The Old Folks at
Home by Rupert Hughes
The old road came pouring down from the wooded hills to the
westward, flowed round the foot of other hills, skirting a meadow and a
pond, and then went on easterly about its business. Almost overhanging
the road, like a mill jutting upon its journeyman stream, was an aged
house. Still older were the two lofty oaks standing mid-meadow and
imaged again in the pond. Younger than oaks or house or road, yet as
old as Scripture allots, was the man who stalked across the porch and
slumped into a chair. He always slumped into a chair, for his muscles
still remembered the days when he had sat only when he was worn out.
Younger than oaks, house, road, or man, yet older than a woman wants to
be, was the woman in the garden.
What you doin', Maw? the man called across the rail, though he
could see perfectly well.
Just putterin' 'round in the garden. What you been doin', Paw?
Just putterin' 'round the barn. Better come in out the hot sun and
rest your old back.
Evidently the idea appealed to her, for the sunbonnet overhanging
the meek potato-flowers like a flamingo's beak rose in air, as she
stood erect, or as nearly erect as she ever stood nowadays. She tossed
a few uprooted weeds over the lilac-hedge, and, clumping up the steps
of the porch, slumped into a chair. Chairs had once been her luxury,
too. She carried a dish-pan full of green peas, and as her gaze
wandered over the beloved scene her wrinkled fingers were busy among
the pods, shelling them expertly, as if they knew their way about
The old man sighed, the deep sigh of ultimate contentment. Well,
Maw, as the fellow says in the circus, here we are again.
Here we are again, Paw.
They always said the same thing about this time of year, when they
wearied of the splendid home they had established as the capital of
their estate and came back to the ground from which they had sprung.
James Coburn always said:
Well, Maw, as the fellow says in the circus, here we are again.
And Sarah Gregg Coburn always answered:
Here we are again, Paw.
This place was to them what old slippers are to tired feet. Here
they put off the manners and the dignities their servants expected of
them, and lapsed into shabby clothes and colloquialisms, such as they
had been used to when they were first married, long before he became
the master of a thousand acres, of cattle upon a hundred hills, of
blooded thoroughbreds and patriarchal stallions, of town lots and a
bank, and of a record as Congressman for two terms. This pilgrimage had
become a sort of annual elopement, the mischief of two white-haired
runaways. Now that the graveyard or the city had robbed them of all
their children, they loved to turn back and play at an Indian-summer
This year, for the first time, Maw had consented to the aid of a
hired girl. She refused to bring one of the maids or the cook from
the big house, and engaged a woman from the village nearest at
handand then tried to pretend the woman wasn't there. It hurt her to
admit the triumph of age in her bones, but there was compensation in
the privilege of hearing some one else faintly clattering over the
dish-washing of evenings, while she sat on the porch with Paw and
watched the sunset trail its gorgeous banners along the heavens and
across the little toy sky of the pond.
It was pleasant in the mornings, too, to lie abed in criminal
indolence, hearing from afar the racket of somebody else building the
fire. After breakfast she made a brave beginning, only to turn the
broom and the bedmaking over to Susan and dawdle about after Paw or
celebrate matins in the green aisles of the garden. But mostly the old
couple just pretended to do their chores, and sat on the porch and
watched the clouds go by and the frogs flop into the pond.
Mail come yet, Maw?
Susan's gone for it.
He glanced up the road to a sunbonneted figure blurred in the glare,
and sniffed amiably. Humph! Country's getting so citified the morning
papers are here almost before breakfast's cleared off. Remember when we
used to drive eleven mile to get the Weekly Tribune, Maw?
I remember. And it took you about a week to read it. Sometimes you
got one number behind. Nowadays you finish your paper in about five
Nothing much in the papers nowadays except murder trials and
divorce cases. I guess Susan must have a mash on that mail-carrier.
I wish she'd come on home and not gabble so much.
Expectin' a letter from the boy?
Ought to be one this morning.
You've said that every mornin' for three weeks. I s'pose he's so
busy in town he don't realize how much his letters mean to us.
I hate to have him in the city with its dangershe's so reckless
with his motor, and then there's the temptations and the scramble for
money. I wish Stevie had been contented to settle down with us. We've
got enough, goodness knows. But I suppose he feels he must be a
millionaire or nothing, and what you've made don't seem a drop in the
The old man winced. He thought how often the boy had found occasion
to draw on him for help in financing his sure things and paying up
the losses on the sure things that had gone wrong. Those letters had
been sent to the bank in town and had not been mentioned at home,
except now and then, long afterward, when the wife pressed the old man
too hard about holding back money from the boy. Then he would unfold a
few figures. They dazed her, but they never convinced her.
