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Pain by Rupert Hughes

I

“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 Crosson—the 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 Straley.

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 before—nothing!”

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 call.

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 Crosson—once Eddie Crosson—had 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 for—a 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 pin.

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 regret.

“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 waters—and 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 come home.”

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 somewheres—sufferin'. 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 mind—that 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.

II

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 thoughts.

A few days later Drury met him and asked him again where the duck had fallen.

“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 him.

“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 soft eyes.

“The Lord and my shot-gun.”

“What right you got to go shootin' wild birds, anyway?” Drury demanded.

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 him.

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 miserably.

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 its beauty.

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 broken Sabbath.

“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 after.

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 breast.

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 bagged—a squirrel, a rabbit, and a few birds—the 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 track—now!”

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. Crosson followed.

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 wood—heated 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 scot-free.

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, “Drury—Drury—Drury!” 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 babe.

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, Drury, 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 trysting-place!

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 environment.

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 the doctors.

“They wouldn't come!” Crosson groaned, ashamed of their ugly sense of justice.

The girl's face took on a look of grim ferocity. She said to Crosson:

“Your gun—where 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 hell.

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 heart—but no, no—no, 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 something—some morphine or something—quick. 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 will—if you love me, Reny. What do you want me to suffer for, honey? You don't want me just to suffer—just to suffer, do you—you 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 alongside.

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 wreckage.

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 there was.

Crosson knelt down and crawled in. She was unconscious. He touched Drury with a dreading hand, which drew quickly back as from a contact with ice.

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 her side.

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.

III

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 tact—something. 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 fragrance.

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 lover—sorry enough to defy all the laws in his behalf—was 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!”

 
 
 

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