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The Loves of Ambrose by Margaret Vandercook


THE LOVES OF AMBROSE

[Illustration: “The young man put the honeysuckle in his buttonhole"]

THE LOVES OF AMBROSE

BY MARGARET VANDERCOOK

[Illustration]

Illustrated by Gordon Grant

          DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
          GARDEN CITY NEW YORK
          1914

          Copyright, 1914, by
          DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY

          All rights reserved, including that of
          translation into foreign languages,
          including the Scandinavian

          “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding
              exceeding much, and largeness of
            heart, even as the sand that is on the seashore.

          To
          JOHN VANDERCOOK


PART ONE. HIS FIRST WIFE
CHAPTER I. THE DEPARTURE
CHAPTER II. THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE
CHAPTER III. PEACHY
CHAPTER IV. “Even so, Love, even so! Whither thou goest, I will go.”
CHAPTER V. THE RETURN
PART TWO. HIS SECOND WIFE
CHAPTER VI. RECONSTRUCTION
CHAPTER VII. EM'LY DUNHAM
CHAPTER VIII. THE FEMALE DELEGATION
CHAPTER IX. “The tides of love and laughter run Increasing aye from sun to sun.”
CHAPTER X. THE REVELATION
CHAPTER XI. FOLLOWING HIS ADVICE
CHAPTER XII. A LIGHT IN DARKNESS
CHAPTER XIII. THE SURPRISE PARTY
PART THREE. HIS THIRD WIFE
CHAPTER XIV. THIRTY YEARS
CHAPTER XV. ORIGINAL SIN
CHAPTER XVI. THE ETERNAL FIRE
CHAPTER XVII. THE REVIVAL SERVICE
CHAPTER XVIII. INDIAN SUMMER
PART IV. HIS FOURTH WIFE
CHAPTER XIX. “'LIZABETH”
CHAPTER XX. “GIVING IN MARRIAGE”
CHAPTER XXI. “I SHALL WANT MY EM'LY.”
 

PART ONE. HIS FIRST WIFE

  “Oh! lose the winter from thine heart, the darkness from
         thine eyes,
    And from the low hearth-chair of dreams, my Love-o'-May, arise,
    And let the maidens robe thee like a white white, lilac tree.
    Oh! hear the call of Spring, fair Soul,—and wilt thou
         come with me?

CHAPTER I. THE DEPARTURE

AMBROSE THOMPSON opened his front door and looked out. It was May, the sun had just risen over Pennyroyal, and before him lay Kentucky's carnival of spring.

The boy drew a deep breath that seemed to rise and quiver over his face like a breeze coming away at the end of his long, curiously emotional nose.

“Glory, what a day!” he whispered; “seems about good enough to eat!” And then he vanished, only to reappear five minutes afterward dressed as a traveller and wearing a linen duster, a stovepipe hat, and carrying a carpet-bag.

Out in the cinder path his glance embraced the quiet street.

“Right foot, left foot”—without a change of expression the boy broke into an irrepressible jig. He was nineteen and stood six feet four in his stocking feet; the wind tilted his tall hat, showing his high forehead, his straight, straw-coloured hair, and solemn, light blue eyes; it whipped back his linen duster, disclosing his lean legs clad in tight trousers, his frock coat, and white stock. An indescribable air of adventure enveloped him. So Abraham Lincoln may have looked on some dress-occasion morning in his youth—all big bones and promises waiting for something to happen.

“I sure am going to give 'em the slip this time,” Ambrose panted, stopping to readjust his costume and to take another careful survey of the neighbourhood. In his garden several lilac bushes were in their first bloom, and above his doorway an ardent, over-early honeysuckle had blossomed in the night. The young man put the honeysuckle in his buttonhole.

[Illustration: “Leaping ditches, tearing across ploughed fields, to the woods ahead"]

“I reckon,” he remarked, “there ain't nothin' sweet that don't grow in Kentucky,” and then with a smile whose shine radiated through his homeliness and a blush that spread to the tips of his big ears, he added: “I ain't just figurin' on the growth of flowers,” and was off tiptoeing down his garden walk and stepping across his gate to avoid the creak of opening it.

This was fifty-five years ago in Kentucky, in a little village of some three or four hundred inhabitants, shut in by hills and by inclination in the southwestern part of the state; a community not to be confounded with their high-living, high-stepping blue grass neighbours, for dwellers in the “Pennyrile” were a plainer people, who perhaps drew some of their characteristics from the bittersweet, pungent “Pennyrile” grass that gave the locality its name.

As for the town itself, it rested primly in a cup-shaped hollow with three main streets. One of them, travelling farther than the rest, led in a way to the end of things for the residents of Pennyroyal as it climbed a hill at the foot of the village, set thick with hardy perennials, evergreens, and small white stones, while encircling this hill was Peter's Creek, that by and by grew up to be a river, but it had a tranquil movement, proceeding slowly on its course by reason of sharing the Pennyroyalian distaste for getting any distance from home.

Then the houses in Pennyroyal: although the beautiful open country was all about them, they crowded so close together that they seemed almost to touch elbows, and now and then one of them had appeared to shove the other back in its determination to get the best view of the street. They were mostly cottages, with no front porches, but with sloping roofs and little Gothic wooden fences, and painted white, with green outside blinds, except Ambrose's, and his had been touched with a boy's imagination, its intention being plainly rose colour.

Now in a double row along the outside wooden sidewalk this morning the linden trees were dropping fragrant yellow plumes inches deep in the ruts of the clay road, while over the chimneys whirled the last of the spring's apple blossoms. Bees buzzed among the flowers, birds chattered, flying nervously from one tree to another in an effort to be through with breakfast before the disturbing human element should get about; and hitched to a nearby post Ambrose's horse and gig were waiting.

The young man surveyed his equipage with the eyes of an idealist.

Old Liza had seen service, but her toilet had been made in the spirit of the best foot foremost; her coat had been freshly curried, her gray mane and tail carefully combed, and in her manner there was an air of emotional anticipation.

With one foot hovering above the step of his gig, Ambrose suddenly paused. The laprobe inside the carriage was quivering.

“Holy Moses!” Reaching underneath, the young man drew forth a small black and brown object whose legs and tail were five upturned points of supplication. Setting it upright on the ground, his face hardened. “Ain't I told you you couldn't come with me, Moses?” he began sternly. “Ef ever there was a crittur, human or otherwise, with a talent for bein' where it wasn't wanted, it's you! Besides, ain't I just locked you in the stable?”

The softening in his master's manner, visible in his last question, in the twitching of his eyebrows, in the slight movement of the tip of his long nose, was familiar to Moses. Casually he approached Ambrose's leg, but midway there, sensing defeat and not being an amiable beast, he planted his feet wide apart, barked as loudly as chronic hoarseness permitted, and straightway the young man humbled himself before him.

“Fer the lands sakes don't give me away,” he pleaded. “I ain't never had such luck before this, getting off without being pestered.” Down on his knees, he patted the stiff bristles, apologetically whispering: “Sorry not to be wishing your company, but Susan and Aunt Ca'line will look after you. Ain't nothin' on God's earth that will keep Susan Barrows from lookin' after every mortal thing she sets eyes on.”

Without deigning a farewell, Moses trotted away. A ridiculous looking animal with an ancestry as mixed as any son of Adam, yet he had an enormous self-esteem. You see, though a dog, Moses possessed a self-sustaining ego, which requires no special ancestry or talents to uphold it. For there is a vanity that feeds itself, and many nobler personalities go down before it. Invariably Ambrose's did. Merely christened after the Hebrew lawmaker because of having been found amid some bulrushes, yet Moses may have felt that the name carried its anointment.

But now at last the traveller had fairly started. Swinging into his gig, he arranged his long legs in a comfortable right-angle triangle, taking a final hurried glance around him. “Move on, Liza, faster'n you can, or it's all over with me,” he urged, “for things is lookin' kind of nervous.”

Three times his wagon wheels had revolved in the clay road when a shutter on the house next door banged open, and like the explosion of a gun a child's voice rent the air.

“He's off! I tell you I see him. He's gettin' away unbeknownst.” And a thin, brown figure hopping out of the window on the grass ran toward the street, twittering and moving its head from side to side like an excited bird. An instant later from the same opening a second pair of legs protruded—longer and thinner than the others, clad in white stockings and black cloth gaiters. Like the feelers of a beetle turned over on its back they waved in the air. And from behind a kind of barrel-shaped opening came a voice so tragic and compelling that even old Liza, stopping short, turned an inquiring eye toward the source of the disturbance.

As for Ambrose, although filled with a boy's impatience at interruption, the sight was overpowering. His reins dropped loosely, he stared, gasped, and then shook with silent laughter. Susan Barrows was living in the days of hoopskirts, and now in her effort to slide through the window had been held fast.

Nevertheless, in her time, desire has probably removed as many mountains as faith, so, notwithstanding her present difficulty, Susan's gave her power soon to set herself upright on the ground, and still with her full rigging to continue moving toward her goal like a ship with a full gale behind it.

A thin middle-aged woman, Mrs. Barrows was, of medium height and of terrific energy. The drama of her personal existence in a small town with no outside interests being always insufficient, Susan had filled in her hunger with an insatiate appetite for other people's affairs. Never could her curiosity about her neighbours be wholly gratified, and yet, like the possessor of any other great passion, its owner did her level best to satisfy it.

Out in the road, with one hand she grasped Ambrose's coat sleeve while the other was unconsciously raised toward heaven. Two bright spots of colour burned on her high cheek bones, her bunches of black corkscrew curls trembled with eagerness, her eyes challenged.

“Tell me where you be goin' and what you be a-goin' fer, Ambrose Thompson. It ain't fair you stealin' off this way each year and nobody findin' out where or why. Seems like us bein' neighbours and me seein' to you since your ma's death, that you might leastways have put your trust in me.”

Removing her hand from his sleeve, Ambrose patted it gently before returning it to its owner. “No, ma'am, I ain't goin' to tell you no more this time than before,” he replied. “And I was hopin' to get off once without remarks.”

During this temporary delay the younger Susan had been industriously pecking and poking about in the lower part of their neighbour's gig. Now as the young man moved on for the second time the child's voice again rang after him.

“He's goin' courtin'; Ambrose Thompson is always runnin' after girls! It's Peachy Williams, for I seen his leg under his duster, and he's wearing his Sunday clothes!”

These last words were a triumph of evidence, but not for a moment would Ambrose look back nor appear to have heard. A humorous affection he might feel for the older Susan, but for the younger his dislike was to last for more than fifty years. Nevertheless, a little later he did turn around, and root and branch, the Susans had vanished, so that even now the news of his departure was stirring through Pennyroyal as the wind moves the leaves in a group of closely planted trees.

Something it is to know when one is beaten. Swearing a trifle and yet grinning, the boy settled himself more comfortably in his gig. “Might as well drive through town now kind of slow, and give folks a treat,” he relented. “Mebbe I was shirkin' duty in tryin' to sneak off. Pennyrile ain't to say starvin' for food and clothes, but she certainly is pinin' for excitement, and who says that ain't just as bad? Seems like Christian charity for me to give this town something to talk about at least once a year.”

And truly these yearly spring migrations of young Ambrose Thompson had aroused more interest and unrest in Pennyroyal than the yearly mystery of the earth's rebirth. Because, for the past five years on a certain May morning (and there never was a way of discovering just which morning he might choose) Ambrose had set out, at first on foot and later with his gig, and been away from his home eight and forty hours. Returning, he had given no clue as to where he had been.

Now like the music of a calliope the squeak of his wagon wheels awoke the village. Windows and doors flew open, heads in nightcaps and bald heads and heads with curls were thrust forth, but to their volley of questionings and accusations, Ambrose offered only the morning's greetings.

Travelling with praiseworthy slowness, he neglected no street in Pennyroyal, and, by the dozen, girls went fluttering in and out of houses, to wave farewells to the adventurer, while bolder voices called out Peachy Williams's name with every teasing inflection. One girl to whom Ambrose threw the spray of honeysuckle from his buttonhole cast it scornfully back, refusing to accept what she so plainly thought another's spoils.

Then the young man drove past Brother Bibbs, the Baptist minister, who, framed in the vestibule of his wooden church, beamed upon him with such heavenly condescension toward earthly affection that his expression of “Bless you, my children,” was almost equivalent to a marriage ceremony. Next, along his route, appeared three maiden sisters, the Misses Polly. They stood in a line in their front yard, Miss Zeruiah, the literary one, always in advance, then Miss Narcissa, instructor in mathematics and the sciences, and last and humblest because most useful of the family trio, Miss Jane, the domestic one. Upon her Ambrose smiled with especial kindness, remembering certain heart-shaped cookies presented in early youth, which even in the form of sweet cakes held a kind of romantic suggestion. The Mistress Polly were directors of the “Polly Institute,” where Ambrose and Peachy had started their technical education at about the same time, and yet this youthful acquaintance hardly justified the present arrangement of a love motif. Nevertheless Ambrose distinctly heard the three ladies breathing in unison the name of “Peachy” as he passed them by.

Two hours later, well away from Pennyroyal, having turned off the high road to a less frequented lane, the traveller brought old Liza to her first halt. Then, drawing out a large red handkerchief, he wiped his moist brow and, removing his collar, gazed furtively about him.

The glory of his early morning face had departed; he looked older and almost haggard.

“Ain't it awful, human curiosity!” he murmured. “Reckon I was most too brave in tryin' to make things worse, and yet I never dreamed folks would think I was runnin' after Peachy Williams this trip. She——”

Lower and lower Ambrose seemed to be gradually settling down into his gig, although finding some trouble in disposing of so great a length of leg.

Finally he sighed: “Kind of wish I had brought old Moses along fer comp'ny.” For the boy was feeling that need for companionship that comes after all mental strain. “But then Moses ain't like dogs; he's so bothersome he's most human—always either wantin' you to do something fer him or to set up and take notice of what he is doin'.”

Relapsing into silence after this, which was soon followed by a more usual and serene state of mind, the young man shortly after took out from his duster pocket a withered russet apple left over from the winter store, and thoughtfully sunk his teeth in it. Then gradually his tranquillity deepened, increased by the recollection of his having just passed through the fire of the enemy and escaped. Behind him lay the village of Pennyroyal, suspicious yet still unsatisfied, and before him the open, empty, springtime road. At will Liza was cropping wayside grass: the traveller's hands had let slip the reins, and sometimes his eyes wandered to the far-off blue horizon and sometimes dwelt on the closer beauty of the roadsides, where elderberry, sumach and Virginia creeper were tangled in thick hedges, and where young grapevines hung like silver-green garlands under their fine coating of May dust.

In a Kentucky landscape, to those who comprehend it, there is ever a sense of generous growth, of nature's yielding herself gladly to life's eternal purpose. Now dimly this country boy began to understand the motive in the new beauties and new fragrances of each returning spring.

Again the eagerness of the dawn overtook him; and stiffening, he picked up his reins, starting off again, when, turning in from an elbow up the road, Ambrose beheld the one person whom above all others his desire had been to escape.

The figure was occupying the entire seat of a buggy, but was driving along apparently so lost in thought as to seem oblivious of anything or anybody in his vicinity.

“Morning, Ambrose,” Doctor Webb began, however, as he appeared directly alongside the other gig, and yet there was nothing either in his tone or manner to suggest that he thought it unusual for a young man to be turning his back upon his natural field of labour at this hour of the morning to drive off in exactly the opposite direction.

“Morning,” Ambrose returned, warily attempting to creep past without further conversation. For if the doctor should open the broadside of his humour the secret of his journey might yet be wrested from him. Nevertheless, although the older man had stopped his horse too deliberately to be ignored, he showed no present desire to ask questions. Indeed, the usual smile had disappeared from his kind face, and his deeply lined eyes appeared anxious and worried. Just such a look Ambrose had seen while the doctor sat watching by the bedside of a critically ill patient.

“What troubles you, doctor?” he inquired.

In answer the man leaned across from his buggy, taking one of Ambrose's lean hands in his, and, unaccustomed to a touch with such magnetic power in it, a kind of electric thrill passed through the susceptible boy.

“It's you I've been troubling about lately, my son,” Doctor Webb answered, “and now it seems as if Providence had just sent you along for me to speak to this morning. I've brought you out of children's diseases, chicken pox, measles and the like, but I've been seein' symptoms in you lately that have made me powerful uneasy, 'cause in this trouble it ain't in my power to help you through.”

Ambrose's tongue was thickening, and his Adam's apple moving convulsively. “Is the disease so serious, then?” he whispered, feeling a hitherto unsuspected though general weakness creeping over him.

The doctor bowed his great head until his double, treble chin rested upon his shirt bosom, concealing his face from view. “Sometimes it's fatal, my boy,” he returned, appearing so moved that his big voice sounded hoarse and unnatural. “It's true there's some that gets over it, but nobody ain't ever quite the same afterward.”

Ambrose was trying to keep his knees from knocking together. “How have I showed symptoms of the disease?” he asked.

And Doctor Webb's whole body rocked slowly back and forth. “My son, you're showin' 'em uncommon bad this mornin'. I could notice 'em soon as I was ridin' up toward you; your colour is a-comin' an' a-goin', your eyes is shinin' unnatural bright, your heart is a-thumpin' too quick.” And here he sighed, so that Ambrose braced his lean shoulders for the worst, although his lips were dry.

“Tell me quick, doctor; ef I kin bear it, what is it ails me?”

“Puppy love,” the doctor shouted, and then giving his old horse an unexpected cut with his clean willow switch, off he drove, shaking with laughter.

“Puppy love!” Twice Ambrose repeated the words in a stupid fashion, and then his laughter rang out until it sounded like an echo of the older man's heavier roar. “Durn it,” he said to himself, “ef that ain't just another way of sayin' 'Peachy'!”

When finally the traveller entered the shelter of a certain group of low hills near the Kentucky river, it was well past the middle of the afternoon, and there in a hollow he fed and watered his horse and then lay down behind a tree.

CHAPTER II. THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE

IN THE mean time, however, Mrs. Barrows and her offspring had not been idle. Indeed, no sooner had they become convinced that no information could be had out of Ambrose than they both set off at once hurrying across back lots, the younger preceding her mother like an outrider, thrusting her head and her news into every open door.

Within a few minutes the mother and daughter had arrived together at a small house set midway in the next street, and there, without even pausing to knock, Mrs. Barrows, pulling at a side door, entered a dining-room. Seated at a breakfast table were six girls and one young man, and immediately the six pairs of inquiring feminine eyes were upraised toward Susan, although the solitary male continued the eating of three large fried eggs in spite of the fact that his appearance plainly indicated a bilious temperament.

“Miner Hobbs, he's gone!” said Susan. “Got off most without my seein' him, though I ain't had a good night's rest come this month of May!”

Obviously this information should have been regarded as interesting, and yet, except for a curt nod, Miner apparently had not heard. From earliest boyhood notwithstanding that two more unlike fellow creatures could not be imagined, he and Ambrose Thompson had been closest friends. For while Ambrose was long and fair, Miner was considerably below medium height and dark, with one gloomy, indestructible curl rising above his already furrowed brow. Alike only in both being orphans, Ambrose was untroubled by other ties, while Miner was guardian to six beautiful blond sisters, all exceeding him in size and tranquillity. The drygoods firm of Hobbs & Thompson had been opened up in Pennyroyal a year before, so that to-day Ambrose's unexplained disappearance was not only a failure in personal confidence but a downright business backsliding.

By and by, Miner arose. Still his fit of abstraction appeared too deep to have been pierced from the outside, and yet, sliding past Mrs. Barrows, he attempted to get out of the door. However, his visitor sprang upon him.

