Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Old Folks at Home by Rupert Hughes

I

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 alone.

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 honeymoon.

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 hand—and 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 minutes.”

“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 dangers—he'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 bucket.”

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? Not yet!

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 say—answering 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 little—bungalow 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 me—that 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 all—cut 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 silence—unbearable 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 her over.”

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 cherishing arms.

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 neglect
     to write you, but somehow the rush of things here keeps me putting
     it off from day to day. If remembrances were letters you would have
     them in flocks, for I think of you always and I am homesick for the
     sight of your blessed faces.

     “I should like to come out and see you in your little old nest, but
     business piles up about me till I can't see my way out at present.
     I do wish you could run down here and make me a good long visit,
     but I suppose that is impossible, too. There are two or three big
     deals pending that look promising, and if any one of them wins out
     I shall clean up enough to be a gentleman of leisure. The first
     place I turn will be home. My heart aches for the rest and comfort
     of your love.

     “Write me often and tell me how you both are, and believe me, with
     all the affection in the world,

                     “Your devoted son,
                     “STEPHEN.”

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 growled:

“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 death.”

“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' folks—no 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, but—well, 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 us know.”

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 at gruffness:

“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 call back:

“Oh, Maw!”

“Yes, Paw!”

“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 nightshirt, though.”

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.”

II

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 his awdas.”

“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 nobody—er—um'm—thank you, sir—well, 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 trap.

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 uninvited guests!

“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 circus.”

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 the floor.

“It gets awful hot in town, don't it?” said Paw, mopping his beaded forehead.

“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 Maw—and me?”

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 firing-pin.

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 you—no—no—you 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 indiscreet—still 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 about—about her—the woman you know, Steve—before 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 me—yes, 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 drop—to le-let it drop.”

The mother turned frantic. “They'll come here for you, Stevie. They'll find it out. You must get away—somewhere—for 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 your—your 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 place—the little old house opposite the pond. Go as fast as you can. You know the place—where 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 Susan—what shall he tell Susan, father? What shall he tell Susan? We'll stay here, and—and 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 detectives—no, 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 impulse—to 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?

III

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 excitements.

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 landslide.

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 dishonorable end.

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 himself.

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 mortgages.

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 sacrifice.

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 old mothers?

IV

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 now—old 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 asleep.”

“Guess so.”

“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 up-stairs.”

“That's so. As the fellow says in the circus, here we are again, Maw.”

“Here we are again, Paw.”

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page