Who ever convinced a woman? Persuaded? Yes, since Eve! Convinced?
It hurts a man's pride to hear his wife impliedly disparage his own
achievements in contrast with his son's. Not that he is jealous of his
son; not that he does not hope and expect that the boy will climb to
peaks he has never dared; not that he would not give his all and bend
his own back as a stepping-stone to his son's ascension; but just that
comparisons are odious. This disparagement is natural, though, to
wives, for they compare what their husbands have done with what their
sons are going to do.
It was an old source of peevishness with Paw Coburn, and he was
moved to sayanswering only by implication what she had unconsciously
implied, and seeming to take his theme from the landscape about them:
When my father died all he left me was this littlebungalow they'd
call it nowadays, I suppose, and a few acres 'round it. You remember,
Maw, how, when the sun first came sneakin' over that knob off to the
left, the shadow of those two oaks used to just touch the stone wall on
the western border of father's property, and when the sun was just
crawlin' into bed behind those woods off yonder the shadow of the oaks
just overlapped the rail fence on the eastern border? That's all my
father left methat and the mortgage. That's all I brought you home
to, Maw. I'm not disparaging my father. He was a great man. When he
left his own home in the East and came out here all this was woods,
woods, woods, far as you can see. Even that pond wasn't there then. My
father cleared it allcut down everything except those two oak-trees.
He used to call them the Twin Oaks, but they always seemed to me like
man and wife. I kind o' like to think that they're you and me. And like
you and me they're all that's left standin' of the old trees. They were
big trees, too, and those were big days.
The greatness of his thoughts rendered him mute. He was a plain man,
but he was hearing the unwritten music of the American epic of the ax
and the plow, the more than Trojan war, the more than ten years' war,
against forests and savages. His wife brought him back from
hyper-Homeric vision to the concrete.
Thank Heaven, Susan's finished gossipin' and started home.
The mail-carrier in his little umbrellaed cart was vanishing up the
hill, and the sunbonnet was floating down the road. The sky was an
unmitigated blue, save for a few masses of cloud, like piles of new
fleece on a shearing-floor. Green woods, gray road, blue sky, pale
clouds, all were steeped in heat and silence so intense it seemed that
something must break. And something broke.
Appallingly, abruptly, came a shattering crash, a streak of blinding
fire, an unendurable noise, a searing blast of blaze as if the sun had
been dynamite exploded, splintering the very joists of heaven. The
whole air rocked like a tidal wave breaking on a reef; the house
writhed in all its timbers. Then silenceunbearable silence.
The old woman, made a child again by a paralytic stroke of terror,
found herself on her knees, clinging frantically to her husband. The
cheek buried in his breast felt the lurch and leap of his pounding
heart. Manlike, he found courage in his woman's fright, but his hand
quivered upon her hair; she heard his shaken voice saying:
There, there, Maw, it's all over.
When he dared to open his eyes he was blinded and dazed like the
stricken Saul. When he could see again he found the world unchanged.
The sky was still there, and still azure; the clouds swam serenely; the
road still poured down from the unaltered hills. He tried to laugh; it
was a sickly sound he made.
I guess that was what the fellow calls a bolt from the blue. I've
often heard of 'em, but it's the first I ever saw. No harm's done, Maw,
except to Susan's feelings. She's pickin' herself up out the dust and
hurryin' home like two-forty. I guess the concussion must have knocked
The old woman, her heart still fluttering madly, rose from her knees
with the tremulous aid of the old man and opened her eyes. She could
hardly believe that she would not find the earth an apocalyptic ruin of
uprooted hills. She breathed deeply of the relief, and her eyes ran
along the remembered things as if calling the roll. Suddenly her eyes
paused, widened. Her hand went out to clutch her husband's arm.
Look, Paw! The oaks, the oaks!
The lightning had leaped upon them like a mad panther, rending their
branches from them, ripping off great strips of bark, and leaving long,
gaping wounds, dripping with the white blood of trees. The lesser of
the two oaks had felt the greater blow, and would have toppled to the
ground had it not fallen across its mate; and its mate, though
grievously riven, held it up, with branches interlocking like
To that human couple the tragedy of the trees they had looked upon
as the very emblems of stability was pitiful. The old woman's eyes swam
with tears. She made no shame of her sobs. The old man tried to comfort
her with a commonplace:
I was readin' only the other day, Maw, that oaks attract the
lightning more than any other trees, and then he broke down. Father
always called 'em the Twin Oaks, but I always called 'em you and me.
