild duck
falling, turning in air, striking at the air frantically with his good
wing and feebly with the one that bled. Down he fell, struggling
somewhere among the pews.
A fantastic notion drifted into the preacher's mindthat Satan had
shot up a bullet from hell and it had lodged among the feathers of
Jehovah the protector, and He was falling and lost among that
congregation in which so often the preacher had failed to find God.
Doctor Crosson shook his head violently to fling away such
madnesses, and he propounded his next furthermore with added energy.
But he could not shake off the torment in the recollection of Drury
Boldin's nagging interest in that wild duck.
Drury insisted on knowing where the wild duck fell, and Crosson told
him that it was near where the crick emptied into the sluice, where
the cat-tails grew extra high.
He went on home to his supper, but the thought of the suffering bird
had seized his mind; it flopped and twisted at the roots of his
A few days later Drury met him and asked him again where the duck
I can't find it where you said, he said.
You ain't been lookin' for it, have you?
Yes, for days.
What'd you do if you found it? Crosson asked.
Kill it, Drury answered. It was a most unexpectable phrase from
That sounds funny, comin' from you, Crosson snickered. Then he
spoke gruffly to conceal his own misgivings. Aw, it's dead long ago.
I'd feel better if I was sure, said Drury.
Crosson called him a natural-born idiot, but the next day Crosson
himself was across the river, dragged by a queer mood. He took his
bearings from the spot where he had fired his shot-gun and then made
toward the place where the duck fell.
He stumbled about in slime and snarl for an hour in vain. Suddenly
he was startled by the sound of something floundering through the
reeds. He was afraid that it might be a wild animal, a traditional bear
or a big dog. But it was Drury Boldin. And Irene Straley was with him.
They were covered with mud. Crosson was jealous and suspicious and
indignant. They told him that they were looking for the hurt bird. He
was furious. He advised them to go along about their own business. It
was his bird.
Who gave it to you? Drury answered, with a battling look in his
The Lord and my shot-gun.
What right you got to go shootin' wild birds, anyway? Drury
Crosson was even then devoted to the Bible for its majestic music,
if for nothing else. He quoted the phrase about the dominion over the
fowls of the air given to man for his use.
Drury would not venture to contradict the Scriptures, and so he
turned away silenced. But he continued his search. And Irene followed
In sullen humor Crosson also searched, till he heard Drury cry out;
then he ran to see what he had found.
Irene and Drury were shrinking back from something that even the son
of Nimrod regarded with disquiet. The duck, one wing caked and
festered, and busy with ants and adrone with flies, was still alive
after all those many days.
Its flat bill was opening and shutting in hideous awkwardness, its
hunger-emaciated frame rising and falling with a kind of lurching
breath, and the film over its eyes drawing together and rolling back
At the sight of the three visitors to its death-chamber it made a
hopeless effort to lift itself again to the air of its security. It
could not even lift its head.
Drury fell to one knee before it, and a swarm of flies zooned
angrily away. He put out his hand, but he was afraid to touch, and he
only added panic to the bird's wretchedness.
He rose and backed away. The three stood off and stared. Crosson
felt the guilt of Cain, but when Irene moaned, What you goin' to do?
he shook his head. He could not finish his task.
It was Drury Boldin, weak-kneed and putty-faced, who went hunting
now. He had to look far before he found a heavy rock. He lugged it back
and said, Go on away, Reny.
She hurried to a distance, and even Crosson turned his head aside.
On the way home they were all three tired and sick, and Drury had to
stop every now and then to sit down and get strength into his knees.
But there was a sense of grim relief that helped them all, and the
bird, once safely dead, was rapidly forgotten. After that Crosson
seemed to lose his place in Irene's heart, and Drury won all that
Crosson lost, and more. Before long it was understood that Drury and
Irene had agreed to get married as soon as he could earn enough to keep
them. All four parents opposed the match; Irene's because Drury was no
'count, and Drury's for much the same reason.
Old Boldin allowed that Irene would be added to his family, for
meals and lodgin', if she married his son; and old Straley guessed that
it would be the other way round, and the Boldin boy would come over to
his house to live.
Also, Drury could get no work in Carthage. Eventually he went to
Chicago to try his luck there. Crosson seized the chance to try to get
back to Irene. One Sunday he took his shot-gun out in the wilderness
and brought down a duck whose throat had so rich a glimmer that he
believed it would delight Irene. He took it to her.