“You're sneakin' off to try to catch up with Ambrose,” she announced triumphantly. “Well, the Lord knows I ain't one to want to hinder you. But I'm thinkin' you won't succeed, for Ambrose Thompson will lead all of us that aims to keep up with him a powerful long journey before ever we are through with him.”

Notwithstanding, in the following of his partner Miner Hobbs fully understood that one must proceed warily; therefore he did not attempt starting until after Ambrose was well out of town, and then he rode slowly along on horseback, never coming into the range of the other traveller's vision, but trying to keep his wheel tracks in evidence, and now and then making inquiries of wayfarers. So that about an hour after Ambrose's entrance into the woods his friend came to the same place and there sought the thicket in which he believed him to have hidden himself.

[Illustration: “Miner rode slowly along on horseback, now and then making inquiries of wayfarers"]

Face downward Ambrose was lying on the soft earth; but if he felt surprise or anger at hearing the sound of a horse's hoofs, and later a human footfall, he made no sign. Flopping over he merely called, “Hello,” keeping his eyes fixed upon the line of hills on the opposite bank of the river. His fishing-pole, fastened to a bush near by, was extended over the water, but Ambrose's only visible occupation was the chewing of a blade of “pennyrile” grass.

In contrast, Miner Hobbs appeared fatigued and harassed.

“I got to find out why you come off to yourself every year, Ambrose,” he began angrily. “I know you're doin' somethin' you're ashamed of or you wouldn't be hidin'.”

“Wherefore?” smiled the other boy. “Look here, Miner, we're friends, have been since the first hour we met, yet I can't see as that gives you the right to know my business. Friends has got their places, and in my opinion a man can tell his friend just what he wants him to know, no more, and no less, and the friend ain't the privilege to spy out a single other thing.”

“But you're doin' somethin' sinful or you would 'a' told me,” Miner repeated doggedly, and then, although uninvited, he sat down on the ground close by, commencing to smooth out the Hyperion curl over his brow which his dejection and the heat of his trip had considerably tightened.

“Then we'll let it go at that,” drawled Ambrose.

And for the next five minutes both boys sulked, Miner gnawing savagely at his plug of tobacco, Ambrose still chewing on the blade of “pennyrile” grass.

There were no informing signs about the place, so Miner decided that the truant must now merely be resting on his journey.

“You hadn't a right to run off from business,” Miner spluttered next. Having made up his mind not to make this accusation, the little man was surprised upon hearing it explode of its own strength.

However, Ambrose, instead of appearing disturbed, attempted to arrange himself more comfortably on the grass, but finding this impossible, his voice suggested richer repose.

“Miner, ain't it ever come to you that the Lord has given human bein's time for more than one thing?” he queried, resting his chin upon his hand. “I hold with work myself most always, but now and then there comes a time, maybe it's just a short time, that is meant for something else, something that belongs to you and is intended for you to do same as your work. Maybe it's restin' and maybe it ain't.”

But at this the little man rose up on his feet. “As you've made up your mind you are not goin' to tell me, Ambrose, what is the use of talkin' so much? I suppose you're sure you are not goin' to tell me?”

His companion bowed his head.

“All right then, it ain't necessary,” Miner rejoined. “I know what 'tis. There ain't but one thing that could ever come between you and me and that's—a girl. If it ain't Peachy Williams that has lured you from home, then it's some one else. I've been expectin' this to happen a long time, and I've been tryin' to prepare myself for this day,”—here Miner choked, and coughed in order to conceal his emotion—“but I've always said to myself: Ambrose's easy, but he's open, and he'll surely tell me in time to get a brace. Of course I know, Ambrose, that you've been plumb crazy about girls since the Lord knows when, and been sendin' mottoes and valentines since you were able to talk, but I didn't think you would reach the marryin' stage fer quite a spell. Still I can see for myself that this spring trip looks like business. It passes my knowledge,”—Miner relented—“but it's you. Seems as if I couldn't bear havin' females worritin' me save those my parents and the Lord put on me to the last day I live, but you, Ambrose, you ain't never had petticoat sense and never will. Good-bye.” And there was unutterable scorn in Miner's last words, as he moved away, mingled with the affection he was to feel for no living thing save Ambrose. When with head bowed, he was unconsciously treading underfoot the flowers that sprinkled his path, a fishing-pole and line deftly circled through the air caught its hook in his coat sleeve.

The one boy struggled, while the other jerked, and then a rich voice drawled: “Please come back, old man, for if you really want to know why I've run off to myself each spring for these past five years so it clean hurts you not to know, I reckon I've got to tell you.”

Then Miner returned and sat down again. His friend's behaviour was now even more puzzling than before, for although Ambrose was close by, his eyes had a faraway look in them, his eyebrows were twitching, his slender nostrils quivering, and indeed, he had the appearance of a man having strayed off some great distance by himself.

“Swear you'll never give me away, Miner,” he began, and holding up one of his big hands in the sunlight—his hands which were the truly beautiful thing about him—he made a mystic sign to which his companion swore.

“You won't understand when I do tell you,” he hedged, “but I've been comin' away off to myself every spring since I was a boy on account of the 'Second Song of Solomon.'”

And at this Miner groaned, shutting his near-sighted eyes. “Lord, he's the chap that had a thousand wives!”

Then back to earth came Ambrose, his blue eyes swimming in mists of laughter and his shouts waking all the echoes in the hills.

“Wives!” he cried, rolling his long body over and over in the grass, and kicking out his legs in sheer ecstasy, “Miner Hobbs, if ever you git an idea fixed in your head, earthquakes won't shake it. Wives, is it? Why, I ain't given Peachy Williams a thought of my own accord since I started on this trip, nor any other girl, for that matter, so I can't for the land sakes see why I have been havin' her poked at me so continual! 'Course there wouldn't be sense in me denyin' that I have a hankerin' for girls; flesh and blood, 'ceptin' yours, Miner Hobbs, cannot deny the kind we raise in Kentucky. However, they ain't been on my mind this trip. Old King Solomon done a lot of things besides havin' a thousand wives—they was his recreation. He builded a temple and founded a nation and wrote pretty nigh the greatest poetry heard in these parts.”

Here the speaker commenced pulling at the damp earth to hide his embarrassment, and then made a pretence of examining the soil that came up in his hand.

“It's the 'Second Song of Solomon' I'm meanin', Miner, and I've already told you you ain't goin' to comprehend me when I do explain,” he continued patiently, “but bein's as it's you, I reckon I've got to try. It's that song about spring. Ever since I was a little boy and first heard it, why it began a-callin' me to get away for a little space to myself to try and kind of hear things grow. It's a disappointin' reason for me sneakin' off, ain't it, and foolish? I wish I had been doin' somethin' with more snap to it, just to gratify Pennyroyal. But at first, you see, I didn't mean nothin' in particular by not tellin', knowin' that folks would think my real reason outlandish, but by and by when the town got so all-fired curious and kept sayin' I was up to different sorts of mischief, I just thought I'd keep 'em guessin'.” Now the long face was quivering in its eagerness to make things clear. “Why, it seems to me from the time that the first green tips come peepin' up between the stubble in the winter fields I kin hear that Solomon Song a-beatin' and a-beatin' in my ears. 'Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds has come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.'”

But poor Miner was making a cup for his ear with his hand. “But turtles ain't voices, Ambrose, that anybody knows of,” he murmured dimly; “it's frogs we hear croakin' along the river bank.”

And this time Ambrose laughed to himself. “It's croaks you're always hearin', old fellow, ain't it?” he whispered affectionately. And then—“I reckon it makes no difference to me whether it's a frog or a turtle, a bird or even a tree toad. It's the song of life, I'm listenin' for, Miner.”

CHAPTER III. PEACHY

NEVERTHELESS, in spite of Ambrose's intentionally truthful declaration to Miner, for the rest of that afternoon and evening he was never wholly able to get free from the thought of Peachy. However, he did not then stir from his first shelter in the woods, finding endless refreshment in the beauty of the Kentucky river landscape, nor did he surrender himself readily to the lure of the feminine; but poor Ambrose was a victim of the strange force that lies embodied within a universal idea.

A bird appearing on the branch of a tree above his head and bending over, peeped into his face twittering: “Pe-che, Pe-che,” as impudently as any small Susan; then, catching his eye, with a little mocking courtesy, flew away. A robin hopping on the grass near the boy's side, pecked at the crumbs left over from his luncheon; her full breast, her air of concentrated domesticity somehow recalled the image of his latest affection—Peachy, the youthful mistress of the Red Farm.

Now in setting out on this spring pilgrimage nothing had been farther from the traveller's intention than any dallying with his familiar weakness. Girls—why, the years behind Ambrose Thompson blossomed with them; never could he recall a season since his extremest boyhood when he had not been enchantingly in love. But actually there was little reason why Peachy Williams should be thrust upon him more than another save that he was growing older and had been devoting some time to her of late. Besides which, she was comely.

Toward nightfall the bird songs became such intimate revelations of love that several times the listener put his fingers into his ears in his effort to fight their suggestions away. And yet it was not until next morning that his decision actually broke.

And then it was not so much a matter of emotion. But he had had an uncomfortable night of fitful dreaming and awakened with yesterday's spiritual elation gone and with an intense desire for human companionship.

Rising first on one elbow, Ambrose made a remark which has probably been considered by the greater portion of the male creation. “I wonder now,” he asked himself, “ef bein' looked after and made over ain't sometimes better'n bein' free?”

A very little while after this the boy cooked his own breakfast, with extremely poor results, and then making as pleasing a toilet as his reflection in the river permitted, immediately set out in the direction of the Red Farm. And no longer did Ambrose's face show signs of struggle: his air had now become one of peaceful acquiescence in the laws of nature. He had no idea of committing himself definitely, however, by this visit to Peachy; his mind was not wholly made up and he desired nothing abrupt or startling; it was simply that at present a day of solitary musing did not appear so appealing as her companionship, and moreover, Ambrose shared the universal masculine delusion that his was the important mind to be made up.

A sense of humour means a sense of proportion and therefore an appreciation of values, so Ambrose Thompson, the young Kentucky Romeo, was not without a certain thrifty streak. In driving along it was not disagreeable to reflect that the Red Farm was the richest tobacco farm in the county and that Peachy was its sole heiress. Not that Peachy by herself was insufficient; Ambrose also had pleasure in recalling the firmness of her young bosom, the sheen of her auburn hair, the whiteness of her teeth—and then—how frequently and how delightfully she laughed. That her laugh was non-committal had not up to this time troubled her admirer, who yearned for a feminine audience and had not yet learned to ask that this audience be discriminating.

Even feeding chickens may be made an alluring picture, or at least Ambrose thought so, when he had driven unobserved into the farmyard and waited there watching Peachy, with her sleeves rolled back, flinging the corn to the ground. Also with his accustomed sensitiveness to impressions the boy realized that the girl herself was not unlike one of her own creamy leghorn hens; she, too, was both red and white with her clear healthy skin, red hair, and red-brown eyes—and then the fulness of her figure! The young man laughed delightedly, when turning and catching sight of him the girl started running toward him with short, uneven steps that yet got over the ground very quickly, and actually when she spoke, there was a little cluck to her voice.

And yet, somehow, Peachy did not seem to feel the same degree of surprise that her visitor did at his own unexpected appearance. She blushed when he kissed her hand with an ardour peculiar to Ambrose though foreign to custom in the “Pennyrile,” but she betrayed no wonder at his visit in the broad daylight when plainly he should have been at work in his store. Neither did she ask questions. Notwithstanding, after a few words of greeting, Ambrose had the impression of being shooed into the house, Peachy using her white apron for the purpose.

Yet this had not been his intention, for indeed he had arrived at the farm an hour before dinner, with the idea of taking Peachy out for a walk and then possibly confiding to her the original purpose of his escape from Pennyroyal; surely she could be made to understand better than any one else, and his mood was now one requiring sympathy. Instead, however, there was something mysterious the matter with the girl's costume, so that Ambrose shortly found himself divested of his hat and duster and shut up in a sticky parlour with the family album on his lap for entertainment, and only one window open to give him just enough light to be able faintly to see and air to keep barely alive. On entering the room his first impulse naturally had been to fling open wide all the windows, but hearing his hostess's cries of horror, both his arms and his inclination had weakened. Although truly the lawn about the Red Farm house was exquisitely green and free from dust, yet the thought of possible desecration to the best parlour had the effect of reality.

Now although Ambrose was miserably settled according to Peachy's directions, and in spite of having expressed the desire to change her dress at once, the girl still lingered on, her face wearing a look that troubled her suitor as it was so unlike her usually placid and admiring one. Her red lips were drawn, her brow puckered, her atmosphere one of extreme disapproval. Under the circumstances Ambrose's forehead was naturally moist with perspiration and his face not overly clean, yet his clothes, notwithstanding being somewhat crumpled and dusty, were plainly his Sunday best.

“What is it, Peachy?” he asked, first studying himself solicitously. Then, following her shuddering gaze across the crimson splendour of the Brussels carpet, he beheld a track of mud made with footprints so large that they could belong to no other feet than his. His eyes dropped. Surely his feet were caked with mud—mud from the shadowy cool depth of the woods, from the banks of that celestial river so lately deserted by him. Yet, seeing the girl's unhappiness, again the young man surrendered and so for a longtime (it was hard to tell how long) continued sitting in the same place. Peachy had gone away, to remain perhaps till dinner time, and taken his shoes with her. So Ambrose's feet were now encased in a pair of hot carpet slippers, a whole size too small for him, so that he could not even shuffle without crumpling his toes or else walking about in his socks.

Several times he sighed, pushing back his long hair, a gesture with him expressive of mental unrest. Why, oh, why, had he given up his original plan of two days' solitary freedom and companionship with nature? Peachy had never seemed less alluring, and as for physical comfort or even the pleasure of her society, had he gained either? Cold shivers every now and then had their way up and down the young man's spine in the course of his meditations, notwithstanding the warmth of the room. For he knew himself to be easily stirred, so supposing that he and Peachy had taken the walk together that morning and something serious had happened! By and by young Ambrose began to feel as utterly uninterested in female charms, as cool and remote as a snow-capped mountain, and at about this moment Peachy returned to the room.

She was wearing a pure white dress and, moving over into a dark corner, smiling at her suitor, she sat down on a small sofa. Here, by dint of pinning his toes down into his slippers, and letting his heels rise above them, Ambrose managed to arrive a few seconds later. He was close up beside her, as comfortably near as Peachy's starched clothes permitted, liking the clean smell of her dress, the perfume of her body; there were odours about her of warm new milk, of fresh honey, of ripening fruits.

And quite by accident, it seemed to him, the girl's plump hand was laid near his, so that a moment later it required pressing. Then the kerchief about her full breast, rising and falling softly, showed a hint of something whiter and softer beneath. With surprising rapidity the boy's recent regret for his lost holiday began slipping away from him. The room was still close, but a breeze blowing in from the partly raised window fanned them both. Perhaps Ambrose's head was swimming from fatigue and drowsiness, perhaps from his sense of his companion's nearness, of her readiness to fall into his arms with his first desiring touch.

“Peachy,” Ambrose was whispering, when stealthily the door of the parlour opened, and there stood Peachy's father, his red face wearing such an expression of amusement and coarse understanding that instantly Ambrose felt a return of his former coldness. His boots having been cleaned and returned to him five minutes later, he followed the farmer and his daughter into their dining-room.

There the meal was a hideous one to him despite his hunger and the good and plentiful food. For seated at the family table, were several farm hands, white overseers of the negro labourers, and they made stupid jokes, shoving their elbows into one another and grinning idiotically from Peachy to him. Their ugly thoughts were like palpable close presences in the room, destroying all possible illusions for the boy, and yet the girl herself seemed not to mind. Instead, she blushed and bridled, sending challenging looks at Ambrose across the spring freshness of his piled-up plate of new potatoes, jowl, and spring greens each time he attempted putting his fork up to his mouth.

So that after a while, inch by inch, the boy felt himself being pushed into a corner where he had meant to walk one day of his own accord. And by the time dinner was over, not only had all desire passed from him, but apparently all will power as well. For next he allowed Peachy to lead him to an enclosed summer house. This summer house was some distance away from the big place and so shut in by carefully trained vines that it allowed no opportunity for distracting views or vistas beyond. It was what one under some circumstances might have called, “a chosen spot.”

[Illustration: “The Village"]

Now there is no reasonable explanation of why Peachy Williams, the chief heiress of “the Pennyrile,” had so set her heart upon the possession of Ambrose Thompson. Lovers were plentiful, and among them the rich owner of the place adjoining her father's, and Ambrose had no fortune worth mentioning, and, moreover, was distinctly homely; but perhaps Peachy was drawn as many another woman has been before—by the lure of the unknown; for never could she have any proper understanding of Ambrose Thompson's temperament. Times were when he appeared more ardent than any of her other suitors, and then his attention being distracted, both physically and mentally he faded from sight. Now in contrast Peachy's own disposition was direct and simple. At a distance from the Red Farm to the village she recognized that her lover might be difficult to control, but near at hand she believed him tractable, and in a measure this was true, for Ambrose could always be managed by his friends up to a certain point—only the trouble was that at this time of life Peachy Williams did not understand where this point ended.

Like a long tallow candle slowly melting from the heat, the young man was now lolling idly on the narrow circular bench of the summer house appearing so limp and dispirited that he seemed incapable of any kind of opposition.

Would the afternoon never pass? Could he ever remember having been forced to remain so long in the society of any one woman? So long that he ceased to have anything he desired to say or any possible idea that he wished to express; indeed his mind felt as clean and empty as a slate wiped by a wet rag. Why in heaven's name didn't Peachy herself have something to say once in a while? Before this day his calls had been short evening ones, when he had had opinions of his own and to spare. Could the time ever come in a man's life when he might want a girl to be inspiration as well as audience, to have an idea of her own now and then?

“Oh, Lord,” Ambrose groaned half aloud. If only he could think of some plan of escape, but in the rash enthusiasm of his arrival at the farm had he not promised Peachy to remain all day? And now in his exhausted condition even his imagination had deserted him. Certainly he could think of no excuse for getting away at once.

Yet more and more depressing were Peachy's long silences, her frequent laugh more irritating, since Ambrose could find no reasonable excuse for laughter in the dulness of the interminable May afternoon with nothing to look at but the ground at his feet, or the lacing of leaves overhead, except Peachy, stitching, stitching everlastingly on something so white and weblike that Ambrose felt he too was being sewed in, made prisoner for life.

His long legs twitched, fairly his body ached with his longing to be off, until by and by even the girl was made to realize that things were not going as she had reasonably expected.

“What is it ails you this afternoon, Ambrose?” she asked at last, wistful if he had but known it. “Wasn't there something special you wanted to say to me to-day, else why did you come so out of your regular time?”

“Why had he come?” Barely was Ambrose able to repress another groan. For the life of him he could not now have told what had drawn him that morning to the Red Farm. Whatever desires or emotions had then stirred him were gone, his head was heavy, his blood moved languidly, even the necessary domestic noises of farm life were inexpressibly annoying. Could Peachy ever have spelled romance? Sighing aloud Ambrose put up his hand to wipe fresh moisture from his brow, and then coloured.

“I'm afeard you're ill,” the girl continued, suddenly solicitous, and again with a movement that suggested a motherly hen: “You're so quiet and unlike yourself and yet so nervous and wriggly.”

Ambrose yawned. “I slep' out last night, so mebbe I'm tired,” he confessed unadvisedly; then immediately observed the same expression on Peachy's face that had been brought there by the presence of his muddy boots in her parlour. Her lips had tightened, though her brow was smooth; it was that gentle but awful look of the born manager.