The panic-racked Susan came stumbling up the steps, gasping with
experiences. But the aged couple either did not hear or did not heed.
With old hand embracing old hand they sat staring at the rapine of the
lightning, the tigerish atrocity that had butchered and mutilated their
beloved trees. Susan dropped into Mrs. Coburn's lap what mail she
brought and hurried inside to faint.
The old couple sat in a stupor long and long before Mrs. Coburn
found that she was idly fingering letters and papers. She glanced down,
and a familiar writing brought her from her trance.
Oh, Paw, here's a letter from the boy! Here's a letter from Stevie.
And here's your paper.
He took the paper, but did not open it, turning instead to ask,
What does the boy say?
With hands awkwardly eager she ripped the envelope, tore out the
letter, and spread it open on her lap, then pulled her spectacles down
from her hair, and read with loving inflection:
MY DARLING MOTHER AND DAD,It is simply heinous the way I
to write you, but somehow the rush of things here keeps me
it off from day to day. If remembrances were letters you would
them in flocks, for I think of you always and I am homesick
sight of your blessed faces.
I should like to come out and see you in your little old nest,
business piles up about me till I can't see my way out at
I do wish you could run down here and make me a good long
but I suppose that is impossible, too. There are two or three
deals pending that look promising, and if any one of them wins
I shall clean up enough to be a gentleman of leisure. The
place I turn will be home. My heart aches for the rest and
of your love.
Write me often and tell me how you both are, and believe me,
all the affection in the world,
Your devoted son,
She pushed her dewy spectacles back in her gray hair and pressed the
letter to her lips; she was smiling as only old mothers smile over
letters from their far-off children. The man's face softened, too, with
the ache that battle-scarred fathers feel, thinking of their sons in
the thick of the fight. Then he unfolded his paper, set his glasses on
his big nose, and pursed his lips to read what was new in the world at
large. His wife sat still, just remembering, perusing old files and
back numbers of the gazettes of her boy's past, remembering him from
her first vague thrill of him to his slow youth, to manhood, and the
last good-by kiss.
Nothing was heard from either of them for a long while, save the
creak of her chair and the rustle of his paper as he turned to the page
recording the results in the incessant Gettysburgs over the prices of
corn, pork, poultry, butter, and eggs. They were history to him. He
could grow angry over a drop in December wheat, and he could glow at a
sign of feverishness in oats. To-day he was profoundly moved to read
that October ribs had opened at 10.95 and closed at 11.01, and
depressed to see that September lard had dropped from 11.67 to 11.65.
As he turned the paper his eye was caught by the head-lines of an
old and notorious trial at law, and he was confirmed in his wrath. He
Good Lord, ain't that dog hung yet?
What you talkin' about, Paw?
I was just noticin' that the third trial of Tom Carey is in full
swing again. It's cost the State a hundred thousand dollars already,
and the scoundrel ain't punished yet.
What did he do, Paw?
The old man blushed like a boy as he stammered: You're too young to
know all he did, Maw. If I told you, you wouldn't understand. But it
ended in murder. If he'd been a low-browed dago they'd have had him
railroaded to Jericho in no time. But the lawyers are above the law,
and they've kept this fellow from his deserts till folks have almost
forgot what it was he did. It's disgraceful. It makes our courts the
laughing-stock of the world. It gives the anarchists an excuse for
saying that there's one law for the poor and another for the rich.
After the thunder of his ire had rolled away there was a gentle
murmur from the old woman. It's a terrible thing to put a man to
So it is, Maw, and if this fellow had only realized it he'd have
kept out of trouble.
He was excited, most likely, and out of his head. What I mean is,
it's a terrible thing for a judge and a jury to try a man and take his
life away from him.
Oh, it's terrible, of course, Maw, but we've got to have laws to
hold the world together, ain't we? And if we don't enforce 'em, what's
the use of havin' 'em?
Silence and a far-away look on the wrinkled face resting on the
wrinkled hand and then a quiet question:
Suppose it was our Steve?
I won't suppose any such thing. Thank God there's been no stain on
any of our family, either side; just plain hard-workin' folksno crazy
ones, no criminals.
But supposing it was our boy, Paw?
Oh, what's the use of arguin' with a woman! I love you for it, Maw,
butwell, I'm sorry I spoke.
He returned to his paper, growling now and then as he read of some
new quibble devised by the attorneys for the defense. As softly and as
surreptitiously as it begins to rain on a cloudy day, she was crying.
He turned again with mock indignation.