She was out in her garden, and she looked at his gift with eyes so
hurt by the pity of the bird's drooping neck that they were blind to
While Crosson stood in sheepish dismay, recognizing that Drury was
present still in his absence, the minister appeared at his elbow. It
was not the wrecked career of the fowl that shocked the pastor, but the
It seems to me, Eddie, he said, that it is high time you were
beginning to take life seriously. Come to church to-night and make up
for your ungodliness.
Crosson consented. It was a good way of making his escape from
Irene's haunted eyes.
The service that night had little influence on his heart, but a
month later a revivalist came into Carthage with a great fanfare of
attack on the hosts of Lucifer. This man was an emotionalist of
irresistible fire. He reasoned less than he sang. His voice was as
thrilling as a trombone, and his words did not matter. It was his tone
that made the heart resound like a smitten bell.
The revivalist struck unsuspected chords of emotion in Eddie Crosson
and made him weep! But he wept tears of a different sort from the
waters of grief. His unusual tears were a tribute to eloquence.
Sonorous words and noble thoughts thrilled Eddie Crosson then as ever
He had loved to speak pieces at school. Whether it were Spartacus
exhorting his brawny slaves to revolt, or Daniel Webster upholding the
Union now and forever, one and inseparable, he had felt an exaltation,
an exultation that enlarged him to the clouds. He loved the phrase more
than the meaning. What was well worded was well reasoned.
His passion for elocution had inclined him at first to be a lawyer,
but when he visited the county courthouse the attorneys he listened to
had such dull themes to expound that he felt no call to the law. What
glory was there in pleading for the honor of an old darky chicken-thief
when everybody knew at once that he was guilty of stealing the chickens
in question, or would have been if he had known of their accessibility?
What rapture was there in insisting that a case in an Alabama court
eight years before furnished an exact precedent in the matter of a
mechanic's lien in Carthage?
So Crosson chilled toward the legal profession. His father urged him
to come into the Crosson hardware emporium, but Eddie hated the silent
trades. The revivalist decided him, and he began to make his heart
ready for the clerical life. His father opposed him heathenishly and
would not pay for his seminary course.
For several months Crosson waited about, becalmed in the doldrums.
There was little to interest him in town except a helpless espionage on
Irene's loyalty to Drury Boldin. Her troth defied both time and space.
She went every day to the post-office to mail a heavy letter and to
receive the heavy letter she was sure to find there.
She became a sort of tender joke at the post-office, and on the
street as well, for she always read her daily letter on the way home.
She would be so absorbed in the petty chronicles of Drury's life that
she would stroll into people and bump into trees, or fetch up short
against a fence. She sprained her ankle once walking off the walk. And
once she marched plump into the parson's horrified bosom.
Crosson often stood in ambush so that she would run into him. She
was very soft and delicate, and she usually had flowers pinned at her
Crosson would grin as she stumbled against him; then the lovelorn
girl would stare up at him through the haze of the distance her letter
had carried her to, and stammer excuses and fall back and blush, and
glide round him on her way. Crosson would laugh aloud, bravely, but
afterward he would turn and stare at her solemnly enough when she
resumed her letter and strolled on in the rosy cloud of her communion
with her far-off fellow.
One day Crosson had to run after her, because when she thought she
was turning into her own yard her absent mind led her to unlatch the
gate to a pasture where a muley cow with a scandalous temper was
waiting for her with swaying head.
Irene laughed at her escape, with an unusual mirth for her. She
explained it by seizing Crosson's sleeve and exclaiming:
Oh, Eddie, such good news from Drury you never heard! He's got a
position with a jewelry-store, the biggest in Chicago. And they put him
in the designing department at ten dollars a week, and they say he's
got a future. Isn't it simply glorious?
She held Crosson while she read the young man's hallelujahs. They
sounded to Crosson like a funeral address.
Irene's mother was even prouder of Drury's success than the daughter
was. She bragged now of the wedding she had dreaded before. Finally
Irene proclaimed the glorious truth that Drury's salary had been
boosted again and they would wait no longer for wealth. He was awful
busy, and so he'd just run down for a couple of days and marry her and
run back with her to Chicago and jewelry. This arrangement ended
Irene's mother's dreams of a fine wedding and relieved the townspeople
of the expense of wedding-presents.