“I knowed you'd been doin' something foolish,” she stated calmly. “Anybody else'd remember there is chills and fever out of doors these spring nights. It's the spring that has set in on you; your blood needs thinnin'. I'll get you some sassafras tea.” Relieved by Ambrose's revelation, Peachy was for at once starting off, but the young man caught at her skirts.

Truly the spring was not at present working on him nor did his blood at this hour require thinning.

“Don't go, Peachy; it ain't sassafras I'm needin', thank you just as kindly,” he said, touched and a bit shamed by her interest. “To tell you the truth, I'm beginnin' to feel restless wantin' to get back to the woods ag'in. I'll come back to see you soon,” he pleaded, observing that her head was being shaken with unmoved persistence. Her reply was final:

“You'll do no such thing, Ambrose Thompson; you'll stay right here till your queerness has wore off. Haven't I been worryin' over you ever since dinner? Think I'll let you go moonin' off now by yourself with no one to look after you?” Like young Juno both in her majesty and plenitude, Peachy did this time move out of sight, leaving her victim greatly shaken.

In a few moments Ambrose knew that a bitter herb compound would be poured down his reluctant throat; later he might be placed in bed between hot blankets and more sweat drawn from his lean frame. Really there was no limit to Peachy's particular kind of mothering femininity, and since her intentions were kind—Ambrose knew himself of old—before kindness he would go down like a struck ten-pin. Already he could feel the blankets closing in over him, and now in truth he shook with a chill.

Soon after his tall form arose, and then crouched as it crept forth from the summer house, stopping only long enough to pin a white paper to the outside arbour, when with leaps and bounds it disappeared inside the stable, to reappear a few moments later with old Liza hitched to his high gig. Driving as rapidly as possible he soon got past the outside farm gate leading into the road.

So when Peachy returned with cup and spoon in hand she found her shrine deserted and instead read this note pinned outside among the vines and scrawled in the handwriting of Ambrose Thompson:

          You were right, Peachy dear, I'm not myself
          to-day. I am cold and my heart action is
          uncommon feeble, so I think I'd best not stay to
          worry you. Maybe I'll be coming back to the farm
          some day when I'm feeling different.

                     Your respectful
                     AMBROSE.

However, safe on the road, Ambrose, looking back and catching a far image of Peachy with his letter in her hand, decided that never again should he return to the Red Farm. For not only was Ambrose fleeing, but knew the reason why. Peachy was a manager, and had that moment in the parlour before dinner been longer—well, thank God and old Liza, he was still free.

“Good Lord, deliver me!” the boy prayed, though being a good Baptist he knew no litany save that of his own soul.

CHAPTER IV. “Even so, Love, even so!
          Whither thou goest, I will go.”

SO THE boy continued driving on and on, loitering in the faint sweet-smelling May afternoon.

At first after having left the farm his heart had been troubled and his mind uneasy, burdened by an unconscious wave of sex weariness.

“Lord,” he said aloud once, “seems such a pity you didn't make all critturs the same sex; I ain't carin' which, male or female, seein' what a lot of trouble we might all then 'a' been saved.”

Naturally, so far as Ambrose himself was concerned, he was through with the dangers lurking in feminine society forever! He even intended confessing this conviction to his friend and partner, Miner, as soon as they should be alone together, for even at the moment of his resolution had not the boy's subliminal self whispered that he might need strengthening later on?

After getting well away from his danger zone, however, Ambrose had chosen that the remainder of his spring journey should lie through an unfamiliar part of the state, and so had turned his horse into every likely lane presenting itself until by degrees the ever-increasing beauty of the landscape wrought its effect upon his susceptible soul.

The houses along his route were finer than those of his own neighbourhood and, being placed farther back, showed only a chimney, or the white fluted column of a veranda every now and then beyond the closely planted avenues of beech or maple trees. Sounding across the fields came the voices of the darkies closing their day's tasks with songs. Truly this Kentucky was a happy land in the days before the war, and on this afternoon there were myriads of the soft, green growing things toward which Ambrose's young spirit had yearned,—acres of corn just creeping above the mould, and miles of tiny tobacco plants.

Then unexpectedly this character of landscape disappeared, and old Liza trotted on to a hard white turnpike. The twilight was closing down, but a toll-gate keeper showed himself a few yards ahead, and then a cluster of small stores. Afterward there was nothing further to interest Ambrose until he drove straight up to a big building surrounded by a high fence and set in the middle of a grassless yard without the influence of a tree or vine near it and where from the inside came the murmur of children's voices hushed to a pathetic, uniform note.

The boy knew the place at once for a county orphan asylum, and being what he was, reflected. In times past he had seen these same orphans led through the streets of Pennyroyal, a dreary set of little human beings, dressed alike and made to keep step like a chain gang. “Glory,” he whispered, “here am I running away from the fear of havin' to keep step with one person; what if I had been made to keep step with so many?”

The next moment brought him nearly opposite a woodpile, and there he slowed up, for he thought that he heard a noise behind it sounding like a scared sheep or lamb.

“Stop!” What looked like a child's figure instantly rose and ran toward him. “Hide me!” she gasped; “oh, please be quick and don't ask questions.” And the girl clung so tightly to the spokes of the gig wheel that had the young man driven on she must have been dragged like a slave at his chariot.

But of course he did no such thing. “Hop in,” he replied cheerfully. Then, while the child crouched shivering and panting against his knee under the thin laprobe, Ambrose whistled to indicate his entire lack of concern in this latest adventure, and also to suggest that he rode alone.

Pretty soon, however, he began wondering what character of person he had rescued and from what or from whom she was running away, it being characteristic of Ambrose that first he had done what was required of him, and later had desired to ask questions. In the haste and semi-darkness it had been impossible to tell whether the child was a gypsy or a mere ordinary waif, and she had looked so young—twelve or a little more perhaps. There was nothing much to judge by except that she was little and light and that her eyes were dark and shiny and she had two braids of long hair. But by and by of its own accord the figure under the laprobe started talking. “Don't let anybody take me away,—say you ain't seen me if they come along,” she pleaded in such a tone that it was only possible for Ambrose to give a reassuring pat to her head and then to drive more rapidly along. Once when there was a moment of unusual stillness he did peep under the laprobe, only to catch sight of a pair of grateful eyes upturned to his and to jerk back his hand from the touch of cold lips.

Fifteen minutes of what had seemed totally unnecessary hiding, as there were few vehicles abroad on the turnpike at this late hour, and then both the occupants of the gig heard a furious pounding of a horse's hoofs behind them and knew that something or some one was being pursued.

The girl's clasp tightened, and Ambrose could catch, not the words, but the sound of a prayer. Harder than ever before in all their ten years of friendly intimacy the boy now spurred on old Liza. It might have been just as well had he known why he was being thus chivalrous, but there had been no opportunity so far for finding out, and everything in Ambrose played gallantly with this new adventure. He was still a boy with a boy's love of mischief, of hiding, of winning in any kind of game, and susceptibility to instant sympathy.

Old Liza was a retired racehorse, and although her retirement dated some years back, still she was subject to spurts of speed. However, the best of spurts won't hold out long, and soon her driver realized that the wagon behind was gaining on him every moment.

“Keep still!” he ordered, deliberately pulling up short in the middle of the road. With a quick movement, seeing that the truant was completely hidden, he set his carpet-bag up on his lap, and, opening it, began rummaging among its contents. When the other wagon was within hailing distance he turned slowly about.

“Thank the Lord for trifles, stranger,” he called. “I wonder now if you would mind pausin' and givin' me a light; I got my pipe and tobacco”—he held out an old-time corncob pipe—“but maybe you be hurryin' on to a sick person.”

Naturally the other man hesitated. Ambrose's solemn long face was fairly plain to view, also his manner of having all eternity before him. Eying him suspiciously, the newcomer thrust forth his own lighted pipe, Ambrose managing to keep his carpet-bag between them.

“You ain't seen anything of a runaway girl?” the man asked.

Ambrose nodded with irritating precision, the time being consumed in scrutiny of his questioner's face. The man had lantern jaws, small, hard eyes, and an expression of official authority peculiarly annoying to certain members of the laity.

“There was a girl a piece back hidin' behind a woodpile; thought maybe she was playin' hide and seek.” Here the speaker laughed. “Reckon you suspicioned she was a pretty fair runner if you're chasin' a girl along the high-road with that horse. Most any human would have had the sense to hide.” Here the reins flapped on old Liza's back and she took a few steps forward.

Evidently Ambrose's words had not been without effect, for the stranger did not hurry on at once, neither did he reveal any misgiving in connection with the young man nor the amount of property being transported at the front of his gig, for the country people of that day were accustomed to doing their own carrying.

Safety with honours! A smile began playing about Ambrose's face, when suddenly a kind of miniature convulsion shook his leg, followed by a choking, spluttering noise that was plainly a terrified sneeze.

And instantly the hand of the man in the wagon reached forward, but he was not within reaching distance, and at the same instant Ambrose, seizing hold of his passenger, made a flying leap from the gig. Then catching the girl's hand in his he ran with her, ran gloriously, hardly conscious of the light figure being drawn along. All day his long legs had been cramped with sitting still; this, then, was the thing that he had most desired: leaping ditches, tearing across ploughed fields to the woods ahead, with the frightened girl panting but keeping close to his side, and behind them the enraged, shouting figure of officialdom.

Once in the woods the hiding was easy; twisting in and out among the trees not only did Ambrose lose his pursuer, but himself. For if he had counted on anything, which he probably had not, it was that the man would not run after them for any length of time, leaving his fast horse to stand in the road.

Finally, the girl and boy both dropped down on the ground. The long May twilight was past, still they could see the outlines of each other's forms, and Ambrose could hear the beating of the girl's heart against her frock like the fluttering of an imprisoned moth.

He could not help reassuring her. “You're safe, sis, don't worry,” he drawled. “Keep still and maybe in a minute I'll find some water.”

But she would not let him leave her, and tagged along until they finally discovered a little stream. Then, as Ambrose had some stale bread in his pocket, together they feasted for a short time, when, as the moon of the night before had come out again a trifle larger, Ambrose decided to inquire concerning his companion's plans. She now seemed entirely peaceful, and, though rested, had made no mention of moving along. However, for some time longer he watched her with that solemn stare of his. She was chattering gayly enough about nothing (“there was never a time when a female wouldn't be able to talk,” he thought), but by and by she must be interrupted.

“I wonder now,” he said when there was no longer any sound either of fear or fatigue in her voice, “if you would kindly be tellin' me which way you would like to be goin' and what friends you was plannin' to run to to-night when I picked you up back on the road? I ain't to say acquainted with this part of the country, but I reckon I can help to find them. It's gettin' late and I ain't easy in my mind about Liza.”

For some absurd reason he felt himself placed upon the defensive.

The girl was shaking her head. “I ain't no friend but you.”

Ambrose whistled. “Well, bein's as I am what one might call a recently adopted friend, maybe you'll so much as tell me where you're thinkin' of spendin' the night.”

“I ain't thinkin',” was the answer, and at this Ambrose swore softly, though you may count on his having sworn under his breath.

“Look here, you got to tell me a straight story. I ought to 'a' made you before,” he confessed. “I reckon I knew you were runnin' away from that orphan asylum and I kind of wanted to help, even more when that fellow came after you, but we can't go traipsin' around all night, and I got to find Liza. You oughtn't to have run away from a good asylum if you hadn't no friends.”

Ambrose knew himself for a liar before the girl on the ground began rocking herself back and forth with her hands clasped over her knees.

“I ought to, I ought to, I ought to,” she repeated until her words had the swaying influence of a chant. “You know nothin' about it. I have been in that place so long I can't remember anywheres else. How can I have friends? I don't know nobody, I don't love nobody, I ain't nobody! Why, there's mornings when I get up and lookin' at the other orphans, seein' we are dressed alike and got to do the same things at the same time all day, I begin to think maybe there ain't any me. I'm just one of them—any one.” She began crying now, but that did not interrupt her passionate speech. “I've been thinkin' of runnin' away a long time. P'raps I'll have a hard time; I don't care. Ain't I a right to find out?”

And this of course the young man could not answer, so he only passed his hand over his brow. “Well, you might 'a' stayed at the asylum a little longer,” and then because he was Ambrose, “or at least till I got safely past that woodpile.”

“I was too old,” she defended. “I ought not to have stayed so long as I did, only nobody knew what to do with me.” She was looking up into her companion's face close, that she might find something more of help in it. “Maybe you know some one that might want me? I know lots of things, cleanin' and cookin' some——” She would like to have continued to pour out her poor list of accomplishments, but Ambrose stopped her.

For some time the fear had been growing upon him that the child he believed himself to have rescued was not so much a child as he had first supposed. Of course he had never seen her very plainly and there was nothing to judge by in her short, scant dress. “Would you mind,” he now inquired, “tellin' me just about how old you are?”

“Sixteen.”

Ambrose groaned. For in Kentucky half a century ago, you must remember, sixteen was thought an age nearer that of a woman than of a girl.

“Then I've got to take you back to the orphans,” he announced.

However, his declaration had not even the distinction of being listened to, for the girl, with her chin sunk in her clasped hands, was plainly thinking of something else. Now she put one hand timidly on his coat sleeve, and Ambrose could see that she had a curiously pointed chin and that her eyes were like deep wells with the moonlight shining down into them. “Maybe you'll tell me where you're thinkin' of stayin' the night?”

“The Lord knows only.” And here yesterday's adventurer had a sudden vision of himself setting forth on his journey to be alone with nature. On the morning of the second day he had been almost caught in a trap of his own setting, and now at nightfall was probably in a worse fix. “I had been thinkin', though, of spendin' the night somewhere peaceful-like in the woods,” he growled.

The girl clapped her hands together and, yawning, drew closer to her new friend, almost as if she meant to rest her head upon his shoulder.

“Then let me stay with you, please,” she begged, and Ambrose could feel her warm breath on his cheek. “The woods is big and there's plenty of room for me, too. I shan't be afraid with you, and I've never seen the stars, except through the window.”

The boy rose. “No,” he said harshly, “you can't stay alone in the woods at night with me. I reckon before this I understood you didn't know nothing.”

Half an hour afterward they found old Liza cropping grass, a little off the main road where they had left her. When both of them had returned to the gig Ambrose drove on in silence with an uncommonly bored face.

Later the moon went behind a cloud and a light mist fell, and then the girl's body began swaying gently backward and forward. Once she fell too far forward, when, still frowning, her companion slipped an arm about her, and a moment later she was fast asleep with her head resting on his shoulder.

Ambrose breathed deeply of the odour of the fresh wet earth. It was like the perfume of her young body; the moist curls about her face like the damp tendrils of new vines. Soon the boy's shoulder ached, and his entire left side, including his leg, seemed to have gone to sleep. Now and then he wondered if it ever should wake again in this world; and yet try as he might Ambrose Thompson could not make up his mind that he actually disliked the presence of the girl with him, and never from youth to old age had he the talent for deceiving himself.

“Poor kid,” he murmured more than once, “she must 'a' been lyin' awake nights plannin' to run away, with no place on God's earth to run to.”

Seldom did he allow himself the pleasure of looking long at her, and only once did his lips move toward hers, and then, though his face worked, they were drawn sharply back.

“Lord!” he whispered after this, “whatever shall I do with her?” A stranger in that part of the country himself, he knew of no one to ask to shelter the girl, and take her back to the asylum he would not. Should he turn her over to a stranger she would promptly be sent back there in the morning. Yet here were the lights of a village showing close ahead of them, and every now and then old Liza stumbled, almost falling from weariness.

Ambrose's prayer half awakened the girl. Anyhow, she sat up for a moment rubbing her eyes, to hear him asking: “Whatever is your name?”

“Sarah,” and then her head swayed again.

But Ambrose sat straight up giving his reins an unexpected joyous flap. “Glory, why ain't I thought of it before?” he asked of no one. Then aloud: “When Abraham drew near to the land of the Egyptians didn't he admonish Sarah, his wife, to say she was his sister that it might be well with him and that his soul should live?” He grinned silently. “I'm findin' the patriarchs pretty useful this trip, but I reckon if Abraham could say that his wife Sarah was his sister to save his own skin, I can tell the same kind of a one to save a girl.”

“Wake up, Sarah,” he urged, when a few moments later he drew rein before a red brick tavern door, “and if anybody asks questions, recollect you are to say you're my sister.”

However, on that same evening, when Sarah put up her lips for a sister's good night kiss, it was the boy who turned away. There was something in this girl that called to him too strongly, something fragrant and as yet unawakened, and then he had not dreamed she was so pretty, with her scarlet cheeks and big, heavy-lidded eyes, some poor little child of Eve from a far different land than his blond Kentucky. It looked, too, as though the little force the girl had, had now spent itself in her one effort of running a way, and hereafter some one would surely have to look after her. “Not only had she never been taught at the asylum to think for herself,” the boy reflected, “she ain't never even been allowed to.”

Nevertheless the girl slept untroubled in her high-post bed in the best guest chamber of the tavern, while Ambrose in a tiny room close under the roof, lay awake for a long time. He was not in the woods alone as he had dreamed of being, and yet he was not unhappy. He was not listening to the voices of nature as he knew her, but to the stirrings of his own blood, to the beating of his own heart.

More than once in order to stay his restlessness Ambrose had risen from his bed and stood leaning and looking out of his window at the stars and breathing deep the odours of the night. Still he could see nor feel nothing except the presence of the strange girl near him, the appeal of her utter helplessness. And yet the boy did not understand that the song of life he had come forth to hear was being sung to him for the first time to-night. For he only kept repeating to himself over and over: “Whatever am I to do with her, poor little kid?” until he also fell asleep.

CHAPTER V. THE RETURN

IT WAS the fourth morning since Ambrose's departure, and county court day in Pennyroyal. The hour was just before noon, so the men had already left the court-house and were standing around in groups talking politics, while the younger ones paraded, walking shoulder to shoulder for mutual support and encouragement. The main street was also fluttering with girls, a variety of household errands having brought them forth at this hour; on their arms fresh sunbonnets trembled, in their eyes wonderful things danced, and indeed almost all of them were fair. Yet in the doorway of the drygoods firm of Hobbs & Thompson Miner Hobbs stood wrapped in gloom; the girls had giggled for him and at him vainly. More than eighty-six hours had passed bringing no word from his partner.

Suddenly a vibration swept through the air as tangible as the pealing of bells. Ambrose was on his way back into Pennyroyal. The news must have had its origin somewhere out of sight, for now it was travelling swiftly by word of mouth.

One moment the older men ceased arguing and spat widely, the girls turned their eyes away from their admirers, even the youths glanced up the hill, for the story grew that not only was Ambrose returning, but that he did not ride alone.

By and by, though still some distance off, Miner beheld old Liza drawing the familiar gig. About her neck hung a garland of buttercups and daisies, above one twitching ear appeared a bouquet of wild flowers and sweet fern tied with flowing streamers of white cotton-back satin ribbon, while upright on the floor of the gig stood Ambrose.

As the equipage advanced Miner leaned against his door frame.

Ambrose was wearing a new stove-pipe hat, his swallow tailed coat revealed a new beflowered waistcoat, and in his buttonhole blossomed a rose. But Miner swept details aside. On Ambrose's face was the expression that has lit up the world, and by his side rode a strange girl never before seen in Pennyroyal.

Ambrose was bowing from right to left, waving his hat in joyous circles of greeting, while the girl clung with one hand to an end of his coat and with the other clutched her paper-flower bouquet.

When the gig had turned the corner into Linden street and was moving on toward the rose cottage the news of its approach had preceded it, for the wooden sidewalk close by was lined and there in the forefront stood Susan Barrows, her hands on her hips and her bunches of corkscrew curls bobbing.

“Where on earth did you find that girl, Ambrose Thompson?” she called out as soon as the couple were in hailing distance.