Here, here! What you turning up about now?
I want to see my boy. I'm worried. He may be sick. He'd never let
The old man tried to cajole her from her forebodings, tried to
reason them away, laugh them away. At last he said, with a poor effort
Well, for the Lord's sake, why don't you go? He's always askin' us
to come and see him. I'm kind o' homesick for a sight of the boy
m'self. You haven't been to town for a month of Sundays. Throw a few
things in a valise and I'll hitch up. We'll just about make the next
train from the village.
She needed no coercion from without. She rose at once. As she opened
the squeaky screen-door he was clumping down the steps. He paused to
Better tuck in a jar of those preserves you been puttin' up. The
boy always liked those better 'n most anything. Don't wrap 'em in my
She called out, All right, and the slap of the screen-door was
echoed a moment later by a similar sound in the barn, accompanied by
the old man's voice:
Give over, Fan.
The elevator-boy hesitated. Oh, yes-sum, I got a pass-key, all
right, but I can't hahdly let nobody in Mista Coburn's 'pahtment 'thout
But we're his mother and father.
Of co'se I take yo' wud for that, ma'am, but, you see, I can't
hahdly let nobodyerum'mthank you, sirwell, I reckon Mista
Coburn might be mo' put out ef I didn't let you-all in than ef I did.
The elevator soared silently to the eighth floor, and there all
three debarked. The boy was so much impressed with the tip the old man
had slipped him that he unlocked the door, put the hand-baggage into
the room, snapped the switch that threw on all the lights, and said,
Thank you, sir, again as he closed the door.
Paw opened it to give the boy another coin and say: Don't you let
on that we're here. It's a surprise.
The boy, grinning, promised and descended, like an imp through a
The old couple stood stock-still, hesitating to advance. So many
feelings, such varied timidities, urged them forward, yet held them
back. It was the home of the son they had begotten, conceived, tended,
loved, praised, punished, feared, prayed for, counseled, provisioned,
and surrendered. Years of separation had made him almost a stranger,
and they dreaded the intrusion into the home he had built for himself,
remote from their influence. Poor, weak, silly old things, with a
boy-and-girlish gawkishness about them, the helpless feeling of
You go first, Paw.
And Paw went first. On the sill of the drawing-room he paused and
swept a glance around. He would have given an arm to be inspired with
some scheme for whisking his wife away or changing what she must see.
But she was already crowding on his heels, pushing him forward. There
was no retreat. He tried to laugh it off.
Well, here we are at last, as the fellow doesn't say in the
There was nothing to do but sit down and wait. The very chairs were
of an architecture and upholstery incongruous to them. They knew
something of luxury, but not of this school. There was nowhere for them
to look that something alien did not meet their eyes. So they looked at
It gets awful hot in town, don't it? said Paw, mopping his beaded
Awful, said Maw, dabbing at hers.
Eventually they heard the elevator door gride on its grooves. All
the way in on the train they had planned to hide and spring out on the
boy. They had giggled like children over the plot. It was rather their
prearrangement than their wills that moved them to action.
Automatically they hid themselves, without laughter, rather with a sort
of guilty terror. They found a deep wardrobe closet and stepped inside,
drawing the door almost shut.
They heard a key in the lock, the click of a knob, the sound of a
door closed. Then a pause. They had forgotten to turn off the lights.
Hurrying footsteps, loud on the bare floor, muffled on the rugs. How
well they knew that step! But there was excitement in its rhythm. They
could hear the familiar voice muttering unfamiliarly as the footsteps
hurried here and there. He came into the room where they were. They
could hear him breathe now, for he breathed heavily, as if he had been
running. From place to place he moved with a sense of restless stealth.
At length, just as they were about to sally forth, he hurried forward
and flung open their door.
Standing among the hanging clothes, the light strong on their faces,
they seemed to strike him at first as ghosts. He stared at them aghast,
and recoiled. Then the old ghosts smiled and stepped forward with open
arms. But he recoiled again, and his welcome to his far-come,
heart-hungry parents was a groan.
They saw that he had a revolver in his hand. His eyes recurred to
it, and he turned here and there for a place to lay it, but seemed
unable to let it go. His mother flung forward and threw her arms about
him, her lips pursed to kiss him, but he turned away with lowered eyes.
His father took him by the shoulders and said:
Why, what's the matter, boy? Ain't you glad to see your Mawand
For answer he only breathed hard and chokingly. His eyes went to the
revolver again, then roved here and there, always as if searching for a
place to hide it.