The sudden announcement of the wedding shocked Crosson. He endured a
jealousy whose intensity surprised him in retrospect. He endured a good
deal of humor, too, from village cut-ups, who teased him because his
best girl was marrying the other fellow.
Crosson felt a need of solitude and a fierce desire to kill
something. He got his abandoned gun and went hunting to wear out his
wrath. He wore himself out, at least. He shot savagely at all sorts of
life. He followed one flitting, sarcastic blue-jay with a voice like a
village cut-up, all the way home without getting near enough to shoot.
He came down the long hill with the sunset, bragging to himself that
he was reconciled to Irene's marriage with anybody she'd a mind to.
He could see her from a distance, sitting on the porch alone. She
was all dressed up and rocking impatiently. Evidently the train was
late again, as always. From where he was, Crosson could see the track
winding around the hills like a little metal brook. The smoke of the
engine was not yet pluming along the horizon. The train could not
arrive for some minutes yet.
To prove his freedom from rancor and his emancipation from love, but
really because he could not resist the chance to have a last word with
Irene, he went across lots to her father's back yard and came round to
the porch. He forgot to draw the shells from his gun.
In the sunset, with his weapon a-shoulder, he must have looked a bit
wild, for Irene jumped when he spoke to her. He sought an excuse for
his visit and put at her feet the game he had baggeda squirrel, a
rabbit, and a few birdsthe last he ever shot.
The moment the dead things were there he regretted the impulse. He
was reminded of his previous quarry and its ill success. Irene was
reminded, too, for she thanked him timidly and asked if he had left any
wounded birds in the field. He laughed No with a poor grace.
She said: I'd better get these out of sight before Drury comes. He
doesn't like to see such things.
She lifted them distastefully and went into the house. She came out
almost at once, for she heard a train. But it was not the passenger
swooping south; it was the freight trudging north. There was only a
single track then, and no block system of signals.
Irene no sooner recognized the lumbering, jostling drove of
cattle-cars and flats going by than she gasped:
That freight ought not to be on that tracknow!
She was frozen with dread. Crosson understood, too. Then from the
distance came the whistle of the express, the long hurrah of its
approach to the station. The freight engineer answered it with short,
sharp blasts of his whistle. He kept jabbing the air with its noise.
There was the grind of the brakes on the wheels. The cars tried to
stop, like a mob, but the rear cars bunted the front cars forward
irresistibly. The cattle aboard lowed and bellowed. The brakemen,
quaint silhouettes against the red sky, ran along the tops of the
box-cars, twisting the brake-wheels.
Irene stumbled down the steps and dashed across the pastures toward
the jutting hill that she had so often seen the express sweep round.
They came to a fence. She could not climb, she was trembling so.
Crosson had to help her over. She ran on, and as he sprawled after, he
nearly discharged the gun.
He brought it along by habit as he followed Irene, who ran and ran,
waving her arms as if she would stop the express with her naked hands.
But long before they reached the tracks the express roared round the
headland and plunged into the freight. The two locomotives met and rose
up and wrestled like two black bears, and fell over. The cars were
scattered and jumbled like a baby's train. They were all of
woodheated by soft-coal stoves and lighted by coal-oil lamps.
The wreck was the usual horror, the usual chaos of wanton
destruction and mysterious escape. The engineers stuck to their engines
and were involved in their ruin somewhere. The passenger-train was
crowded, and destruction showed no favoritism: old men, women,
children, sheep, horses, cows, were maimed, or killed, or left
Some of those who were uninjured ran away. Some stood weeping. Some
of the wounded began at once to rescue others. Crosson stood gaping at
the spectacle, but Irene went into the wreckage, pawing and peering
like a terrier.
She could not find what she was looking for. She would bend and
stare into a face glaring under the timbers and maundering for help,
then pass on. She would turn over a twisted frame and let it roll back.
She was not a sister of charity; she was Drury Boldin's helpmeet.
She kept calling his name, DruryDruryDrury! Crosson watched
her as she poised to listen for the answer that did not come. He gaped
at her in stupid fascination till a brakeman shook him and ordered him
to lend a hand. He rested his gun against a pile of ties and bowed his
shoulder to the hoisting of a beam overhanging a woman and a suckling
The helpers dislodged other beams and finished the lives they had
meant to save.