Ambrose drove closer. “I didn't find her, Miss Susan,” he answered, lying like a saint.

Mrs. Barrows' eyes bored like old gimlets sharpened from long use. “She's too young to be your housekeeper, and she ain't ugly,” she said. “The town'll talk.”

But now Liza had stopped of her own accord in front of home, and Ambrose, letting go of his reins, put his arm about the girl. Under the new poke bonnet her face was pale except for the scarlet of her lips and her dark eyes that never left their refuge.

The sensitive point to her companion's long nose quivered. Coming toward them he could see Miner's six pink-and-white, blond sisters, and in their wake the dark little man. Miner was walking like a man at a funeral, with his head bowed, and that he did not wear a band of crêpe upon his arm was only that he had lacked opportunity; everything else suggested a pall. At the same instant, round the corner of the cottage, trotted Moses, waving his tail and wearing a smile of forgiveness. One look, and ignoring his master's friendly whistle, the little dog disappeared, not to be seen again for three days.

Silently Ambrose lifted the stranger down to the boardwalk and with his arm still about her turned to face Susan. Perhaps there was something of appeal in the familiar solemnity of his gaze and in his whimsical drawl:

“We'll let the town talk, Susan, won't we, or it'll bust?” he replied quietly. “No, ma'am, she ain't my hired housekeeper; no ma'am, she ain't no relation of mine; that is, no born blood kin.” With this he began leading Sarah to the shelter of his own yard and, drawing her in, closed the gate.

“But we're pretty closely related, Susan.” Purposely Ambrose's voice was raised. He then took a few irresistibly jubilant steps backward and forward, swinging the girl with him. “She's my wife!”

PART TWO. HIS SECOND WIFE

          “Heaven mend us all

CHAPTER VI. RECONSTRUCTION

“HOW long has it been since, Mrs. Barrows?” asked the Baptist minister.

“Eight years, Brother Bibbs,” Susan answered.

They were standing in front of Susan Barrows' cottage one late June afternoon in the summer of 1866.

The minister sighed, flapping his worn coat-tails as a signal of distress. Mrs. Barrows was gazing at the house next door. There the lilac bush which had showed its first blossoms on that morning of Ambrose's runaway had grown to full estate. Its season having passed, however, it was no longer in bloom, but instead, the climbing rose, known in the South as the “Seven Sisters,” was spreading itself above the front door, bestowing its flowers against the background of the once rose-coloured cottage.

Susan's black curls moved reminiscently, eight years having wrought no changes in her beyond the deepening of the original plan. “Yes, eight years since Ambrose Thompson brought that orphan child home, and two since she passed away. Seems that Ambrose wouldn't never have got off even one year to the war if she hadn't gone on before, seein' as she wasn't never willing to let him out of her sight a minute longer'n she could help.”

“A deeply affectionate nature,” remarked the minister.

“A powerful clinger,” retorted Susan, “but men is forgivin' to regular features with a high colour.” She turned at this instant to look down the street. “I call it chokin' myself to hang on to a man the way Sarah done to Ambrose plumb up to the hour she died. What's always needin' proppin' ain't to my mind worth the prop. Howsomever, the child is dead, and I'm hopeful death does change us right considerable, though I can't see as it changes nothin' of what we were nor what we done in this world—and more's the pity!”

Assuredly Brother Bibbs was growing restless, and Mrs. Barrows talking to cover time. For five minutes before had she not seen him attempting to sneak past her gate to gain refuge in the Thompson cottage unobserved before its owner could possibly have returned from work?

Then, too, the minister's face was uncommonly harassed, and these were disjointed days in the Pennyroyal as well as throughout the entire country. True, the Civil War was over, which Susan called “the uncivilest ever fit on God's earth,” but while its wounds and differences were patched up they were by no means healed. And Pennyroyal's disposition to regard herself as one family had made her dissensions peculiarly bitter. There were times in this past year since the close of the war when the minister had wondered if it had not been the bitterest year of all, for notwithstanding that Kentucky did not suffer from reconstruction as the states further south, remember that she was, during and after the war, a state divided within herself.

There was trouble in the Pennyroyal air this afternoon.

“Farewell, Susan,” Brother Bibbs suggested, as getting out his pocket handkerchief he removed a slight moisture from his eyes. “Ambrose and Sarah loved one another, that was the main thing. Theirs was a spring mating, and, like the birds whose season they chose, brief, too brief in passing.” Attempting now to move, Brother Bibbs found it impossible, since in his moment of sentiment Mrs. Barrows, leaning over her fence, had linked her arm through his.

“Well, thank the Lord the little love bird didn't leave a young one in the nest for me and the male to look after,” she argued more leniently. “Come right on in, Brother, and rest yourself, as I kin see Ambrose and his two shadders advancin' toward us up the street, and a peskier pair of shadders than Miner Hobbs and that dog, Moses, I ain't never seen, but it's true the two of 'em ain't left Ambrose to himself a minute since his wife died.”

With her free hand Susan now waved a friendly greeting, even releasing at the same time the vigour of her clutch with the other, for Brother Bibbs was a fragile gentleman, an elderly widower, and, excepting in matters pertaining to heaven or hell, greatly subject to the sisters in his congregation.

Also the three figures were almost in plain sight, the little man leaning as usual on the arm of the tall one, with Moses following but a few steps behind.

Miner Hobbs walked with a slight limp. Wounded in the battle of Resaca, he had never entirely recovered, and although not yet thirty years old already showed signs of advancing age in his shrivelled appearance, like a nut whose kernel has failed to ripen.

Moses, however, was remarkably well preserved and, barring a stiffness in his legs and a few grizzled hairs, lighter of heart than in many a year. For since that girl who had come to his home had suddenly gone away with equal mysteriousness his master was once more his slave.

On the surface Ambrose seemed to have changed more than either Miner or the dog. His face had lost its look of easy laughter, the crow's feet about the corners of his eyes spoke of nights of hard service. Perhaps he was even longer and leaner than ever, while the hair upon his forehead was slowly beginning to recede like a wave from the shore.

Now his familiar spirit of fun took hold on him. The little man was talking to him earnestly. “Go easy, Miner,” he whispered, bending his tall head, “ef you want to keep your secret from the women; there's Miss Susan less'n a block away.” He also continued his teasing even after joining the minister and Mrs. Barrows, managing in a few moments to pass with the two men into his house, leaving the lady bristling with anger.

“There's somethin' fermentin' in the head of every man in this here town,” she flared, coming out on to the sidewalk and then following the trio into Ambrose's yard the better to deliver her message, “somethin' you're hidin' from the women, and what men keeps to themselves ain't no good and never was! Suppose we ain't noticed you plottin' new mischief together? Like it wasn't enough,” she ended bitterly, “that women has had to bear a war, go half starved, and do man's work as well as their own 'thout bein' asked whether they'd like a war or not. Wonder if the good time's comin' when women kin reveal what they think and not have to stand fer the things they don't have no hand in the makin' of.”

Although during this tirade her audience had disappeared, eternal vigilance was forever Mrs. Barrows' motto. So now she went on with her watching, while the three men remained a long time inside the cottage, and by and by, when darkness had fallen, other men with their faces hidden followed in after them. Soon these men came out, and last of all Miner, Ambrose, and Brother Bibbs. Miner was scowling; nevertheless his scowl was concealing an expression of triumph; the minister's figure plainly showed defeat, but Ambrose, whatever his former look, laughed aloud, catching sight of his neighbour through the gloom, standing on a kitchen chair and leaning across the dividing rails between her house and his in order to peep through the closed slats of his sitting-room window.

“Look out, Miss Susan, the meetin' is over, and high places is rickety,” he called suddenly.

Mrs. Barrows started guiltily, accomplishing her own downfall, and over she went with the wreck of her chair, only to spring up so quickly afterward that her hoopskirts appeared to carry her higher than the laws of gravity.

Although assistance from Ambrose arrived too late, still he lingered. “Ain't you no faith in what men undertakes 'thout advice from women, Miss Susan?” he inquired, and when that lady, breathless for once, was able only to shake her head, he gave her a slow, anxious smile, whispering, “I'm none too sure but you're right,” before moving along.

Notwithstanding, at midnight on the same night Ambrose and Miner were riding side by side through the Kentucky woods at the head of a small cavalcade that had come together silently on the outskirts of Pennyroyal. The riders wore masks, excepting Ambrose, who, with face uncovered, squirmed restlessly upon the sunken back of old Liza.

“The men have give their word there ain't nobody goin' to git hurt,” he repeated three or four times, until finally Miner turned upon him.

“Mebbe you'd better not have went, Ambrose, ef you haven't the nerve,” he remarked testily.

And at this the tall man stiffened. “It ain't nerve, Miner. I just ain't never liked a ten-man-against-one game in my life, and I ain't hidin' my sentiments. No more than the rest of you do I want this Yankee teacher bein' brought into Pennyrile to show us our business, but I'm with this crowd to-night to see he don't get hurt 'cept in his feelin's.”

“He's got to git, notwithstandin'!” Miner's attitude was that of a fierce little dog, who even when he couldn't change a situation liked to bark in order to hear the noise.

These men had both fought on the Southern side in the Civil War, but with a difference. Miner had plunged into it at once with pigheadedness and with passion; the full story of why Ambrose had failed to go south when his comrades did has not been told by Mrs. Barrows. At that time most men's hearts were on the one side or the other. Ambrose Thompson's heart was on both sides at once. Indeed, during the first hateful years of the war he had felt like a child whose equally beloved parents were engaged in getting a divorce, and not until after Miner was wounded and the South had showed herself the weaker did he heed her mothering call. And then he was never much of a success as a soldier because of his habit of so frequently misplacing his gun while he helped on a weaker brother, and because of his never having been known to fire at anything in particular. Still his companions did not count him a coward, merely recognizing that his imagination had a longer reach than theirs.

Kentuckians, however, have not the grace of easy forgiveness, and also have a fixed determination to attend to their own affairs. To-night's expedition meant that the teacher sent from the North into the Pennyroyal district to instruct their coloured children must go. Not that Pennyroyal wished her negroes to remain untaught, “seein',” as Ambrose had said, “that readin' and writin' ought to belong to them same as seein' and smellin',” but because they preferred to have time to attend to the matter themselves. Also, the new teacher had been secretly hurried into the county that day, driven through the adjoining town, and finally installed in the Pennyroyal district schoolhouse without Pennyroyal's being allowed a chance to take even a look.

This schoolhouse was an old-fashioned log cabin set in the middle of a clearing in a young papaw grove, and to-night, with a light burning in the front room, the oncoming men could see through a half-opened window the shadow of a figure.

Without waiting for word of command, silently they got down from their horses, forming a line about the house, and then one man, pounding savagely on the closed door, shouted: “Come out from there or we'll drag you out.”

There was no answer at first, and when a candle appeared at the opening of the door the wind blew it out so quickly that the person holding it remained in indistinct outline.

Miner, having been previously chosen as spokesman, now advanced toward this door and said: “Ahem!” He was feeling it a different thing to plan to bully a fellow-man by force of numbers and another to make so ugly a statement to his face, while Ambrose in even deeper embarrassment flattened his thin body against the front wall of the cabin until it suggested a tall plank left to rest there over night.

“You got to git away from our district school-house to-night,” blurted Miner at last; “Pennyroyal kin take care of its own coloured children 'thout help from the outside. But you needn't be scairt, for nobody's goin' to hurt you if you go peaceable, but there's a horse waitin' fer you out here and we'll 'low you fifteen minutes to clear out.”

Then the little man jumped a few steps backward and the hand of each of his companions slipped toward the trigger of his gun. However, whatever of danger the past moment seemed to have had, it passed swiftly, for the weapon, held by the lonely figure in the doorway, dropped to the ground with a peculiar clatter, and an instant later the voice said:

“There aren't men enough in Kentucky to make me run away like a thief; if I am made to go it must be by force.” The tones were low and tremulous, but were sufficiently clear and held no hint of surrender. Then, putting out both hands like a child at play in blind man's buff, the figure groped its way forth from the cabin, moving directly toward Miner and saying: “How can I talk with you, though, when I can't see you? Till to-night I never dreamed a Kentuckian would be ashamed to show his face.”

Actually Miner's hand shook as he tore off his mask, for the figure approaching him was that of a woman, possibly a girl, and she must have been preparing for bed at the time the men arrived, for her hair was hanging over her shoulders, and through the opening of her wrapper there showed the white glimmer of a gown.

Even in the midst of his own shame and chagrin Ambrose inwardly chuckled, seeing that for the first time in his life Miner had to discuss a question with a woman without his primeval conviction that man was ordained to be always in the right and woman in the wrong.

“Madam, there has been some mistake; surely you can see that——” he began pompously. But the girl shook her head. “I told you I couldn't see anything.”

Something of relief hid in Ambrose's grin this time, for if the Yankee school teacher had a sense of humour even the situation in which he and his companions found themselves was not utterly hopeless.

But an impatient voice now spoke from the crowd. “Oh, fer the love of heaven, can't you understand we didn't know you was a woman? Reckon we'd all 'a' come shyin' out here to drive a woman away? You pack up your duds in the mornin' and leave comfortable, and no more said.”

“I won't,” came the defiant answer. Then changing her tactics, the girl drew nearer Miner, and putting out one hand almost touched his coat sleeve, although actually he seemed to shrivel away under it. “Do let me stay, at least for a while,” she pleaded. “My father was killed in the war; I have to make my own living and this is my first chance. I didn't know you would mind so much. And, please, I am not so very Yankee—Indiana is only just across the river.”

There were no tears in the voice, but a sound so suspiciously near them that ten men, shuffling their feet, wished one of their number would speak.

At last an answer came from a long shadow against the front wall of the cabin. “Certain you kin stay, Miss, and thank you. Just move on inside your house now and lock the door, for there's some among us that mebbe won't be anxious to be recognized later on as havin' give you—well, a kind of house warmin' in the Pennyrile.”

A moment later, while his companions were mounting their horses, Ambrose lingered, groping before the closed door; soon he touched something of strange formation with a smooth back and a prickly arrangement on the underneath side. “Lord, what a weapon of defence—a hairbrush,” he drawled, slipping it into his pocket as he visioned the girl's interrupted preparations for the night. And then when old Liza had caught up with the others: “Boys, ain't to-night enough to cure us of Ku-Kluxing, or whatever you want to call this gol darn business?”

CHAPTER VII. EM'LY DUNHAM

“HER name's Em'ly Dunham,” announced Miner shortly.

Ambrose, who at this moment was arranging a pyramid design of their new stock of calicoes on a counter in the front of their shop in order to get the best colour effect, looked up quickly and then put his hand over his lips.

“Whose named Em'ly Dunham?” he inquired in a partially stifled voice, with his interest apparently still concentrated on his work.

“You know, the Yankee school teacher,” Miner growled. He was standing inside a kind of wire cage which separated the post-office department from the rest of the store of Hobbs & Thompson, the charge of the mail having recently been given to the two men.

“How'd you find out?”

“Letters!” The little man was assorting the mail with an energy that Pennyroyal's one dozen epistles or less a day hardly justified. This was one morning less than a week after the unsuccessful midnight excursion.

Ambrose now crossed his feet, resting his weight on his elbows against the bales of cotton cloth. He was staring solemnly at his partner. “Em'ly Dunham is a pretty name, Miner; kind of soft and gentle, yet with plenty of spirit in it. I am reckoning some one in Pennyroyal ought to try and make things up to her.”

With a sigh the other man climbed up to perch on his high official stool. “Ain't you never goin' to stop thinkin' of females and marryin', Ambrose? I thought mebbe when you lost Sarah you was cured!”

Ambrose leaned farther over, shaking his head. “No,” he answered simply, “I reckon not. I wonder ef you have ever thought, Miner, of how much them two little words—livin' and lovin'—are alike. I don't think it was an accident, jest the difference of that one little letter. Not that I intend marryin' again—I am through with marryin' forever—it's you, Miner Hobbs, I'm worryin' over.” Here, because of his earnestness, Ambrose left his place and coming across the aisle looked down over the wire netting upon his friend. “Miner,” he repeated as sternly as he was able, “your time has come. There ain't nothin' so no 'count on earth as an old bachelor. It's worse than an old maid and different, because perhaps an old maid couldn't help gettin' left out, but the Lord's given every man a chance to improve his condition jest by askin'. Course he may have to ask more'n one and mebbe more'n once, but there ain't no age limit to stop him. Then think, Miner, what chances always lies in villages. Why, villages is nature's nunneries. Ain't it time fer you to do a man's part?”

There was silence for a little time, Miner making no response, although from over in his corner Moses growled in his sleep.

Then the tall man coughed apologetically. He looked tired, as though he had been awake many hours the night before. “I didn't mean to rile you any,” he continued, “only I can't help thinkin' that a man without a wife is like a little boat a-floatin' on the sea of life without a rudder and bound for nowhere in particular. Ef you don't marry you'll be awful sorry when you're an old man, Miner, and ef you've been kind of overfed on Pennyrile girls, why, this here new school teacher——”

Miner fairly bounced up and down on his stool in his impatience. “Lord, why shouldn't I be sorry when I'm old instead of when I'm young? Mebbe I won't live to get old and then I'd 'a' made myself wretcheder'n a slave and all fer nothin'.”

At this second, the door opening, the speaker collapsed, while Ambrose shot backward behind the counter toward the rear of the shop. A flood of June sunshine entered with the girl, and Ambrose heard her name for the second time as she asked the terrified Miner for her mail. He also saw her plainly. She was twenty-five or perhaps a little more, with hair that was brown or gold as the light shone upon it; gray eyes set wide apart—eyes that might at times be cold and then shine warmly like a cloud suddenly shot through by the sun; her mouth was larger and her chin firmer than beauty requires, and yet both showed curves of frequent and redeeming laughter. She was tall, with broad shoulders and a slender body, and there was about her a hint of delicate and unconscious coquetry, noticeable as she talked with Miner while making her purchases, the little man coming out from his retreat to serve her and afterward following her into the street, where he was gone for almost an hour.

In the meantime it was difficult for Ambrose to attend properly to business, for never before had his partner left the store during working hours save for his meals and to attend the wedding of his sisters, two of whom had happily passed from his home to homes of their own. However, no words on the subject were exchanged when Miner curtly explained that Miss Dunham had too many bundles for a lady to carry.

It was after this extraordinary occurrence at their shop that Miner left Ambrose and Moses alone for three evenings in succession, the tall man sitting in his chair in the backyard under a ripening apple tree, with Moses at his side and his friend's empty chair near by. But although Ambrose drooped every now and then, he always smiled resolutely afterward. “It'll plumb be the salvation of Miner.”

On the fourth night, however, Ambrose, having gone early to bed and fallen into a light sleep, was awakened by a knock at his kitchen door, and on coming downstairs again found his friend outside. “It ain't no hour to be in bed yet,” Miner snapped. Knowing the little man had something unusual on his mind his friend led him to their accustomed refuge.

Ambrose and Miner were curiously incongruous figures that night in the garden, for the one man wore an oriental silk dressing-gown over a pair of hastily put on blue jean trousers; the gown, a scheme of deep rich colours and designs, having drifted into the shop one day by accident, had been seized upon by Ambrose to gratify a subconscious craving. It was tied about his waist with a red cord, and as he lolled back in his chair his eyes would travel from their study of his companion's face up toward the stars which he could see shining through the spaces between the leaves of his apple tree.

Miner kept his eyes always upon the ground; he had a chew of tobacco in his mouth, his lips worked spasmodically, but he did not speak, neither did be spit as a vent to his feelings, a tight, small man, buttoned up both inside and out! By and by, however, when nearly an hour had passed in silence, he rose to his feet.