Give that thing to me, Steve, the old man said. And he took it in
his hands, forcing from the cold steel the colder fingers that clung as
if frozen about the handle.
Once he was free of the weapon, the boy toppled into a chair, his
mother still clasping him desperately.
The old man knew something about firearms. He found the spring,
broke the revolver, and looked into the cylinder. In every chamber was
the round eye of a cartridge. Three of them bore the little scar of the
Old Coburn leaned hard against the wall. He looked about for a place
to hide the horrible machine, but he, too, could not let go of it. His
mouth was full of the ashes of life. He would have been glad to drop
dead. But beyond the sick, clammy face of his son he saw the face of
his wife, an old face, a mother's face, witless with bewilderment. The
old man swallowed hard.
What's happened, Steve? What's been goin' on?
The young man only shook his head, ran his dry tongue along his
lips, tore a piece of loose skin from the lower one with his teeth, and
breathed noisily through nostrils that worked like a dog's. He pushed
his mother's hands away as if they irked him. The old man could have
struck him to the ground for that roughness, but the prayers in the
mother's eyes restrained him.
Better tell us, Steve. Maybe we might help you.
The young man's head worked as if he were gulping at a hard lump;
his lips moved without sound, his gaze leaped from place to place,
lighting everywhere but on his father's waiting, watching eyes, and
always coming back to the revolver with a loathing fascination. At last
he spoke, in a whisper like the rasp of chafed husks:
I had to do it. He deserved it.
The mother had not seen the nicks on the cartridges, but she needed
no such evidence. She wailed:
You don't mean that younonoyou didn't k-kill-ill-ill
The word rattled in her throat, and she went to the floor like a
toppling bolster. It was the old man that lifted her face from the rug,
ran to fetch water, and knelt to restore her. The son just wavered in
his chair and kept saying:
I had to do it. He was making her life a
Her life? the old man groaned, looking up where he knelt. Then
there's a woman in it?
Yes, it was for her. She's had a hard time. She's been horribly
misunderstood. She may have been indiscreetstill she's a noble woman
at heart. Her husband was a vile dog. He deserved it.
But the old man's head had dropped as if his neck were cracked. He
saw what it all meant and would mean. He would have sprawled to the
floor, but he caught sight of the pitiful face of his old love still
white with the half-death of her swoon. He clenched his will with
ferocity, resolving that he must not break, could not, would not break.
He laid a hand on his son's knee and said, appealingly, in a low tone,
as if he were the suppliant for mercy:
Better not mention anything aboutabout herthe woman you know,
Stevebefore your mother, not just now. Your mother's kind of poorly
the last few days. Understand, Steve?
The answer was a nod like the silly nodding of a toy mandarin.
It was a questionable mercy, restoring the mother just then from the
bliss of oblivion, but she came gradually back through a fog of daze to
the full glare of fact. Her thoughts did not run forward upon the
scandal, the horror of the public, the outcry of all the press; she had
but one thought, her son's welfare.
Did anybody see you, Steve?
No. I went to his room. I don't think anybody s-saw meyes, maybe
the man across the hall did. Yes, I guess he saw me. He was at his door
when I came out. He looked as if he sus-suspected-ed me. I suppose he
heard the shots. And probably he s-saw the revol-ver. I couldn't seem
to let it dropto le-let it drop.
The mother turned frantic. They'll come here for you, Stevie.
They'll find it out. You must get awaysomewherefor just now, till
we can think up something to do. Father will find some way of making
everything all right, won't you, Paw? He always does, you know. Don't
be scared, my boy. We must keep very calm. Her hands were wavering
over him in a palsy. Where can he go, Paw? Where's the best place for
him to go? I'll tell you, Steve. Is youryour car anywhere near?
It's outside at the door. I came back in it.
She got to her feet, and her urgency was ferocious. Then you get
right in this minute and go up to the old placethe little old house
opposite the pond. Go as fast as you can. You know the placewhere we
lived before you were born. There's two big oak-trees st-standing
there, and a pond just across the road. You go there and tell
Susanwhat shall he tell Susan, father? What shall he tell Susan?
We'll stay here, andand we'll bribe the elevator-boy to say you
haven't come home at all, and if the po-po-lice come here we'll say
we're expecting you, but we haven't seen you for ever so long. Won't
we, Paw? That's what we'll say, won't we, Paw?
The old man stood up to the lightning like an old oak. Trees do not
run. They stand fast and take what the sky sends them. Old Coburn shook
his white hair as a tree its leaves in a blast of wind before he spoke.
Steve, my boy, I don't know what call you had to do this, but it's
no use trying to run away and hide. They'll get you wherever you go.