There were no physicians on the train. But a doctor or two from the
town came out and the others were sent for. A telegram was sent to
summon a relief-train, but it could not arrive for hours.
The doctors began at the beginning, but they could do little. Their
own lives were in constant danger from tumbling wreckage, for the
rescuers were playing a game of tragic jackstraws. The least mistake
brought down disaster.
As he worked, Crosson could hear Irene calling, calling, Drury,
He left his task to follow her, his jealousy turned into a wild
sorrow for her.
At last he heard in her cry of Drury! a note that meant she had
found him. But such a welcome as it was for a bride to give! And such a
The car Drury was in had turned a somersault and cracked open across
another. Its inverted wheels on their trucks had made a bower of steel
about the bridegroom. The flames from the stove and from the oil-lamps
were blooming like hell-flowers everywhere. And the wind that fanned
the blazes was blowing clouds of scalding steam from the crumpled
boilers of the two engines.
Crosson ran to Irene's side. She was trying to clamber through a
trellis of iron and splintered wood. She was stretching her hand out to
Drury, where he lay unconscious, deep in the clutter. Crosson dragged
her away from a flame that swung toward her. She struck his hand aside
and thrust her body into the danger again.
Crosson, finding no water, began to shovel loose earth on the blaze
with a sharp plank from the side of a car. Finding that she could not
reach her lover, Irene turned and begged Crosson to run for help and
for the doctors.
He ran, but the doctors refused to leave the work they had in hand,
and the other men growled:
Everybody's got to take their turn.
Crosson ran back to Irene with the news. Drury had just emerged from
the merciful swoon of shock to the frenzies of his splintered bones,
lacerated flesh and blistered skin, and the threat of his infernal
The last exquisite fiendishness was the sight of his sweetheart as
witness to his agony, her face lighted up by the flames that were
ravening toward him, her hands hungering toward him, just beyond the
stretch of his one free arm.
Crosson heard the lovers murmur to each other across that little
abyss. He flung himself against the barriers like a madman. But his
hands were futile against the tangle of joists and hot steel.
Irene saw him working alone and asked him where the others were, and
They wouldn't come! Crosson groaned, ashamed of their ugly sense
The girl's face took on a look of grim ferocity. She said to
Your gunwhere is it?
He pointed to where he had left it. It had fallen to the ground.
She ran and seized it up, and holding it awkwardly but with menace,
advanced on a doctor who toiled with sleeves rolled high, and face and
beard and arms blotched with red grime.
She thrust the muzzle into his chest and spoke hoarsely:
Doctor Lane, you come with me.
I'm busy here, he growled, pushing the gun aside, hardly knowing
what it was.
She jammed it against his heart again and cried, Come with me or
I'll kill you!
He followed her, wondering rather than fearing, and she swept a
group of men with the weapon, and commanded, You men come, too. She
marched them to the spot where Drury was concealed, and pointed to him
and snarled, Get him out!
The men tested their strength here and there without promise of
success. One group started a heap of wheels to slewing downward and
Crosson shouted to them to stop. An inch more, and they would have
buried Drury from sight or hope.
One man wormed through somehow and caught Drury by the hand, but the
first tug brought from him such a wail of anguish that the man fell
back. He could not budge the body clamped with steel. He could only
wrench it. So he came away.
There's nothing for me to do, Reny, the doctor faltered, and,
choked with pity for her and her lover and the helplessness of mankind,
he turned away, and she let him go. The gun fell to the ground.
The other men left the place. One of them said that the
wrecking-crew would be along with a derrick in a few hours.
A few hours! Irene whimpered.
She leaned against the lattice that kept her from the bridegroom and
tried to tell him to be brave. But he had heard his sentence, and with
his last hope went what little courage he had ever had.
He began to plead and protest and weep. He gave voice to all the
voices of pain, the myriad voices from every tormented particle of him.
Irene knelt down and twisted through the crevice to where she could
hold his hand. But he snatched it away, babbling: Don't touch me!
Don't touch me!
Crosson stayed near, dreading lest Irene's skirts should catch fire.