“Reckon I'd better be goin', Ambrose; it's gettin' late. Good night.”

But the tall man pushed him back again into his chair. “Lord, Miner, is it so hard for you to tell things, even to me?” he inquired. “Out with it!”

“Don't you go and be puttin' foolish ideas on to me if I tell you,” Miner pleaded, “but it's just this: The women have made up their minds to put Miss Em'ly Dunham out of Pennyrile. Course we men tried and failed, so we give up, but when a woman starts out to do a thing, why she does it. Can't you think of no plan to make 'em stop, Ambrose, bein's as you've always had a kind of way with women?”

Ambrose shook his head, his homely face lined with sympathy. Poor Miner was unconscious of his own change of attitude toward the interloper, but surely he must not be turned back from the land of romance within whose gracious habitations Ambrose himself could never again hope to dwell.

“I don't see just what I kin do with the women,” he was obliged to confess after a moment of hard thinking, “still ef we keep studyin' and studyin' no doubt we kin find a way.”

CHAPTER VIII. THE FEMALE DELEGATION

THERE was no question—Susan Barrows inspired and headed the female delegation which early the next morning sallied forth to the district schoolhouse to call on Miss Dunham. Also, there was no doubt in the minds of any of its members before their call was made that the Yankee teacher would hastily retreat as soon as she understood that the ladies of Pennyroyal did not desire her presence among them and, furthermore, would not have it. However, of the result of their visit no one was informed during the ensuing hours of that day.

It was evening, before dark and yet some little time after supper, when Ambrose, ruminating on his back kitchen steps and worrying over the present situation, heard a noise of pots and pans that sounded like a skirmish of light artillery proceeding from his neighbour's house next door. So purposely assuming the expression of innocent solemnity that seemed most to inflame Mrs. Susan, he cautiously stepped across from his back yard to hers. On the door stoop he discovered Susan Jr., who, as the occupant of a hard chair, had both white stockinged legs stuck rebelliously out before her and, resting on her spinal column, held “Fox's Book of Martyrs” open in her lap. However, she was not reading it.

Sensing his approach before ever he could speak, Mrs. Barrows made an immediate appearance. She had a saucepan in her hand and her black eyes were wary. They were well matched adversaries, she and Ambrose, and, although already understanding perfectly the object of his visit, some time must pass before the one or the other could be forced into a surrender.

“Raisin' children is killin' work, Ambrose,” Susan began at once, darting a direful glance at her offspring.

And Ambrose's voice was honey: “Most anythin's killin' work, ain't it, Susan?” he returned, depositing himself on the floor of her stoop so that his long legs overhung the side allowing his feet to touch the ground. “I've heard of folks lyin' in bed and doin' nothin' but singin' psa'ms continuous, and yet comin' to the same end.”

“It's a lot peacefuller way.” Mrs. Barrows' interest was now so plainly concentrated within her saucepan, whirling a kitchen towel around and around in it until its revolutions were fairly dizzying, that nothing could seem more remote from the remarks and behaviour of herself and her neighbour than any introduction of the subject uppermost in both their minds.

However, Susan Jr. did not belong to that noble army whose lives were at the present instant recorded in her lap, for, shutting up “The Book of Martyrs,” she sniffed:

“I didn't do nothin' but laugh and tell the female delegation about the King with his ten thousand men who marched up a hill and then marched down again,” she explained.

And in the face of this information what was the use of either Mrs. Barrows or Ambrose trying further to avoid the issue? The time had come for a voluntary surrender.

“She won't go, or at least she says she won't, though there ain't no use in me tellin' you, Ambrose, bein's as from Susan Jr.'s words you've already guessed,” Susan struck in. “But when we ladies got out to the district school this mornin' in the bilin' sun, what do you think, that girl came a-runnin' out to meet us a-wavin' her hand and smilin' and pretendin' she believed we'd come to welcome her to 'Pennyrile.' And then before any of us ladies could speak and tell her our errand, why, she began showin' us around the old school-house and sayin' she knew we would understand, 'cause we were women too, how hard things would be for her if we didn't help her, until most of the delegates either plumb forgot the reason of our visitation or else was too skeered to speak up. It wasn't so with me!”

Susan paused for a reply, but her neighbour continued his unusual silence, the while pensively engaged in studying the toe of his boot. Coming farther out on to her porch, Mrs. Barrows' belligerent black curls fluttered like a war banner in the breeze.

“Course we women knowed you men tried to make this Miss Em'ly Dunham go, and she wouldn't, but women ain't so easy turned from things they sets out to do. So I told her we didn't want no Yankee school teacher in our district, that we were talkin' things over and meant to get some one to teach our little darkies ourselves. And that our intention in comin' forth to see her had not been to say howdy, but good-bye.”

Here the joy of battle, even though it had resulted in defeat, actually spread a retrospective glow over the mind of the speaker, for, with her saucepan resting on her one hip and her dishcloth on the other, she was forgetting her work in the glory of narration.

“What do you think that girl done when I said them last words to her, Ambrose? She put her head down on the doctor's wife's bosom, bein's as she had more'n the rest of us, and actually shed tears, said she thought that the war was over, and wouldn't we let her stay on for a time until mebbe we'd like her better. And at this the ladies was so outdone they kind of scurried off without gettin' down to anything definite. But I fixed up matters on the way home. I told 'em that if Miss Dunham wouldn't go polite fer the askin', why, 'Pennyrile' could try and see what freezin' out would do, so there ain't a single woman or girl in this here town goin' to exchange the time of day with that girl, ask her to come in and set fer a spell or even bow to her on the street.”

Still Ambrose remained silent. He knew that Mrs. Barrows was not unkind, but that she loved a fight for its own dramatic sake, and yet what could he do or say to her now that would not by the very force of opposition make things worse for Miner's romance?

Susan was growing restless, for she was missing the clash of steel that usually came from the striking of her neighbour's against hers.

“One of the ladies said we was boycottin',” she concluded, showing plain evidences of her wish to retire into her own home for the night; “seemed kind of foolish to me, bein's as there ain't so much as a boy in it.”

Perforce Ambrose had now to withdraw. And yet he said nothing, although as he moved slowly across her side yard Susan thought she heard him mutter: “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

Sternly then she ordered her offspring to bed, but, before following her, lingered until the last vestige of her visitor's coat-tail had disappeared, when in feminine fashion she had the final words:

“I reckon it's a good thing we ain't all took in so easy as Ambrose Thompson.”

CHAPTER IX. “The tides of love and laughter run
          Increasing aye from sun to sun.”

NOTHING could have been more characteristic of Ambrose Thompson than his sudden decision to have a second look at Miss Emily Dunham. Several days had passed since his conversation with Mrs. Barrows, and village information had given definite assurance that her plan for freezing out the Yankee schoolmistress was being put into execution. And, although little else had had place in Ambrose's mind, so far he had not been able to think out a plan of salvation.

It was curious, however, the effect that the thought of a possible love affair for Miner had had upon him. Actually after their talk under the apple tree his step grew lighter, there was more of the boyhood spring to it, and the stoop in his shoulders that had showed after Sarah's passing certainly became less apparent; even his smile unconsciously offered more encouragement to well-meant feminine sympathizers in Pennyroyal. For such was this tall man's love of romance that the music of it sounding for another had awakened his own vibrations. Also he had almost driven Miner crazy in his repeated efforts to blow on whatever he considered signs of smouldering passion in his friend until one afternoon, when Miner had fairly pushed him from the shop in order to have peace, coming home to his empty cottage and feeling a sudden horror of its loneliness, he had set out for the log cabin. A vision of Miss Dunham, a meeting, or possibly a conversation with her, doubtless would add the spur his imagination needed in her defence. For poor Ambrose was blind to the fact that he had any interest but Miner's before him, exquisitely unaware that he had lately been growing weary of his own deserted altar and the life of high abnegation he had planned for himself, although once or twice he had wondered, if he lived to so great an age as fifty, how he could possibly endure so many lonely evenings.

July in Kentucky brings a swift maturity. Already ears of corn were full ripe in their sheaths and the other grain bowed by its own abundance. Yet Ambrose took little of his accustomed interest in the landscape. Rapidly he walked in spite of the heat and as rapidly evolved and set aside his plans for aiding Miner and Miss Dunham. He knew his own people; the girl had been sent into Pennyroyal by the Freedmen's Bureau, a product of the Civil War hated by most Southerners; and while Pennyroyal might not mean to be cruel, her pride and clannishness had no parallel outside of early Scottish history. And, in spite of Kentucky's far-famed hospitality, truly there is no other place in the world where an outsider may be made to feel so outside.

Finally when he had come to the edge of the clearing and could see the log school-house ahead, Ambrose was weary, and so sat down on the stump of a tree. He should have preferred to go boldly to Miss Dunham's door and ask that she talk with him, but while his courage had carried him thus far, the recollection of his first visit to her halted him at this spot. Surely the girl would some time come to her door or else be taking a walk through the woods, for the papaw grove of small slender trees was thickly shaded, cool and still, many of the birds that earlier inhabited it having flown farther north, while for those which remained behind it was a season of home responsibilities.

How long Ambrose waited and watched he did not know, since time is of so little importance to a lonely man, and, moreover, he possessed a long and beautiful patience with men and things, even with that Providence whose ways are past finding out. Only once did anything happen to encourage him, and then some one did come out of the school-house door to look toward the setting sun, but she proved to be the coloured woman who was Miss Dunham's sole guardian and caretaker. Still Ambrose managed to keep cheerful, when unexpectedly and without warning a dreadful change came over him. His head sank upon his chest, his delicate nose quivered, and boyish tears sprang up in his eyes. And this change was brought about in the oddest fashion. Ambrose had been idly carving his own initials in the stump of the tree where he sat, when all of a sudden it was borne in upon him that this was the first time in his life that he had ever carved his own initials without some girl's to entwine with them. And this brought such a longing for Sarah that Ambrose straightway forgot both Miner and Miner's cause, remembering only his own loss and the single plate and cup and saucer that must be waiting for him on his supper table at home.

“Lord,” Ambrose whispered, “I'm all in.” Then leaping up from his seat he started running, running away from the thought of himself. He must have appeared rather like an animated scarecrow with his straw-coloured hair, his long arms flopping and his legs covering such stretches of ground that his coat-tails stood out straight behind, for in deference to a possible meeting with a young woman Ambrose was wearing the swallow tail and carrying the stove-pipe hat of his wedding journey.

He stopped, however, when the mouth of an old war pistol was suddenly placed in front of his left shoulder.

“Please don't move,” its owner said tremulously.

[Illustration: “He stopped when the mouth of an old war pistol was suddenly placed in front of his shoulder"]

And Ambrose's lips twitched as he answered politely, “I ain't a-goin' to,” and then he kept absolutely still, noticing that the arm that held the pistol was trembling nervously and that the girl at the end of the arm wore a yellow sunbonnet and a primrose covered dress, and that the face within the sunbonnet was possibly a shade paler and more startled than his own.

“I am sorry if I frightened you,” she apologized after a little further study of her companion, “but I am so often alone in these woods and now that the war is just over and things so unsettled I thought it best to carry my father's pistol, and you startled me so running toward me.”

Ambrose inclined his head, not daring to make any further move, for the girl still held her pistol so confidingly near the neighbourhood of his heart; nevertheless, he was able to see that Miss Dunham had changed since the day of her visit to their shop. Her eyes were bright, but the laughter lines had disappeared from her mouth and chin, and while she still meant to be firm, the man could see that the firmness cost.

Her pistol drooped listlessly downward. “You must not mind; it isn't loaded,” she explained, “and even if it were, I couldn't shoot.”

But still she handled the weapon in so ingenuous and distinctly feminine a manner that Ambrose reached out. “You wouldn't mind my having a look, Miss Dunham?” Emptying the barrels, a single shot slid into his hand.

“Oh, oh,” cried the girl helplessly, “I am so sorry; I might have killed you.” Then she wavered for a moment and except for Ambrose's arm might have fallen. The yellow sunlight bathed her and her dress in a golden light. It was a curious thing for the tall man to have a woman's eyes so nearly on a level with his own, though she righted herself almost instantly and taking off her sunbonnet began making odd pats at her hair as girls so frequently do after almost every upsetting situation.

“I didn't faint, I never have fainted in my life,” she explained indignantly. “I did feel a little sick, because as I didn't know my pistol was loaded I might so easily have——”

“Just so,” Ambrose answered gravely, and then without rhyme or reason both of them laughed, not just for an instant, but for the longest time, as though one of the funniest things in the world had just taken place; and afterward, without asking permission, Ambrose walked back with the girl to the log cabin. He would have gone home immediately, then, but at her door Emily turned to him with hot cheeks like a child longing to make a request and yet afraid.

“Would you mind staying and talking to me for a little?” she begged at length. “You see, it seems to me I haven't laughed for such a long while, and I like to laugh so much.”

And Ambrose's face quivered in its old sympathetic fashion. “Course I will,” he almost added “honey,” but stopped himself in time. “Ef you and I can set a while on this bench by the door I wouldn't be a mite surprised ef we couldn't think up some way to make livin' in 'Pennyrile' a heap more of a laughin' matter for you.”

CHAPTER X. THE REVELATION

AFTER this it was extraordinary the number of absolutely unassailable reasons that kept Ambrose so frequently on his way back and forth from the village to the school-house. Certainly twenty-four hours rarely passed without his getting up a wholly new idea to assist Miss Dunham, and therefore Miner, about which it was necessary to ask her advice. And possibly Emily encouraged him in this, for often she had postponed or put aside a perfectly good suggestion with the proposition that they talk the question over later, and that Ambrose come out again to the log cabin to see if they were of the same mind.

Of course Ambrose was extremely particular not to permit the hours of his visits to conflict with those of his partner, but as Miner no longer spent his evenings with him, naturally he concluded that these evenings were devoted to Emily, and therefore his appearances were usually made during the long summer twilight. And this not with any idea of hiding or of disloyalty, but simply that he should not be in his friend's way; for Ambrose's heart was singularly light these days and the sun shone with its old glory. Why, even the one little cloud that had troubled him for a while had been with laughter pushed away. On his mind during the first of his two or three visits had been the thought that Miss Dunham could not know of his presence in the midnight raid.

They were in the woods together one evening, a little beyond the papaw thicket, when Ambrose, thrusting his hand into his pocket, drew forth a carefully wrapped up package. “It ain't a present; it's yours already,” he announced, pushing it toward Emily with his face crimsoning, and digging his toes into the earth like a big, awkward boy.

Slowly the girl unfolded her lost hairbrush, and, though her eyes immediately shone with laughter, womanlike she kept her lids down, asking with a kind of over-emphasized wonder, “How on earth, Mr. Ambrose Thompson, could you ever have come upon my hairbrush?”

And in another moment Ambrose had confessed everything of his own part in the raid, told his story miserably and without extenuating circumstances, and ending with the statement that he couldn't endure to have her friendship until she knew the full extent of his unmanliness.

Then Emily allowed herself to look straight at him and her laughter brimmed over. “Why, I've known all along,” she whispered, putting her hand for just the briefest, comforting second over the top of his. “Don't you suppose that I recognized the voice coming from the longest shadow I ever saw as soon as I saw the longest man in Pennyroyal?”

Two weeks afterward it happened as usual that Miner and Ambrose were both in their shop closing up for the night, but, what was most remarkable, Miner was allowing Ambrose to do the greater part of the work, and for fifteen minutes had been sitting on the top of a vinegar barrel idly whittling at a stick and every once in a while clearing his throat as though he were getting ready to speak, notwithstanding he kept his face turned from the sight of his partner.

“Looks like Miss Dunham's gettin' more cheerfuller lately,” he blurted at last, not glancing up, but whittling so briskly that the chips about him on the floor looked like the shorn curls of a lamb.

Ambrose lifted his face from the depth of a large ledger where he had been laboriously writing down the day's accounts. “Yes, ain't she?” he returned happily; “seems like she's sorter too big to be hurt by other folk's meannesses.” Then walking across the shop he laid his hand on his friend's shoulder with a gesture that was almost a caress.

“You been goin' out to see her yourself considerable lately, ain't you? So mebbe she ain't needin' much other comp'ny,” Miner suggested, raising his eyes and then lowering them quickly before the other man could catch his glance.

Ambrose hesitated. “Why, mebbe I have,” he confessed slowly; “funny I ain't ever thought of it in that light! You see I've been a-tryin' to do what you asked and hatch up some scheme to make 'Pennyrile' understand and like Miss Dunham better, but Em'ly and me ain't come to any conclusion yet that's good enough, so I reckon that's why I keep on a-goin'.”

“Em'ly!” Miner sprung off his barrel top like he had been struck. “So it's come to that, has it?” And by this time his sneer and anger were so unmistakable that his companion, whose expression had been perfectly frank a moment before, turned a dull red and for the first time in his life his eyes dropped before those of his friend.

“I ain't callin' her Em'ly to her face, Miner, at least not more'n once or twice,” he answered painfully, feeling himself turn hot and cold in the same instant, and an awful weight settle itself upon his chest. Then a relieved light broke over him. “Mebbe now I'm thinkin' upon her as Em'ly because some day you and she——”

“Liar!” The little man, blinded with passion, struck out somewhere into the region of his friend's chest and, when Ambrose caught his hands and held them, twisted and growled like a little dog in the grasp of a big one, repeating over and over in a thick voice, “Liar, liar, you know you want her for yourself, you know you love her, so what damn use is there in you pretendin' before me?” until his rage had partly spent itself.

Ambrose had made no sort of answer or defence; indeed, his big hands had seemed to cling to Miner rather than to restrain him, besides which there was something in his appearance that would have made it hard to continue angry with him even if you had not loved him.

“I didn't know, Miner,” he said at last, hushed and frightened, “I didn't know until you spoke it. I reckon I do love her, but now I know I won't see or speak with her no more.”

Then when Miner had banged his way out of the store the tall man, sitting down on the deserted barrel, began to shake, and there was shame on his face and the look of a man who has suddenly heard that the ship on which he is sailing must go down. For several hours he remained in his shop, sometimes walking up and down and then reseating himself on the barrel, but wherever he went and whatever he did old Moses dragged his rheumatic legs after him. Two or three times the man patted the dog, whispering reassuringly, “It's all right; don't you be worryin' none about me, old fellow.”

It was so dark in the shop that when Mrs. Barrows, carrying a lantern, opened the door she could not at first find Ambrose. And afterward, when he did come toward her and her light fell full upon his face, to Susan's eternal credit let it be set down that she turned away her eyes.

“You come along home, Ambrose Thompson,” she began sternly; “ain't I been watchin' and waitin' for you to go by to your supper these past two hours? It's mighty nigh time I was gittin' to bed and I ain't able to sleep less'n my mind's easy.”

Taking the man by the arm she led him toward home, talking in a tone that few persons had ever heard from Susan. “Whatever's happened to you to-day, Ambrose Thompson, don't you be scaired,” she said once. “I tell you it's the folks that things never happen to that ought to be scaired, 'cause you're livin' and they ain't.” And then when Ambrose would have left her at her gate, climbing up the few steps that led into her yard she was able thus to place her hands on his shoulders.

“Ambrose,” she said then, “there was a neighbour remarked to me the other day, 'Ain't Ambrose Thompson changed a lot since his wife died?' I told her, 'No, folks don't change none in what I calls their fundamentals. They alter some; of course learnin' life don't mean to make no exception of them with troubles, but leopards don't stripe, nor zebras spot, nor human bein's get made over by experiences. You been livin' lately thinkin' you was changed entirely inside by Sarah's death, but you ain't changed—you've just been restin'. You've seen other folks git over things that hit 'em as hard as Sarah's dyin' done you, but course you thought you were differ'nt.” Leaning over, Susan gave Ambrose a peck certainly intended as a kiss. “It's awful hard, boy, to wake up sometimes, after one has been adreamin', but I reckon you're wakin' up.”