The telegraph and the cable and the detectivesno, it's not a bit of
use. It only makes things look worse. Put on your hat and come with me.
We'll go to the police before they come for you. I'll go with you, and
I'll see you through.
But flight, not fight, was the woman's one hope. She was wild with
resistance to the idea of surrender. Her panic confirmed the young man
in his one impulseto get away. He dashed out into the hall, and when
the father would have pursued, the mother thrust him aside, hurried
past, and braced herself against the door. He put off her clinging,
clutching hands as gently as he might, but she resisted like a tigress
at bay, and before he could drag her aside they heard the iron-barred
door of the elevator glide open and clang shut. And there they stood in
the strange place, the old man staggered with the realization of the
future, the old woman imbecile with fear.
What harm is it the honest oaks do, that Heaven hates them so and
its lightnings search them out with such peculiar frenzy?
Having no arenas where captive gladiators and martyrs satisfy the
public longing for the sight of bleeding flesh and twitching nerve, the
people of our day flock to the court-rooms for their keenest
The case of The People vs. Stephen Coburn had been an
intensely popular entertainment. This day the room was unusually
stuffed with men and women. At the door the officers leaned like
buttresses against the thrust of a solid wall of humanity. Outside, the
halls, the stairs, and the sidewalk were jammed with the mob crushing
toward the door for a sight of the white-haired mother pilloried in the
witness-box and fighting with all her poor wits against the shrewdest,
calmest, fiercest cross-examiner in the State.
In the jury-box the twelve silent prisoners of patience sat in awe
of their responsibilities, a dozen extraordinarily ordinary,
conspicuously average persons condemned to the agony of deciding
whether they should consign a fellow-man to death or release a murderer
among their fellow-men.
Next the judge sat Sarah Coburn, her withered hands clenched bonily
in the lap where, not so many years ago, she had cuddled the babe that
was now the culprit hunted down and abhorred. The mere pressure of his
first finger had sent a soul into eternity and brought the temple of
his own home crashing about his head.
Next the prisoner sat his father, veteran now with the experience
that runs back to the time when the first father and mother found the
first first-born of the world with hands reddened in the blood of the
earliest sacrifice on the altar of Cain.
People railed in the street and in the press against the law's delay
with Stephen Coburn's execution and against the ability of a rich
father to postpone indefinitely the vengeance of justice. Old Coburn
had forced the taxpayers to spend vast sums of money. He had spent
vaster sums himself. The public and the prosecution, his own enormously
expensive lawyers, his son and his very wife, supposed that he still
had vast sums to spend. It was solely his own secret that he had no
more. He had built his fortune as his father had built the stone wall
along his fields, digging each boulder from the ground with his hands,
lugging it across the irregular turf and heaving it to its place. Every
dollar of his had its history of effort, of sweat and ache. And now the
whole wall was gone, carried away in wholesale sweeps as by a
In his business he had been so shrewd and so close that people had
said, Old Coburn will fight for five days for five minute's interest
on five cents. When his son's liberty was at stake he signed blank
checks, he told his lawyers to get the best counsel in the nation. He
did not ask, How much? He asked, How good? Every technical ruse
that could be employed to thwart the prosecution he employed. He bribed
everybody bribable whose silence or speech had value. Dangerous
witnesses were shipped to places whence they could not be summonsed.
Blackmailers and blackguards fattened on his generosity and his fear.
The son, Stephen Coburn, had gone to the city, warm-hearted, young,
venturesome, not vicious, had learned life in a heap, sowed his wild
oats all at once, fallen among evil companions, and drifted by easy
stages into an affair of inexcusable ugliness, whence he seemed unable
to escape till a misplaced chivalry whispered him what to do. He had
found himself like Lancelot with his honor rooted in dishonor and
faith unfaithful kept him falsely true. But Stephen Coburn was no
Lancelot, any more than his siren was a Guinevere or her slain husband
a King Arthur. He was simply a well-meaning, hot-headed, madly
enamoured young fool. The proof of this last was that he took a
revolver to his Gordian knot. Revolvers, as he found too late, do not
solve problems. They make a far-reaching noise, and their messengers
cannot be recalled.