Twice he beat them out with his hands. She had not noticed that they
were aflame. She was murmuring love-words of odious vanity to one who
almost forgot her existence, centered in the glowing sphere of his own
Drury rolled and panted and gibbered, cursed even, with lips more
used to gentle words and prayers. He prayed, too, but with sacrilege:
O Lord, spare me this. O God, have a little mercy. Send rain, send
help, lift this mountain from me just till I can breathe. O God, if You
have any mercy in Your heartbut no, nono, no, You let Your own Son
hang on the cross, didn't You? He asked You why You had deserted Him,
and You didn't answer, did You?
Crosson looked up to see a thunderbolt split the dark sky, but the
stars were agleam now, twinkling about the moon's serenity.
Irene put her fingers across Drury's lips to hush his blasphemy. She
tore her face with her nails, and tried for his sake to stifle the sobs
that smote through her.
By and by Drury's voice grew hoarse, and he whispered. She bent
close and heard. She called to Crosson:
Run get the doctor to give him somethingsome morphine or
somethingquick. Every second is agony for my poor boy.
Crosson ran to the doctor. He stood among writhing bodies and shook
his head dismally. He was saying as Crosson came up:
I'm sorry, I'm awful sorry, folks, but the last grain of morphine
is gone. The drug-stores haven't got any more. We've telegraphed to the
next town. You'll just have to stand it.
Crosson went back slowly with that heavy burden of news. He
whispered it to Irene, but Drury heard him, and a shriek of despair
went from him like a flash of fire. New blazes sprang up with an impish
merriment. Crosson, fearing for Irene's safety, fought at them with
earth and with water that boys fetched from distances, and at last
extinguished the immediate fire.
The bystanders worked elsewhere, but Crosson lingered to protect
Irene. In the dark he could hear Drury whispering something to her.
He pleaded, wheedled, kissed her hand, mumbled it like a dog,
reasoned with her insanely, while she trembled all over, a shivering
leaf on a blown twig.
Crosson could hear occasional phrases: If you love me, you willif
you love me, Reny. What do you want me to suffer for, honey? You don't
want me just to sufferjust to suffer, do youyou don't, do you? Reny
honey, Reny? You say you love me, and you won't do the thing that will
help me. You don't love me. That's it, you don't really love me!
She turned to Crosson at last and moaned: He wants me to kill him!
What can I do? Oh, what is there to do?
Crosson could not bear to look in her eyes. He could not bear the
sound of Drury's voice. He could not even debate that problem. He was
cravenly glad when somebody's hand seized him and a rough voice called
him away to other toil. He slunk off.
There were miseries enough wherever he went, but they were the
miseries of strangers. He could not forget Irene and the riddle of duty
that was hers. He avoided the spot where she was closeted with grief,
and worked remote in the glimmer from bonfires lighted in the fields
The fire in the wreck was out now, save that here and there little
blazes appeared, only to be quenched at once. But smoldering timbers
crackled like rifle-shots, and there were thunderous slidings of
Irene's mother and father had stood off at a distance for a long
time, but at length they missed Irene and came over to question
Crosson. He knew that Irene would not wish them present at such
obsequies, and he told them she had gone home.
After a time, curiosity nagged him into approaching her
hiding-place. He listened, and there was no sound. He peered in and
dimly descried Drury. He was not moving; he might have been asleep.
Irene might have been asleep, too, for she lay huddled up in what space
Crosson knelt down and crawled in. She was unconscious. He touched
Drury with a dreading hand, which drew quickly back as from a contact
A kind of panic seized Crosson. He backed out quickly and dragged
Irene away with him in awkward desperation.
As her body came forth, his gun came too. He thought it had lain
outside. He caught it and broke it at the breech, ejecting the two
shells; one of them was empty. He threw it into the wreck and pocketed
the other shell and tossed the gun under a stack of wreckage.
He was trying to revive Irene when her father and mother came back
anxiously to say that she was not at home. Her mother dropped down at
Crosson left Irene with her own people. He did not want to see her
or hear her when she came back to this miserable world. He did not want
her even to know what he knew.
Crosson had tried afterward to forget. It had been hard at first,
but in time he had forgotten. He had gone to a theological school and
learned to chide people for their complaints and to administer
well-phrased anodynes. During his vacations he had avoided Irene. When
he had been graduated he had been first pulpited in a far-off city.