Susan was correct, Ambrose's dream had passed and by morning no mists of it remained. Since the revelation of Miner's accusation in the shop he had made no effort at self-deception, understanding now why since his meeting with the Yankee school teacher his world had been again so strangely vivid, so full of adventure, that even his trips back and forth to the shop had been filled with delightful impressions, ideas that might some day be confided to her. For, after all, is there not so much of life in the smallest place in this world when you are fully alive in it, and so little in the biggest when you are not?

Then the bitterest part of Ambrose's fight was that he knew Emily to be his real mate, knew that Sarah had been a boy's spring fancy, but that the summer had now set the seal of her warmth and fruition upon his second love. Moreover, he also knew that Emily might be made to care for him, since love like his is rarely without its answer.

Nevertheless when dawn came he had written this letter and taken it out to the post:

          DEAR MISS DUNHAM: I've got to quit comin' to see
          you and I can't say why, except it's best.

          Then I haven't got the old reason, for to-night
          it's come to me the way to make Pennyroyal not
          treat you so bad. Can't you give out that you're
          sick, for if only the Pennyroyal ladies can get
          the chance to take care of you they'll be real
          pleased. Seems like letting people do good things
          for you is the surest way to make them quit doing
          mean; it's kind of human nature.

          And there is one other thing I'd like to say to
          you: It's about Miner; he's a whole lot bigger
          than he looks and there can't no man on earth beat
          him at loving if you'll only help him a little at
          the start.

                     Yours truly,
                     AMBROSE THOMPSON, ESQ.

It was an odd, stiff letter, and yet that afternoon when Emily had received it she laughed and placed it inside the folds of her primrose dress; although a moment afterward she sighed with the thought of the lonely hour before sunset.

CHAPTER XI. FOLLOWING HIS ADVICE

NO FURTHER reference was made to the difference between the two friends, but Ambrose had reason to believe a few days later that Miss Dunham was following his advice; for coming out in his yard before breakfast, after a restless night, he was just in time to spy Mrs. Barrows climbing into the gig with Doctor Webb, carrying a basket on her arm and wearing so glorified an expression that it could come of nothing but the opportunity of ministering to the sick. For the care of the sick gave to Susan the same glow of pleasure that the act of creation gives to the artist or the command of his army gives the born general. Once stationed by the bedside of a patient, was she not the main source from which news of the illness must flow as well as the basin into which all inquiries must be poured? Certainly Ambrose had so considered her.

Moreover, that afternoon his suspicion was justified by Miner's growling at him over the opening of a new hogshead of molasses: “Miss Dunham's powerful poorly,” and then going on furiously with his work as though he had never spoken.

And Ambrose did not dare ask questions nor prolong the subject of their conversation, though wistful to hear that Miner as well as Emily approved his plan. However, there was little doubt of its success, for the turning of the tide in favour of the Yankee schoolmistress soon could be seen, heard, and felt. Rivers of soup were made to flow toward the once anathematized cabin, and mountains of sponge cake and jelly were dumped at its door.

Since the day of the first visit there had always been in Pennyroyal a small number of women headed by Mrs. Dr. Webb who were not so manifestly unfavourable to Emily, but according to report they had lately been most unmercifully snubbed and put down by Mrs. Barrows, who would allow no one else inside the cabin and actually barred other ministering angels from the door.

Hearing word of the approach of these ladies one morning through Emily's coloured maid, Susan came forth into the clearing to meet them and stood waiting as usual with one hand resting on each sharp hip. Then before any other mouth could be opened hers was at work.

“I am powerful glad, Maria Webb, that you have had a change of heart toward the poor young girl,” she commenced, “but you needn't try now to be gettin' inside her home after havin' so long kep' her out of your own. Besides, she's too sick to see no one 'cept the doctor and me. Doctor Webb says she's real ill with chills and fever 'cause papaw trees won't flourish 'ceptin' where it's damp, but I call it human ague the child's got. Talkin' about millstones hung about your neck, they're necklaces compared to the way women tries to drag down other women when they start in to do something a mite different.”

And this intense irritation of Mrs. Barrows showing itself thus to her female friends even extended to her comparatively favoured next door neighbour, although Ambrose could not understand the cause. Emily of course had taken Susan into her confidence and she was a natural dramatist and yet why should she positively glare at him one evening as he stood snipping the dead stalks from the rose bushes in his yard?

Indeed her disapproval was so evident that Ambrose straightening up asked in amazement: “Whatever have I done, Susan?”

“Ain't it about time you was inquirin' concernin' Miss Dunham?” Susan demanded; “you're 'most the only person now in Pennyrile that ain't, and ef there's one thing I more'n another nacherally despise it's folks proppin' up a thing when it's standin' firm and don't need help, and then beginnin' to ease off when mebbe it's likely to fall.”

“How is Miss Dunham?” Ambrose queried, and the older woman gave him a curious look. “She ain't dyin' sick yet, Doctor Webb says, but it's worse'n he thought, 'cause it ain't plain chills and fever; mebbe it's the typhoids.”

At this information Ambrose paled slightly, but when his neighbour had disappeared into her house for fresh clothes and supplies his expression grew more peaceful.

“Em'ly's turnin' out a lot better actress'n I thought,” he said to himself. “I wasn't figurin' on her play actin' so long.”

He was leaning on his rake, having suddenly lost every atom of energy, when Susan, passing out again, dealt him another blow.

“Ain't you never goin' to stop mopin', Ambrose Thompson? I'm sick of lookin' at you,” she said. “Seems like there's nothin' on this earth more tryin' than the way some folks act dead 'cause some one they love is. Ef the Lord hadn't wanted you to live, man, I reckon He'd 'a' took you with Sarah. 'Tain't likely He wants dead folks on His livin' earth!” And then Mrs. Barrows hurried away to her charge, having left behind her sufficient inspiration to persuade Ambrose to finish the task of tidying up his yard.

[Illustration: “Ain't you never goin' to stop mopin', Ambrose Thompson? I'm sick of lookin' at you"]

And so another week went by, Ambrose and Miner in the meanwhile having less to say to each other than at any time in their lives since they had learned to speak, and never meeting any more outside of working hours. Nevertheless when they were together, although Miner's manner continued surly and unapproachable, his eyes constantly watched the face of his former friend, while Ambrose never altered in his old attitude of affection toward him.

Yet on Sunday morning, as Ambrose stood dressing for church in front of his yellow pine bureau, without warning his bedroom door suddenly opened and in stalked Miner. Grave and silent he waited, until when the meeting bell sounded, he started forth to church, leaning as of old on the arm of his friend, and entering his pew sat down beside him.

Ambrose did not pay a great deal of attention to the beginning of the service that day; on coming in he noticed that Susan and Doctor Webb were not in their accustomed places, but afterward he seemed always to have been listening to the August hum of the bees just outside the raised window on his side of the pew. Through it he could also see the deep rose of the ripening pink clover fields, smell their almost overpowering sweetness, till with the weight on his chest which he never shook off these days he wondered if Emily, who loved the outdoors as he did, was not by this time weary of feigning illness.

Then Brother Bibbs so changed the order of the usual Sunday routine that it must have startled Ambrose into consciousness. The elderly man had finished his sermon, but instead of at once announcing the closing hymn to be followed by the benediction, he stood clearing his throat, his little worn face paling with emotion.

“Brether'n and sister'n,” he began slowly, “there be faith, hope and charity, these three things, but the greatest of these is charity. I want you now to fall on your knees with me and pray for the life of the young woman lately come into our midst whom we, like the Pharisees of old, have tried to cast out. I want you to pray for that young Yankee school teacher, Miss Emily Dunham, because she is powerful sick, and if the good Lord takes her to Him, I don't see just how we are coming out with the greatest of these three things.”

While the rest of the congregation were falling upon their knees Ambrose somehow got himself out of the church, nor did he realize during the moment of his leaving that Miner was there hanging on to his arm. After a time, however, when both men were walking toward the log cabin, he turned to his friend, whispering brokenly:

“I didn't know she was sick really, Miner. I thought she was just play actin' same as I asked her to.”

And Miner nodded. “My fault. I suspicioned your ignorance, but I ain't been able to break it. Em'ly told me of your letter soon as it come. She hadn't been feelin' any too well before then, though she'd sort 'er been hidin' it, and afterward she kep' a-gettin' worse and worse.”

When finally they had come near the cabin, Ambrose sat down on the selfsame stump where he had waited so long for Emily on the afternoon of their first meeting, and since he would not go inside the house Miner went in without him, promising to bring back news. However, several hours passed and Miner did not return; Ambrose saw Doctor Webb leave the house, stay away half an hour and then go back into it and remain there. Then afterward Brother Bibbs followed him in, and Mrs. Webb and a dozen or more Pennyroyal townsfolk appeared clustering in a hushed group near the little schoolhouse door.

Nevertheless the waiting time did not seem long to Ambrose Thompson, since he was living over every moment he had ever spent with Emily, hearing the sound of her laughter, feeling the touch of her hand over his, and then remembering how he had wondered in the days since his surrender whether it would not have been easier for him to have given her up through death.

It was dusk when Miner laid his hand on Ambrose's arm; he had not seen the little man's approach.

“It's past, the crisis,” Miner said huskily; “she's better and has been askin' for you.”

Then Ambrose rose, but he didn't move in the direction of the cabin; instead, he began running toward home, Miner having difficulty in keeping up with him. And it was hearing Miner's hard breathing behind that finally made him slow up.

“I couldn't 'a' gone to her, Miner,” he explained. “Can't you see, ef I should 'a' seen her lyin' there so white and helpless I couldn't 'a' helped takin' her in my arms and tellin' her I loved her. No man kin bear it when it looks like the woman he loves is needin' him.”

CHAPTER XII. A LIGHT IN DARKNESS

AFTERWARD, when the two men had parted for the night, Miner went directly to his home, and there in his usual methodical fashion undressed and got himself into bed, although all the time his dark face was twisting and working, his mouth dry, while the mind of the man had no knowledge of what his hands were doing. For Miner, without understanding it, was alone on his high mountain where every man must stand who knows what it is to desire and to surrender. So what does it matter that his mountain was the attic bedroom of a cottage and that the little man who wrestled with the devil stood but five feet two in his stocking feet and weighed only a hundred and five pounds, or even that his “Get thee behind me, Satan,” was so differently put?

Because when Miner's fight was over he merely said: “I ain't never been at all certain in my mind that I could love a woman, so more'n likely I've all along been mistaken 'bout Em'ly. Seems like there ain't but one mortal thing on this earth I am sure on and that's—Ambrose!”

And yet the little man recalled nothing of the story of David and Jonathan, and, even if he had, could never have appreciated how their story touched his.

Nevertheless, it was one thing to decide to make a sacrifice of himself and his love to his friend, and quite a different thing to persuade that friend to accept it. For some time poor Miner puzzled; Ambrose would not even go out to the log cabin during the period of Emily's convalescence, though getting daily reports of her condition through him and through Doctor Webb. Susan Barrows, for some unexplainable reason, absolutely declined to speak to her next door neighbour when, after the period of her nursing was over, she had once more returned home.

There were harassed hours when unwittingly Miner came near to laying the case before Ambrose, being so accustomed, in all other matters requiring imagination, to relying on that of his friend. It is all very well to think that he might just have plainly stated his own change of mind and heart, but measuring the extent of the renunciation by what it would have meant to him, so surely Ambrose would never have accepted his sacrifice.

No, some more ingenious method must be devised, and Hamlet did not devote more agony to discovering a plan for avenging his father's death than Miner to finding a way of new life for Ambrose.

One afternoon the little man was limping slowly along the dusty August turnpike leading out from Pennyroyal with Moses, who, feeling his need, had accompanied him, yet, now too stiff to walk far, was being carried in his arms, when the attention of both the man and dog were arrested by the spectacle of an old darky trying to drive a mule, hitched to a wagonload of green-corn, into Pennyroyal, the mule having at this point positively declined to go farther.

It was inspiration in a strange guise, and yet inspiration must necessarily come to us in the character of the events that make up our lives.

The darky coaxed and threatened and beat his willow switch bare of leaves; the mule, spreading her legs to the four corners of the globe, remained firm. By and by the negro got down from his seat and with Miner's aid gathered a small pile of chips, which, with a piece of paper, were placed under the mule and set fire to. Then an instant later, when the mule started trotting amiably off toward Pennyroyal, Miner's heart began singing its own peculiar anthem of thankfulness, and immediately afterward he hurried off for a visit to Emily at the log cabin.

On coming back to the shop so changed was his expression and so cleared his look of doubt that Ambrose, feeling sure Emily had just accepted him, wished to God Miner would confide in him and so let his darkest hour be lived through.

But Miner said nothing then. However, when his regular hour came around once more he appeared taking his accustomed chair next his friend's under the apple tree in his yard. And yet here Miner still continued mute, although moving about far more restlessly than usual, while Ambrose, patiently waiting for him to speak, felt the sharpness of his earlier desire succeeded by a kind of apathy. Finally at some little distance off a clock in a church tower struck eight.

“My foot itches to-night, Ambrose,” Miner announced suddenly.

“Shake it,” advised his listener, whose mind was certainly on a far different line of thought.

But Miner, only squirming and twisting about the more, complained:

“Seems like it's one of them things that can't be shook off. I was just a-thinkin' it might be better to go for a walk than to sit here so eternal.”

And here Ambrose, feeling that the little man would never get out his confession to-night, sighed: “Suit yourself, ef you like walking better. I reckon I kin make out the rest of the evening alone.”

Nevertheless, Miner did not stir. Instead, taking another bite at a fresh plug of tobacco, he chewed on it fiercely for a moment longer. “I was aimin' for you to come with me,” he said, “bein's as you know I ain't able to git on too well with this lame leg.”

The soft summer night stirred in Ambrose no inclination for movement, and indeed far rather would he have been alone and undisturbed, yet now getting up slowly, lifting his great height in sections, he offered his arm to his friend.

Then the two men started off together, walking far more rapidly than usual on a summer night's stroll, for Miner seemed to have forgotten his lameness, and the fury of his spirit rushed them both ahead. Every now and then, furtively, he kept feeling in his back pocket, but the tall man did not notice him nor was he for some time aware in what direction he was being led.

A half moon shone in the sky, and the night was clear and still.

Then suddenly at a turn in a country road Ambrose abruptly halted, letting his companion's arm slide from his own. For at this turn in the road to the end of his life must Ambrose Thompson wake to consciousness, since from here in the daylight could be seen the first glimpse of the log schoolhouse, and though not visible by night its spiritual presence was the plainer.

“I ain't goin' with you to Em'ly's to-night, Miner,” Ambrose declared quietly; “it's more'n I kin stand and more'n you've the right to ask. I wasn't countin' on you tryin' to outwit me.” The words were spoken with only reasonable reproach, and yet the little man turned on the speaker fiercely.

“You jist wait here, Ambrose Thompson, till I git back, and keep on waitin' in the same place, for ef you don't I'll never forgive you, God knows.” And off trotted Miner toward the cabin, until his small form was lost in the darkness.

Of course Ambrose waited, it having always been his custom to give way to Miner in small things, and, as he had grown unaccountably weary, stretched himself full length on the ground, and there a moment later the man felt himself in the grip of the primal instinct that all big men and some big women know. His will kept his long clean body still, yet everything else in him called out the strong man's right over the weak. The earth that mothered him proved it in all her moods. And yet there only a few paces ahead of him Miner was holding Emily in his arms. One swift rush and—here Ambrose checked his vision, for he would not stir one foot.

Therefore, at first, the slight crackling noise at some little distance off made no impression upon him, but almost at once and without his own volition his long, sensitive nose sniffed the odour of smoke somewhere in the woods. The next instant a flame shot up in the air and Ambrose with it, for the flame came directly from the neighbourhood of Emily's cottage.

“Lord!” murmured Ambrose as he ran, “Em'ly's house is afire, and she hasn't no one but a little runt like Miner to look after her.”

CHAPTER XIII. THE SURPRISE PARTY

HE RAN straight on into—Emily.

The girl, having been attracted by the light back of her cabin, had just come out into her yard and so saw the impossible figure flying toward her, and in all the world there was never but one other man so homely and so beautiful.

“I—I thought your house was afire,” Ambrose announced huskily.

He had stopped so close to the girl that she caught both his hands in hers, pressing one for an instant against her cheek.

“Something is burning in the woods; it doesn't matter,” she answered; “but, oh, Ambrose, you have been such a long time in coming to me!”

The girl's eyes were shining, her figure perfectly distinct, and she wore the primrose dress, yet Ambrose knowing this did not believe he had dared look at her.

“I haven't come to you now,” he defended stoutly; “I was just afeard to trust you to Miner in a fire.”

Then Emily laughed the low understanding laugh that was her greatest charm, and all the while drawing her companion with her toward their bench in front of her door, she sat down beside him, still keeping one hand in his gently resisting fingers; there seemed to be no fear and no shyness about Emily to-night; she was too exquisitely a thing of love.

“Yet you were willing to trust my life and soul and everything there is about me to Miner,” she said slowly. “Ah, isn't that like a man! But, dear, Miner hasn't been near me since early this afternoon,” she continued, “and then he came for such a funny Miner reason. He wanted to tell me that if ever I'd thought he had any leaning toward me, it wasn't in no ways true. Because so far as he could see there wasn't nothin' a woman could be or do that could make up for her troublesomeness.”

With this Emily quietly withdrew her hand and sitting still wondered if Ambrose had even heard her, for he did not speak at first, yet when turning he looked at her, the light of the fire making his face quite clear, the girl's eyes filled with tears. “Has it been so bad as that?” she whispered.

Ambrose nodded. “I ain't ever goin' to be able to tell you how I love you, honey, but it seems like everything that has gone before in my life and is comin' after is done made up fer by to-night.”

Then after a little, when they had talked for a while and been silent a while longer, Emily put her head down on Ambrose's shoulder so that he might not see her face.

“I am thinking about Sarah; every woman thinks about the other woman some time,” she confessed.

“Little Sarah?” Ambrose waited. “Was you wantin' me to say I didn't love her, honey? 'cause I can't. Would it 'a' been fairer to you, I wonder, ef I hadn't had a heart big enough fer lovin' some one before ever I set eyes on you? Sarah was young and needed me, and I reckon I loved her all I was able to then, but there wasn't so much of me to love her with as there is now. You see, Em'ly darlin', the dark waters has sort 'er passed over me, and I ain't in my springtime no more. Then lovin' and losin' does learn us a lot: but I ain't never goin' to care fer nobody as I do fer you, 'cause nobody else'll ever understand me and match up to me same as you do.” But here Ambrose, sighing, pushed back his faded straw-coloured hair with the old puzzled gesture. “Still, honey, ef anything ever happens, I feel just obleeged to tell you, I reckon I'm the kind that plumb couldn't live on this earth without lovin' some one.”

For a troubled instant Emily hesitated, and then with a sympathy so perfect that it was to last for ever and ever, and with another understanding laugh, she lifted up her head and kissed her truthful lover.

So that by and by when the fire in the woods back of them had died down they were both so happy that they neither saw nor heard the figure in the papaw grove stealing along a few yards to one side of them, though in the darkness of the tangled thicket it stumbled several times and for want of a helping arm limped painfully along.

Nevertheless five minutes later Ambrose and Emily both jumped hurriedly to their feet. For unexpectedly there sounded a noise as of many persons approaching the log cabin along the route which Ambrose had just taken. In another moment a procession came into sight and at the head and front walked Mrs. Barrows in her best purple linsey petticoat and scoop bonnet and carrying a basket on her arm. Following her were ten, twenty, thirty or more of the leading citizens of Pennyroyal, male and female, attired in their Sunday clothes and bearing packages.