His parents had not known the city phase of their son. They had
known the adorable babe he had been, the good boy weeping over a
broken-winged robin tumbled from a nest, running down-stairs in his
bare feet for one more good-night kiss, crying his heart out when he
must be sent away to school, remembering their birthdays and abounding
in gentle graces. This was the Stephen Coburn they had known. They
believed it to be the real, the permanent, Stephen Coburn; the other
was but the victim of a transient demon. They could not believe that
their boy would harm the world again. They could not endure the thought
that his repentance and his atonement should be frustrated by a
The public knew only the wicked Stephen Coburn. His crime had been
his entrance into fame. All the bad things he had done, all the bad
people he had known, all the bad places he had gone, were searched out
and published by the detectives and the reporters. To blacken Stephen
Coburn's repute so horribly that the jurors would feel it their
inescapable duty to scavenge him from the offended earth, that was the
effort of the prosecution. To prevent that blackening was one of the
most vital and one of the most costly features of the defense. To deny
the murder and tear down the web of circumstantial evidence as fast as
the State could weave it was another.
The Coburn case had become a notorious example of that peculiarly
American institution, the serial trial. The first instalment had ended
in a verdict of guilty. It had been old Coburn's task to hold up his
wife and his son in the collapse of their mad despair, while he managed
and financed the long, slow struggle with the upper courts till he
wrung from them an order for a new trial. This had ended, after weeks
of torment in the court-room and forty-eight hours of almost unbearable
suspense, in a disagreement of the jury. The third trial found the
prosecution more determined than ever, and acquainted with all the
methods of the defense. The only flaw was the loss of an important
witness, the man across the hall, whom impatient time had carried off
to the place where subpoenas are not respected. His deposition and his
testimony at the previous trials were as lacking in vitality as
And now once more old Coburn must carry everything upon his back,
aching like a world-weary Atlas who dares not shift his burden. But now
he was three years weaker, and he had no more money to squander. His
house, his acres, the cattle upon his hills, his blooded thoroughbreds,
his patriarchal stallions, his town lots, his bank-building, his bonds
and stocks, all were sold, pawned as collateral, or blanketed with
As he had comforted his wife when they had witnessed the bolt from
the blue, so now he sat facing her in her third ordeal. Only now she
was not on the home porch, but in the arena. He could not hold her
hands. Now she dared not close her eyes and cry; it was not the work of
one thunderbolt she had to see. Now, under the darting questions of the
court-examiner, she was like a frightened girl lost in the woods and
groping through a tempest, with lightning thrusts pursuing her on every
side, stitching the woods with fire like the needle in a sewing-machine
stabbing and stabbing at the dodging shuttle.
The old woman had gone down into the pit for her son. She had been
led through the bogs and the sewers of vice. Almost unspeakable, almost
unthinkable wickedness had been taught to her till she had become
deeply versed in the lore that saddens the eyes of the scarlet women of
Babylon. But still her love purified her, and almost sanctified the
strategy she practised, the lies she told, the truths she concealed,
the plots she devised with the uncanny canniness of an old peasant.
People not only felt that it was her duty to fight for her young like a
mad she-wolf, but they would have despised her for any failure of
She sat for hours baffling the inquisitor, foreseeing his wiles by
intuition, evading his masked pitfalls by instinct. She was terribly
afraid of him, yet more afraid of herself, afraid that she would break
down and become a brainless, weeping thing. It was the sincerity of her
fight against this weakness that made her so dangerous to the
prosecuting attorney. He wanted to compel her to admit that her son had
confessed his deed to her. She sought to avoid this admission. She had
not guessed that he was more in dread of her tears than of her guile.
He was gentler with her than her own attorneys had been. At all costs
he felt that he must not succeed too well with her.
The whole trial had become by now as academic as a game of chess, to
all but the lonely, homesick parents. The prosecuting attorney knew
that the mother was not telling the truth; the judge and the jury knew
that she was not telling the truth. But unless this could be
geometrically demonstrated the jury would disregard its own senses. Yet
the prosecutor knew that if he succeeded in trapping the mother too
abruptly into any admission dangerous to her son she would probably
break down and cry her dreary old heart out, and then those twelve
superhuman jurors would weep with her and care for nothing on earth
except her consolation.
The crisis came as crises love to come, without warning. The
question had been simple enough, and the tone as gentle as possible:
You have just stated, Mrs. Coburn, that your son spoke to you in his
apartment the day he is alleged to have committed this act, but I find
that at the first and second trials you testified that you did not see
him in his apartment at all. Which, please, is the correct statement?
In a flash she realized what she had done. It is so hard to build
and defend a fortress of lies, and she was very old and not very wise,
tired out, confused by the stare of the mob and the knowledge that
every word she uttered endangered the life she had borne. Now she felt
that she had undone everything. She blamed herself for ruining the work
of years. She saw her son led to death because of her blunder. Her
answer to the question and the patient courtesy of the attorney was to
throw her hands into the air, toss her white head to and fro, and give
up the battle. The tears came like a gush of blood from a deep wound;
they poured through the lean fingers she pressed against her gaunt
cheeks, and she shook with the dry, weak weeping of senility and utter
desolation. Then her old arms yearned for him as when a babe.