Years afterward he had been invited to supply an empty pulpit in his
home town. He had not succeeded with life. He lacked the flame or the
luck or the tactsomething. He had come back to the place he started
from. He had renewed old acquaintances, laughed over the ancient jokes,
and said he was sorry for those who had had misfortune. When he met
Irene Straley he hardly recalled his love, except to smile at it as a
boyish whim. He had forgotten the pangs of that as one forgets almost
all his yester aches. He had forgotten the pains he had seen others
suffer, even more easily than he forgot his own.
To-day his sermon on the triviality of bodily discomfort had flung
Irene Straley back into the caldron of that old torment. She had made
that silent protest against the iniquitous cruelty of his preachment.
She had dragged him backward into the living presence of his past.
She had not forgotten. She had been faithful to Drury Boldin while
he was working in a distant city. She was faithful to him still in that
Farthest Country. She had the genius of remembrance.
These were Doctor Crosson's ulterior thoughts while he harangued his
flock visibly and audibly. His thoughts had not needed the time their
telling requires. They gave him back his scenes in pictures, not in
words; in heartaches and heartbreaks and terrors and longings, not in
limping syllables that mock the vision with their ineptitude.
He felt anew what he had felt and seen, and he could not give any
verve to the peroration of his sermon. He could not even change it. It
had been effective when he had preached it previously. But now he
parroted with unconscious irony the phrases he had once so admired. He
came to the last word.
And so, to repeat: How much more bitter, dearly beloved, are the
anguishes of the soul than any mere bodily distress! What are the
fleeting torments of this tenement of clay, mere bone and flesh, to the
soul's despair? Nothing, nothing.
His congregation felt a lack of warmth in his tone. His hand fell
limply on the Bible and the sermon was done. The only stir was one of
relief at its conclusion.
He gave out the final hymn, and he sat through it while the people
dragged it to the end. He gave forth the benediction in the name of
the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and he made short
work of the dawdlers who waited to exchange stupidities with him. He
took refuge from his congregation in his study, locked the door, and
gave himself up to meditation.
Somehow pain had suddenly come to mean more to him than it had yet
meant. He had known it, groaned under it, lived it down, and let it go.
He had felt sorry for other people and got rid of their woes as best as
he could with the trite expressions in use, and had forgotten whether
they were hushed by health or by death.
And so he had let the old-fashioned hell go by with other dogmas out
of style. He had fashioned a new Hades to frighten people with, that
they might not find sin too attractive and imperilous.
Now he was suddenly convinced that if there must be hell, it must be
such as Dante set to rhyme and the old hard-shell preachers preached: a
region where flames sear and demons pluck at the frantic nerves,
playing upon them fiendish tunes.
Yet he could not reconcile that hell with the God that made the
lilac-bush whose purple clusters shook perfume and little flowers
against his window-sill, while the old locust in rivalry bent down and
flaunted against the lilacs its pendants of ivory grace and heavenly
Against that torment of beauty came glimpses of Drury and Irene in
the lurid cavern under the wreck. Beyond those delicate blossoms he
imagined the battle-fields of Europe and the ruined vessels where hurt
souls writhed in multitudes.
He could not be satisfied with any theory of the world. He could not
find that pain was punishment here, or see how it could follow the soul
after the soul had left behind it the fleshly instrument of torture.
The why of it escaped his reason utterly; for Drury had been good, and
he had come upon an honorable errand when he fell into the pit.
Doctor Crosson stood at his window and begged the placid sky for
information. He looked through the lilacs and the locusts and all the
green wilderness where beauty beat and throbbed like a heart in bliss.
It was the Sabbath, and he was not sure. But he was sure of a melting
tenderness in his heart for Irene Straley, and he felt that her power
to feel sorry for her loversorry enough to defy all the laws in his
behalfwas a wonderful power. He longed for her sympathy.
By and by he began to feel a pain, the pain of Drury Boldin. He was
glad. He groaned. I hurt! I hope that I may hurt terribly.
Suddenly it seemed that he actually was Drury Boldin in the throes
of every fierce and spasmic thrill. Again he most vividly was Irene
Straley watching her lover till she could not endure his torture or her
own, and with one desperate challenge sent him back to the mystery
whence he came.
Doctor Crosson, when he came back to himself, could not solve that
mystery or any mystery. He knew one reality, that it hurts to be alive;
that everybody is always hurting, and that human heart must help human
heart as best it can. Pain is the one inescapable fact; the rest is
theory.... He prayed with a deeper fervor than he had ever known:
God give me pain, that I may understand, that I may understand!