“It's some kind of a forgiveness party,” Ambrose whispered nervously; “seems like I'd better hide,” and once again he attempted to flatten his thin body against the wall of the cabin.

Susan Barrows took Emily in her arms. “We're surprisin' you, child, and I hope we're pleasant,” she explained. “Fer my own part I ain't never had nothin' happen to me suddint in my life that ain't been plumb distasteful, so I argued some with the folks to let you know we was comin'. But there's people in villages that finds things so slow and samewise it appears they think any kind of a start's better then nothin' happenin', so here we are!”

Susan's speech having been somewhat longer than her neighbours cared to listen to, the men and women of the party in the meanwhile had come crowding up around Emily until she had the sensation of shaking hands with a dozen persons at once, and all of them were smiling at her and saying how glad they were to know she was well again and wouldn't she live always in Pennyroyal, until Mrs. Barrows was actually thrust to one side. However, in that instant she managed to unearth Ambrose, who, appreciating what was taking place, had thought it best to step forth out of the shadow. Sheepishly he extended his hand to his neighbour and in the moonlight Susan got a good view of his face.

Her eyes snapped. “Good Lord! what a turn you've done give me!” she exclaimed, and then taking a closer survey: “Ambrose Thompson, I ain't more'n halfway suspicioned 'bout you and Em'ly Dunham before this night, but ef ever there's a surprise party in this village when you don't get there first, why I'd like to know!”

PART THREE. HIS THIRD WIFE

          “Is there no ending of mirth?
            Will time former unloosen
            Fresh fonts clear, bubbling, and bright
            From the drainless youth of the earth?

CHAPTER XIV. THIRTY YEARS

PENNYROYAL bore witness to the permanence of material things untroubled by spirit. Thirty years had passed since Ambrose Thompson's last honeymoon, and yet the little town had not greatly changed.

One afternoon in October, when from the same double row of linden trees, with only here and there a fallen comrade, a shower of wrinkled golden leaves was filling the ruts in the same road that once held the blossoms of an earlier spring, the door of a cottage opened and an elderly man stepped forth, humming a tune and began walking slowly down toward the front gate. He was dressed in gala attire and, observing a bed of purple asters that were growing near his path, stooped to gather one of the flowers. Getting up with a groan, he placed a hand on the small of his back, remarking testily: “Looks like I was gettin' powerful onlimber these days,” and then jigging stiffly about to disprove his assertion he placed the aster in his buttonhole.

Pennyroyal was unusually stirred up over something, for at five o'clock her streets were filling with people in their best clothes, all moving toward the same spot—the new red brick Baptist church, with a cupola, which stood where Brother Bibbs's old frame meeting house had once held place.

A carriage advanced slowly, an open Victoria drawn by a pair of handsome Kentucky horses and containing besides the coachman two other persons, a man and a woman. The man was a product of an oratorical period in Kentucky; he had the beak nose, the rolling black eyes, long hair and heavy forensic shoulders that had already landed the Hon. Calvin Breckenridge Jones as representative of the Pennyroyal district in the State Capitol at Frankfort, while it was a common supposition that only a lack of money had kept him from climbing higher. His companion, the Widow Tarwater, was the richest widow in the county.

Now as the carriage drew near the man at the gate, the bow with which he greeted the widow had in it the dignity and devotion of a benediction.

“Lord, what a woman!” he exclaimed a moment later in a deliciously rich and reasonable voice. “Looks like there's some people same as fruits, they don't noways mellow till age gets 'em.”

Then once more lifting his hat, the speaker, Ambrose Thompson, now a man of almost sixty, attempted pushing back the hair from his forehead, apparently forgetting that his hair had retreated so far backward over his high dome that the few remaining locks tastefully arranged in front suggested the ripples left by a receding wave along a shore. Also his face was deeply lined and his shoulders stooped considerably, and yet in spite of these and other signs of age in some indefinable way Ambrose Thompson had kept his boyishness. Not having travelled more than a hundred miles out of Pennyroyal, nevertheless he had the eternal youthfulness of spirit which belongs to all life's true adventurers.

“Ambrose Thompson's lookin' powerful spruce this evenin', ain't he?” A woman of about forty, with quick birdlike movements, shrieked this remark into an ear trumpet which was being held up by a shrivelled figure in a wheeled chair that had just been projected forth from the house next door with such suddenness that it seemed likely to spill out its feeble occupant.

The old woman's head nodded helplessly, and yet out of her withered face her black eyes still shone with an unquenchable fire. At this instant Ambrose, catching sight of Mrs. Barrows, blew a kiss across his dividing fence to her, so that she laughed, before replying, the pleased monotonous laugh of deafness and old age.

“Ef it's an evergreen spruce you're meanin', Susan Jr., then you're more'n right, for it seems Ambrose Thompson's leaves are forever green and the sap runnin' in him same as spring. But hurry me along, I don't want to miss nothin' of this oyster party, and mebbe ef you kin set me right about in the middle of the new Sunday-school room, I kin sort er reckon on what's goin' on.”

The two women then moved so rapidly down the street that they almost ran into a man who was hobbling in the opposite direction leaning on a cane; his face as dry of any human emotion as though it had been a squeezed-out dishcloth. He was attempting to move past the wheeled chair without speaking, when a claw hand reached out after him. “Scared of a female past eighty, Miner Hobbs,” the old voice cheered. “Ain't it a God's blessing no woman has run off with you—yet?”

Still at the gate the smile that greeted the approach of this dried-up little man was as radiant as the love of a woman.

“It's mortal good of you, Miner, to be goin' to the oyster show with me to-night, bein's as how you hate gatherin's,” Ambrose began affectionately; “you've done give up a heap of tastes fer me first and last, ain't you, old friend? Now ef you'll wait here for me a few moments longer I'll be wholly ready to join you, for I kinder thought I'd like to speak with a few friends before the supper begins.”

Ambrose started hastily back toward his front door with such an unmistakably jaunty air, such a forgetting of his rheumatic joints, that Miner's ferret eyes gleamed upon him suspiciously. Besides, was he not wearing an historic long coat, a strangely rusty stovepipe hat, and a white starched shirt over which his large lavender silk tie was crossed like a breastplate, and was he not also revealing yards of newly gray trousered legs?

“You wasn't aimin' to speak to no one in particular, was ye?” Miner inquired.

The long man stopped, noticeably blushing, and then, although the rest of his face remained grave, his eyes twinkled. “S'pose you don't know, Miner, how hard it is sometimes not to lie to the folks you love just because you love 'em? The Widow Tarwater druv past here a few minutes agone, she that was Peachy Williams, and though I ain't had more'n a bowin' acquaintance with her fer nigh forty years, knowin' that the Honourable Jones and our new Baptist preacher the Rev. Elias Tupper, are both after her, I kinder thought I'd like to see which one she favours the most.”

Then Ambrose went quickly inside his cottage while Miner patiently waited on the outside, understanding that this moment of withdrawal to his own bedroom before finally leaving his home had become his friend's invariable custom since the death of his second wife, Emily, five years before.

In his bedroom the elderly man was standing before his bureau, where to one side hung the daguerreotype of a young woman.

“It's mortal queer, honey,” he said aloud, “how I ain't ever able to go places or to do things 'thout expectin' you to come along, yet there's times when it feels like you'd been gone from me forever and then agen when it don't seem more'n a few weeks.”

He was afterward leaving the room with his head bent and his eyes misty with tears when suddenly a smile twitched the end of his nose and the corners of his mouth lifted as he turned once more toward his picture.

“Lord, Em'ly darlin', wouldn't you laugh if three old codgers was to get into the race after the widow instid of two? I would admire to see them sure winners beaten by a dark horse!”

Five minutes later, Uncle Ambrose Thompson as he was now called by almost everybody in Pennyroyal, with every trace of lamentation removed clean from his face, was walking toward the new red brick church, having Miner's arm through his after their custom of more than thirty years. Moses could no longer accompany them, but was resting somewhat deeper under the apple tree than had been his habit in life.

While in the course of their walk Miner never once lifted his hat, Ambrose's was seldom allowed to rest for a moment on his head, for women of all ages smiled upon him and children breaking away from grown up hands came to be tossed in the air by his long arms. Uncle Ambrose had grown very popular with the children of Pennyroyal since the death of his and Emily's only child twenty years before, since it was then that he began bringing home to Emily for repairs all the crying babies he could steal, the boys who had stumped their toes and the girls with torn frocks and feelings.

In the Sunday-school room he immediately sailed up to the widow as gallantly as though his ship had not failed to enter her port in nearly forty years, and this when she was sheltered between the law and the gospel. But before Uncle Ambrose could speak a large soft hand grasped his lean and vital one.

“Welcome!” said the minister with unction.

Three years before, the Rev. Elias Tupper had entered Pennyroyal and with this same soft hand had since patted and soothed his congregation into following where their shepherd led. Indeed, the building of the brick church had been a tribute to his powers and to-night's oyster supper a kind of harvest festival to celebrate the last payment of the church's debt.

Nevertheless an unspoken antagonism had always existed between the Reverend Tupper and Ambrose Thompson, and indeed this was the first appearance of the tall man within the new church's domains.

Brother Tupper was a man of only medium height, but of considerable breadth, with cheeks as smooth and clean as a woman's. And while his lips were thin and his eyes expressionless his face managed to give the impression of a permanent smile, the kind of smile that can come from but one source, having nothing to do with amusement over people or things, nor even contentment in God's plan for His universe, but manifests only a supreme and personal self-satisfaction.

Now for the life of him Ambrose could not refrain from frowning, because, while his lips said, “Thank you,” to himself he protested: “I ain't able to bear it; this man actin' toward me as though he was forgivin' me some mortal sin every time we meet.”

Neither was the widow's greeting of him cheering, since forty years had not completely wiped away a certain never-explained retreat.

The promised plenitude of Peachy Williams' girlhood had been nobly fulfilled in the Widow Tarwater, for now she suggested an abundant harvest. A handsome black silk gown folded over her more than ample bosom, a double chin rippled from under the soft fulness of her broad face, her skin was white and crimson as a child's, her auburn hair without a thread of gray in it, and her huge brown eyes never having looked deep down into the waters of life showed none of its troubled reflections.

Uncle Ambrose nodded approvingly at her appearance the while she looked at him coldly, saying: “I ain't seen you to talk to in a long time, Ambrose Thompson.”

His reply flatteringly included the member of the Kentucky legislature on the widow's right. “'Course you ain't, Peachy,” he answered gallantly, “for when big stars is shinin' so close to a planet, t'ain't to be expected that the planet kin notice the little ones twitterin' about in her neighbourhood.”

And yet when supper was served the widow found herself placed at a table for four whose other occupants were three men instead of the two whom she had expected.

CHAPTER XV. ORIGINAL SIN

THE Widow Tarwater was in truth a pleasing vision.

Not once had Ambrose Thompson left her side, yet he had been uncommonly silent. Thoughts, rose coloured as a boy's dream of a holiday, were floating before his mind's eye; he had been but dimly conscious that two plates of warm soup had lately flowed into him the while the conversation around him flowed on unceasingly. For the spirit of romance, which is an eternal though elusive thing, was surely taking fresh hold on him this evening as his pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, and only Miner Hobbs, the little wooden figure of a man seated several tables off, was yet aware of his friend's exalted state.

At the present moment the Rev. Elias Tupper was talking to the widow. He had but lately traversed the room crowded with tables and resplendent with decorations of harvest apples, pumpkins, goldenrod and tall tasselled stalks of corn, dispensing pleasantries as one would lollipops; and now amid much joking, laughter, and nudging had been allowed to take his place next the widow, only the legislator, who was making but a few weeks' visit in Pennyroyal, appearing disquieted.

It was past seven o'clock and assuredly the new Baptist Sunday-school room was now the centre of Pennyroyal's social activities, when unexpectedly the tall figure of a boy lurched into the room—Pennyroyal's black sheep, a boy taller than any man in the village save Ambrose Thompson.

There was a dismayed flutter and then an uncomfortable silence.

Now there are black sheep and black sheep with extenuating circumstances, but this boy had none of the extenuating circumstances—a respectable family, money in the bank, or a line of distinguished but self-indulgent ancestors; no, he was simply a sandy-haired, loose-jointed boy of about twenty-one who worked about the Widow Tarwater's stables—one of nature's curious anomalies, a boy without a father.

He looked about the homely, cheerful company at first with defiance, and then, feeling the weight of his loneliness and degradation, fell to crying foolishly. “I don't see why I ain't a right to your church social; if I ain't no name of my own, I got to be the son of some man in this town!”

It was such a sudden, unlooked for accusation piercing the holy covering of every hard-shelled Baptist brother in the new Sunday-school room that for the moment the little group of men were staggered. Then while they were making up their minds as to which one should have the privilege of throwing out the intruder, a familiar tall figure was seen crossing the floor, and putting his arm about the lubbering, drunken boy.

“Come along, sonnie; steady now,” he whispered, leading him quickly away.

Half an hour later, sauntering back to the church social, Uncle Ambrose found that supper time was past and that the tables having been cleared away there was more and more room for conversation. Once again he sought the Widow Tarwater's side, but this time was received more graciously, for, putting out a trembling hand, she clasped Uncle Ambrose's with gratitude. “I'm obliged to you, Ambrose Thompson,” she said. “That boy's ever been a thorn in my flesh. I have kept him at the farm because my late husband was good to him, but after to-night I don't feel called to have him stay on.”

The Rev. Elias Tupper's voice thereafter was sufficiently loud to reach the ears of a number of the members of his congregation who were grouped about nearby.

“That boy,” he announced, folding his short arms across his chest and sighing deeply, “is a painful example of original sin.”

Since his return to the room up to this time Uncle Ambrose had made no remark, but now clearing his throat he eyed the last speaker for so long in silence that a little clacking noise was heard close by him and an old, old woman with an ear trumpet held to her ear leaned so far out of her wheeled chair that only her daughter's restraining hand kept her from falling.

“Original sin, Brother Elias?” The tall man drawled his question thoughtfully. “I wonder now why you speak of this boy's weaknesses as original sin? I've done lived in Pennyrile a right smart number of years and I ain't been witness to a single original sin. Seems like every fault a human crittur commits is just a plain copy of some fault that has gone before him. And I reckon it's more'n likely there's a good many original sinners among us men here to-night that has been original along pretty much the same lines as this here boy.”

There was an unspoken yet moving appeal in the sympathetic tones of the well-known voice, softening some of the women listeners and a few of the men, but the Hon. Calvin Jones had still to be heard from.

There are men in this world to whom even the simplest exchange of words is a chance for oratory. So the Honorable Calvin, frowning and with one finger thrust in his coat, by his dramatic silence held his audience for a moment spellbound.

“May I inquire,” he thundered, “if this lad whom Mr. Ambrose Thompson has just rescued and—er—defended, is any relation of his?”

In the interrogation itself there was no offence, but to every grown-up person who heard, the insinuation was plain enough.

To the tips of his big ears Uncle Ambrose flushed. “No, sir, he's not my son,” he answered the man, who was a stranger to him before this evening, “and maybe I'm glad and maybe I'm sorry. For I won't say since my daughter and Em'ly's died that I ain't thought most any kind of a child's better than no child at all.” He hesitated and then went on in pretty much his same old fashion of talking to himself: “Come to think of it now, mebbe in a way this boy is a son of mine, for I kind er think that every young man that plays the fool is the son of every man that's played the fool before him.”

And then with a friendly smile he turned again toward the widow.

“Ambrose,” she faltered, with two round tears rolling down her plump cheeks, “Brother Elias and Mr. Jones advise against it, but maybe you are thinkin' I ought to give that boy another chance.”

The tall man pressed the soft hand and shook his head.

“No, Peachy, I ain't never felt in my life that I knowed what another person ought to do, but ef I've studied 'em long enough and close enough I know pretty well what they will do. I took that boy home to spend the night with me, but I'll be drivin' out to your place with him to-morrow toward sundown. I'm more'n anxious fer a little old-time chat with you.”

CHAPTER XVI. THE ETERNAL FIRE

UNCLE AMBROSE poured the grace of forgiveness upon the pile of buckwheat cakes on his guest's plate next morning in the form of an over-supply of maple syrup, saying kindly: “Eat well, sonnie; we ain't goin' to talk over the events of last evening till you are feeling a little stronger in the stomach.”

And though the boy crimsoned and looked sullen, he proved his recovery by his application to the cakes.

“I was an awful fool last night,” he mumbled apologetically a few moments later.

“You were,” Uncle Ambrose replied, “but then being a young fool ain't so bad; it's bein' an old one that's serious,” and his faded blue eyes twinkled self-accusingly, while the boy went on talking into his plate.

“Course I didn't know what I was doin' when I bust into that social. Not that it matters; nobody kires fer me about here, and I'll pretty soon be clearin' out. The widow won't want me back to the farm.”

Uncle Ambrose leaned on his table, facing the young man so squarely that the boy was obliged to raise his bloodshot blue eyes to his.

“Nobody don't kire fer you in Pennyroyal? That ain't the important thing; don't you kire fer somebody, Sam? That's what keeps a man straight. If we was stone images now set up in a desert, why, we might hope to have people come a-worshippin' of us, but bein's as we are just ordinary—sometimes very ordinary—human bein's, seems like we might do the lovin' end ourselves.” The older man searched the face opposite him keenly. “How old are you?” he inquired suddenly.

“'Bout twenty,” was the answer. “I wasn't more'n eight or ten when Farmer Tarwater brought me to his farm and give me my schoolin' till I was a good sized boy. He was more of a friend to me than anybody's ever been.”

Uncle Ambrose waved the last statement aside. “Mebbe he was your friend and mebbe he wasn't, but the thing that worries me about you most, Sam, ain't last night's scrape nor the rest of the foolishnesses you been gettin' into in this village. It's you settin' right here at my table and you more'n twenty, been raised in Kentucky and got eyes in your head, and yet tellin' me you don't kire fer nobody! The Widow Tarwater told me I could bring you back to the farm this evenin' ef you was feelin' yourself, but mebbe you'd better stay along with me 'till I kin kind of find something to prop up under you.”

But the boy's tanned face grew redder than usual. “I didn't say I didn't kire fer no one; I said there was no one kired fer me. There's a girl——”

Now the tall man's hand struck the breakfast table until the plates on it fairly danced.

“Glory, I knowed you'd more sense'n you showed!” he announced triumphantly, and coming around to refill his visitor's plate put his arm affectionately around his shoulder. “You got the best thing on earth, boy, to keep you goin'; you got to learn a girl to love you.” Uncle Ambrose's emotional old face quivered with the glory of the chase. “Course your girl don't kire fer you now, you ain't worth it, but you up and show her what lovin' her has done fer you. And mebbe I'll keep right 'longside of you, Sam.”

This confidence was by no means finished, but at this moment a thin, brown shadow, faithful as the rising and setting of the sun, appearing at the dining-room window, Uncle Ambrose's further remarks were choked off. Returning from the kitchen a moment later he put down more cakes on the table and then shook his guest's hand in farewell. “I got to leave you now fer the day; Miner's come to git me to start fer the store, but there's one thing I want you to recollect while you're waitin' here fer me, sonnie, and that's that the good Lord sends a new day once in every twenty-four hours just to show folks they kin begin agen.”