I want my boy! I want my boy!
* * * * *
The judge grew very busy among his papers, the prosecuting attorney
swallowed hard. The jurymen thought no more of evidence and of the
stability of the laws. They all had mothers, or memory-mothers, and
they only resolved that whatever crime Stephen Coburn might have
committed, it would be a more dastardly crime for them to drive their
twelve daggers into the aching breast that had suckled him. On the
instant the trial had resolved itself into The People vs. One
Poor Old Mother. The jury's tears voted for them, and their real
verdict was surging up in one thought:
This white haired saint wants her boy: he may be a black sheep, but
she wants him, and she shall have him, by whatever was each
juryman's favorite oath.
When the judge had finished his charge the jury stumbled on one
another's heels to get to their sanctum. There they reached a verdict
so quickly that, as the saying is, the foreman was coming back into the
court-room before the twelfth man was out of it. Amazed at their own
unanimity, they were properly ashamed, each of the other eleven, for
their mawkish weakness, and their treachery to the stern requirements
of higher citizenship. But they went home not entirely unconsoled by
the old woman's cry of beatitude at that phrase, Not Guilty.
She went among them sobbing with ecstasy, and her tears splashed
their hands like holy water. It was all outrageously illegal, and
sentimental, and harmful to the sanctity of the law. And yet, is it
entirely desirable that men should ever grow unmindful of the tears of
The road came pouring down from the wooded hills, and the house
faced the pond as before. But there was a new guest in the house.
Up-stairs, in a room with a sloping wall and a low ceiling and a dormer
window, sat a young man whose face had been prominent so long in the
press and in the court-room that now he preferred to keep away from
human eyes. So he sat in the little room and read eternally. He had
acquired the habit of books in the whitewashed cell where he had spent
the three of his years that should have been the happiest, busiest,
best of all. He read anything he could find nowold books, old
magazines, old newspapers. Finally he read even the old family Bible
his mother had toted into his room for his comfort. It was a bulky tome
with print of giant size and pictures of crude imagery, with here and
there blank pages for recording births, deaths, marriages. Here he
found the names of all his brothers and sisters, and all of them were
entered among the deaths. The manners of the deaths were recorded in
the shaky handwriting of fresh grief: Alice Anne, scarlet fever; James
Arthur, Jr., convulsions; Andrew Morton, whooping-cough; Cicely Jane,
typhoid; Amos Turner, drowned while saving his brother Stephen's life;
Edward John, killed in train wreck.
Sick at heart, he turned away from the record, but the book fell
open of itself at a full-page insert of the Decalogue, illuminated by
some artless printer with gaudy splotches of gold, red and blue and
green initials, and silly curlicues of arabesque, as if the man had
been ignorant of what they meant, those ten pillars of the world.
Stephen smiled wanly at the bad taste of the decoration, till one
line of fire leaped from the text at him, Thou Shalt Not Kill. But he
needed no further lessoning in that wisdom. He retreated from the
accusing page and went to lean against the dormer window and look out
upon the world from the jail of his past. No jury could release him
from that. Everywhere he looked, everywhere he thought, he saw evidence
of the penalty he had brought upon his father and mother, more than
upon himself and his future. He knew that his father's life-work had
been ruined, and that his honorable career would be summed up in the
remembrance that he was the old man who bankrupted himself to save his
son from the gallows. He knew that this very house, which remained as
the last refuge, was mortgaged again as when his father and mother had
come into it before he was born. The ironic circle was complete.
Down-stairs he could hear the slow and heavy footsteps of his
father, and the creak of the chair as he dropped heavily into it. Then
he heard the screen-door flap and heard his mother's rocking-chair
begin its seesaw strain. He knew that their tired old hands would be
clasped and that their tired old eyes would be staring off at the
lightning-shattered oaks. He heard them say, just about as always:
What you been doin', Paw?
Just putterin' 'round the barn. What you been doin', Maw?
Just putterin' 'round the kitchen gettin' supper started. I went
up-stairs and knocked at Stevie's door. He didn't answer. Guess he's
It seems awful good, Paw, to be back in this old place, don't
it?you and me just settin' here and our boy safe and sound asleep
That's so. As the fellow says in the circus, here we are again,
Here we are again, Paw.