It was a long day in the shop both to Miner and Ambrose. Inevitably the little man had grown more morose and bitter as the years went by. For in spite of Emily's and Ambrose's pleading he had gone but seldom to his old place under the apple tree after their marriage, and when his six sisters made homes of their own he had lived entirely alone. Indeed old Moses had seemed the only companion he had ever cared for except Ambrose, and on the day of Ambrose's second marriage the dog had moved himself and his allegiance from the tall man's house to the little one's and had never gone home again except to be buried.

Ambrose kept surreptitiously watching the clock from the noon hour on until his partner removed it clean out of sight in the back of the shop: however, an hour before closing time Ambrose began putting away his share of the stock, remarking airily, “I thought I'd git away a little sooner than usual this evenin', Miner, ef you don't mind.”

To this the little man at first returned nothing, but seeing his friend step over to their assortment of new neckties and laying aside his old lavender one begin to match a bright red one to the shade of his own complexion, he sighed. “I reckon you feel it comin' on agen, Ambrose?”

Ambrose nodded. “It started last night at the social,” he replied truthfully, “and then those other two men's actions kind er sicked me on. Peachy has done ripened and sweetened considerable; mebbe you noticed it, Miner?” he ended hopefully.

But Miner only scowled. “She's fat and old, but t'aint nothin' to you, Ambrose Thompson, once you're started. I was kind er hopin' you'd be faithful to Em'ly.”

However, in the midst of his reproach his partner had vanished; nevertheless, ten minutes later, he came back into the shop and seating himself on the counter appeared lost in thought for some little time.

“Miner,” he confessed finally, “I am a-settin' here tryin' to git a little light on the subject of myself. I ain't feelin' unfaithful to Em'ly 'cause I'm noticin' the widow; I never felt unfaithful to Sarah when I married Em'ly. I tell you, Miner Hobbs, that what's workin' in me now is that I ain't able to git old and give up 'thout makin' a fight. It ain't gray hair and wrinkles that make folks hate gettin' old, it's dryin' up, losin' their spark, so to speak. Now there's nothin' that makes a man feel such an all fired lot younger as fallin' in love over agen.” He laughed. “'Course I ain't recommendin' dynamite, Miner, which is fallin' in love with a new woman when you got an old one. That's my way, 'cause fate's done sent it so fer me, and we got to make our lives out of what we git. But why can't a man just start in ever so often fallin' in love agen and recourtin' his wife till he gits himself and her all woke up as in the old days? I ain't sayin' it's as easy with a stale girl as with a fresh one, but, Lord!”—and here the shadows chased each other across the luminous elderly face—“I could 'a' kep' on courtin' Em'ly till kingdom come and thanked God fer the chance, ef He had but seen fit to spare her to me so long.”

And then Uncle Ambrose slipped off the counter and went away and drove Sam out to the Widow Tarwater's Red Farm, which was now twice the size it had been in her youth, since Peachy had married the young man owning the place adjoining hers.

Yet somehow Uncle Ambrose's anticipated visit proved a disappointment.

In the first place, both of his rivals were there before him, and there was something in their attitude and in the widow's manner that made him hot with the desire to get the representatives of the law and the gospel out behind a fence and have everybody roll up their sleeves. However, since no open accusations were made and a woman was present, what was there for him to do but to make a short stay and then return slowly home?—home, to live through what was perhaps the most extraordinary experience of Ambrose Thompson's entire lifetime. For nearly sixty years he had lived in the village of Pennyroyal, been a friend to all its people, his life had been there for them to see and interpret, and yet with the first breathings of calumny the record of his whole career was smirched. Still he made no protest, for what does denial count if a man's character cannot save him? His visits to the widow were continued, however, and always he found her in a flutter between affection and fear. Nevertheless, Uncle Ambrose was merely biding his time, but in the meanwhile Miner's silence and devotion were more healing than any ointment.

CHAPTER XVII. THE REVIVAL SERVICE

AMBROSE was raking the dead leaves in his front yard two weeks after the oyster supper when Susan Barrows summoned him across to her with a wave of her ear trumpet. All day she sat outdoors in her wheeled chair, huddled in rugs, until the snow came, with her eager old eyes fastened on the street, her curiosity hungry after eighty years.

Ambrose knelt beside her with his lips to her trumpet.

“They're sayin' ugly things about you,” she whispered. Then seeing the hurt in the man's face that even Miner had not fully understood, she rested her trembling hand on his gray head. “Talkin' but not believin', Ambrose Thompson. I ain't sayin' that some people don't agree to this ugly story, since whatever's ugly naturally pleases 'em, but the most of Pennyroyal is just rollin' this bit of scandal 'bout you under their tongues like a sweet morsel and then spittin' it out, knowin' it ain't fitten to swallow. But what worries me is that I'm afeard you'll be losin' the widow. Here's Brother Tupper startin' in with a series of revival services to-night at his new church, and the legislator neglectin' the welfare of his State to keep close to the widow! Not that it's the law I am so much scared of as the preacher. Peachy's plump and jelly-like and kin be easy shook, and I ain't been a female eighty years 'thout knowin' how easy 'tis to work on our religious feelin's. You goin' to the revivin'?”

Not at once did Uncle Ambrose reply; instead he seemed to be considering.

“I'm not at all sure, Miss Susan; seems like I've felt kind of lonesome in church since we lost Brother Bills, but I've more'n half way promised Peachy; she seemed so dead set on my attendin'.”

Susan grinned. “Ef she's worryin' about you needin' religious instruction, Ambrose, don't you lose hope. It's a powerful wifely sign.”

And so Uncle Ambrose went on back to his work, vaguely comforted though not yet certain whether or not to obey the widow's request. To tell the truth, he had comparatively little faith in his own chance with Peachy, since his befriending the boy Sam had brought with it so unfortunate a result. And yet the thought of the possession of the Widow Tarwater had daily grown more and more alluring as his rivals' claims progressed, and she seemed so much less ready for his picking than in past times.

Late that evening when the first of the present series of revival services was in full swing, a tall man cautiously entered an open door. He had never yet been inside the church itself, and to-night found it crowded to the doors with men and even women standing in the aisles. Uncle Ambrose felt annoyed, for having made a special effort to be subservient he certainly desired that the widow should know of it, and, moreover, though he preferred not having the matter discussed, frequent rheumatic twinges in his right leg made standing for any length of time an impossibility.

Now he shoved himself forward, politely edging his way between saints and sinners alike, hoping that Mrs. Tarwater would at least get a passing glimpse of him, when at the front of the church, to his immense surprise, he discovered an entirely empty pew.

There was no time for thought, and almost immediately the newcomer dropped down upon the seat, observing at the same instant that the widow and her escort, the Honorable Calvin, were in an opposite pew just across the aisle, though why their pew should be so jammed and his own exactly under the chancel entirely unoccupied he did not then consider. Obeying his first impulse Uncle Ambrose turned a smile upon the widow. It was tremendously gratifying to observe her large bosom heave with emotion, but puzzling when soon after large tears coursed down her quivering face.

Moreover, the persons in Uncle Ambrose's immediate vicinity were also beginning to behave queerly.

“The Lord be praised that one more sinner is called to repentance!” he heard a sister's shrill voice cry out just back of him, and then loud “Amens” boomed all about. But even more alarming—the Rev. Elias Tupper's expressionless eyes were apparently glued upon him, while his face wore an exaggerated edition of that smile of heavenly forgiveness so irritating to the other man's soul.

With a shudder of horror it was now borne in upon Uncle Ambrose Thompson that by misadventure he had placed himself upon the mourners' bench—the seat at revival services specially set apart for sinners overcome with remorse who desired to make open confession.

With a hunted look the unhappy man searched about for some way of escape; there was none, for the congregation had come crowding closer toward the front of the church until every foot of room was occupied.

Folding his arms across his lean chest and lifting his head Uncle Ambrose waited. During the first moments of his discovery his face had grown extraordinarily red, but now was paler than any man or woman had ever seen it before.

Lifting his right hand the Rev. Elias Tupper commanded an intense and awed silence. “Ambrose Thompson is before us to-night openly to confess his sins,” he announced in a loud voice.

Still the tall man did not move and not even a muscle of his set face pulsated. A moment of waiting or longer must have gone by—nobody could have guessed the exact passage of time—and yet Uncle Ambrose appeared insensible.

The minister cleared his throat. “If Ambrose Thompson is unable to speak for himself, then I will do my best to speak for him.”

But at this the presumably repentant sinner rose up slowly, very slowly, almost it would seem by inches, until he stood taller than any other person in the new red brick church.

“It ain't my way to pray before a audience,” he began quietly and with his gray head bowed, although his words could be distinctly heard, “and I don't know as I feel called to do any special repentin' this evenin', seein' as I got up on this here mourning bench by accident and with no idea but to set and listen fer a while. Still I reckon I got sins enough to be sorry 'bout most any time the chance comes.” Ambrose then seemed to be reflecting for a moment, and it is just possible that during this pause the thin ghost of a smile played like heat lightning about the end of his sensitive nose, although his expression continued perfectly reverent.

“I wouldn't be a mite surprised though, Lord,” he went on in almost a conversational tone, “ef my neighbours wasn't better able to confess my sins fer me than I am fer myself, bein's as we've all got such special talents fer our neighbours' motes. The trouble is I'm none too sure one man can precisely understand another man's, Heavenly Father, you've so many and various ways of revealin' yourself to your children. Course I know, Lord, I've loved fine apparel too dear and smokin' and the outdoors when mebbe I should 'a' been workin' in, and mebbe I've laughed now and then over things folks think should 'a' been cried over. And I've had my hours of distrustin' and repinin' and forgettin' it's God's privilege to run His world 'cordin' to His idees, not mine. But, O Lord, what's the use mentionin' things that ain't cheerful even to you? I'm plumb sorry fer all I've done that's bad 'thout goin' into further details.”

And here again Uncle Ambrose paused; however, not one of his strained and over-eager listeners had any delusion that his prayer was finished. He simply had been forgetting them and now remembered. Then he lifted his head and straightened his shoulders, and what he saw through the shining oak ceiling of the new brick church no one shall ever know.

“Ef any one here present is waitin' to hear me say I'm sorry fer any lovin' I've ever done of man—or woman (course I know you ain't expectin' it, Lord)—then I am obleeged to state he or she'll be disappointed. Women is the nearest things I've known on this earth to the angels, and I ain't been disobedient to the heavenly vision.”

Up to this moment Uncle Ambrose's voice had been low and evenly modulated, but now it changed like the deeper tones of an organ until it came to be the most wonderful music in the world—a voice that was able perfectly to express the richest things of the spirit. “But, Lord, ef ever I'd wronged a woman, I'd not be askin' forgiveness of you; I'd just ask that it be meted out to me in like proportion as it has been meted out to the woman, forever and ever. Amen.”

And then not waiting for the closing of the service, and forgetting his hat, Uncle Ambrose passed on down the church aisle, where room was instantly made for him, out into the white stillness of the autumn night, away from calumny and human irritation, and the little congregation seeing him go with a look of added dignity and peace, whatever their former ill-founded suspicions, after to-night believed nothing against him.

CHAPTER XVIII. INDIAN SUMMER

TRUTH is immortal, and one truth is that there cannot be two pursuers in the game of love.

After the night of the first revival service Uncle Ambrose, making no further visits to the Red Farm, it was the woman who set herself to lure him back again.

In the first place, he had by then convinced her that her mistrust had been unjust and that she had listened to suggestion that was not evidence. So there was but one way by which the widow felt she could make reparation and restore peace between herself and Ambrose Thompson. She must find out the name of Sam's father, for necessarily the boy had to have two parents, and the mother she had known as she had come frequently to the farm on visits to her son up to the time of her death.

The original informant mentioned in the Bible was a female: “And the damsel ran, and told them of her mother's house these things.”

Therefore after a certain period of effort the boy Sam himself drove one afternoon into Pennyroyal bearing three perfumed notes written by the widow which he was to carefully deliver at the post-office.

The next afternoon, along about four o'clock, three men appearing in the village street at almost the same time were seen to start off in the direction of the Widow Tarwater's farm. Not that they were together, certainly not; for some little time they were even unconscious of each other's destination. Ambrose, however, made the discovery first, since owing to the enfeebled condition of his livery-stable horse and the disabled state of his prehistoric gig he was compelled to be in the rear of the procession, which was headed by the Honorable Calvin on a high black charger and seconded by the Rev. Mr. Tupper in a neat phaeton drawn by a fat pony.

The tall man could have vowed that the best parlour at the Red Farm had not been changed in more than three decades, except that a criminal looking portrait done in crayons of the Widow Tarwater's late husband, who had been an uncommonly handsome man, hung over the mantel, for there in the same dark corner and on the identical sofa sat Peachy, but a far more flushed and emotional Peachy than her former admirer recalled.

For indeed the widow's cheeks were burning, her mouth tremulous like a worried child's, and after her first greeting of her three visitors, she continued twisting her handkerchief in and out of her fingers, trying to speak and yet plainly not finding courage. So conspicuously was she needing consolation that Uncle Ambrose's long arm fairly ached to accommodate its length to her large waist, nevertheless the presence of his rivals, who may or may not have been suffering from the same pressure, deterred him.

“Ambrose,” so much the widow did get out, turning her eyes away from the encouragement she might have received from the ardour of two other glances, to rest them on her older friend, “I feel it my duty, having lately acted kind of suspicious to you, to tell you that I now know who the boy Sam's father is, was——” And Peachy fell to sobbing now in such earnest that she was compelled to bury her flushed face in her handkerchief.

Two of the men stared; many hopeful things had each of them anticipated in this hasty summons from the widow, but not this confession. However, the third man, hopping up, began striding rather irritably about the room.

“If his father was, then fer the land sakes, Peachy, keep it to yourself; 'taint a mortal bit er use startin' things on a dead man.”

But whether the widow belonged to the large group of females with a passion for martyrdom or whether she was less a martyr in telling her secret than in keeping it, who shall say? For in reply she shook her head, removing her handkerchief, though permitting her tears to flow faster than ever.

“My late husband was this boy Sam's father,” she went on quickly, once she had fairly started. “I might have guessed it years agone if I'd ever thought on it; seems like I can recall now numbers of times when he tried to tell me this himself, and as he was so often askin' me to be kind to Sam and give him a chance I more'n half took a dislike to the lad. Lately I've been goin' through some old papers and, well, there ain't no more to be said 'ceptin' as I've no children of my own I'm goin' to make this Sam my heir; I've already writ out the papers.”

With the ending of this speech Uncle Ambrose enjoyed one of the most exquisite moments of his later years. Not that he was so transfigured by the proof of his own innocence, since the annoyance that the scandal had caused had passed that evening in church, and most certainly not because he enjoyed hearing the reputation of Peachy's former husband damaged, but because the expressions on the faces of his rivals proved what his wits had already discovered, that the two men were not after the widow for herself, but because of the abundance and fruitfulness of her fields.

What the widow herself saw it was impossible to tell, for almost immediately after, with her face still buried in her handkerchief, she left the room, and the three men could see her through the window hurrying across the front lawn.

Left alone, the Honorable Calvin was the first to speak. Drawing out a delicately scented white handkerchief he wiped a slight dampness from about his lips. “I suppose the widow does not fully understand this boy has no legal claim on her,” he said thoughtfully.

The minister sighed, waving a fat hand. “A little remembrance, say a thousand dollars or so, as a start in life would be quite sufficient.”

Uncle Ambrose smiled. “I reckon you gentlemen had better talk this matter over with Mrs. Tarwater. Women have such foolish, softhearted ways of tryin' to save the innocent and help the guilty when they're able; 'taint law and 'taint gospel, mebbe, but it's woman.”

Then seeing that the legislator had risen to his feet with the first understanding of his suggestion the tall man laid a firm hand on him. “Better let Brother Elias have the first show, Mr. Jones,” he drawled; “seems no more'n proper respect to pay the gospel.”

So both men waited ten minutes or more, the Honorable Calvin glowering and fidgeting, while Uncle Ambrose, whatever his inner stirrings, remained imperturbably calm until, seeing a stout figure returning to unhitch his pony, with his face wearing an expression more of sorrow than of anger, Mr. Jones waited for no further advice.

Left alone, Uncle Ambrose betrayed his real feelings. First, he looked at himself in a small triple mirror on the mantel, carefully combing with a little pocket comb the thin hairs well to the front of his head over his increasing bald spot, and afterward he walked restlessly about the great room, finally arriving at the window. It was always Calvin Jones he had feared. “Good looks and a silver tongue! Lord, what a combination!”

The sun was now going down at the edge of the Kentucky landscape, in the fields the grain had been cut and stacked and golden pumpkins were lying between the piled up mounds of hay and corn. Over the tips of the grass, which still showed green, autumn leaves were swirling, and hovering above, and through it all a fine, thin mist which might be the coming blight of winter or the lingering spirit of the summer's warmth.

Crossing a meadow and moving toward a big red barn, Uncle Ambrose soon spied Sam driving a long line of cows toward home. With a leap his long legs carried him out the window and swiftly across the yard. “Hullo!” he cried while still some distance away.

The boy's face reddened, but this time from sheer pleasure. “Hullo!” he cried, all his sullenness and resentment gone. And in a few moments the older man's lean, strong fingers held the boy's short stocky hand in a hard clasp. “I am glad fer you clean through,” he said simply.

The boy's head jerked toward the house. “Has she told you?” he asked. “It's powerful kind of her when she ain't even liked me.”

“Kind?” Uncle Ambrose frowned. “Why, boy, she's plumb magnificent!” And here he curveted a few steps to the side. “Lord! ain't it splendid—life so full of good things happenin' every minute!” Stopping, he gazed steadily and curiously into the eyes of the young man near him, while the cows wondering at the delay pressed their sweet smelling bodies against each other and muzzled their soft noses. The boy's eyes were no longer bloodshot nor ashamed.

“'Bout that other thing, sonnie, your girl?” Uncle Ambrose hesitated. “Don't you tell me nothin' ef you ain't a mind to. Lord! don't I remember how a young fellow hates bein' pried into.”

“You ain't pryin',” the boy defended, “and it's comin' on great. I took your advice. I just let myself do all the lovin' I could 'thout stewin' over her feelin's fer me, and then all of a sudden she up and told me she always had loved me, only she was afeard I didn't kire fer her.”

Uncle Ambrose's face shone. “A'ire you worth her now, sonnie?”

“Lord, no,” the boy answered; “but I kep' straight since that night and I'll keep on. It's lovin' that done it.”

Uncle Ambrose raised his rusty stovepipe hat. “Lovin', that's it,” he answered.

And then across his wrinkled face there marched a host of memories, while keeping his eyes on the sky among whose soft clouds there might easily have been floating any number of angels, he repeated the toast made immortal by Kentuckians: “The ladies, God bless 'em!”

Suddenly hearing the noise of a horse's hoofs trotting away from the neighbourhood of the farmhouse, Ambrose whirled, and before his companion could guess what ailed him, started running back across the lawn.

But this time Peachy was not to be so easily found. Uncle Ambrose searched for her in the yard and in the garden, in the place where the old summer house, now a ruin, had once stood, and then when the sun had disappeared and only an afterglow remained, found her leaning over a turnstile facing an orchard.

“I hope I ain't kept you waitin', Peachy,” he remarked, a trifle breathlessly.

The woman smiled and slipped her arm through his that they might both lean together on the turnstile. “Most forty years, Ambrose,” she returned with a finer enjoyment than she could have felt in her youth.

And her sixty-year-old suitor blushed. “I know more'n I did then, Peachy; I was frightened of your managin' ways.” He was feeling a considerable anxiety, for the woman beside him was like a piece of fruit, no longer in her summer time, but reaching her perfection in late autumn.

Very quietly then Peachy withdrew her arm.

“I'm managin' now, Ambrose,” she confessed. “Seems like growin' old don't lose us our faults; it kind er makes 'em set deeper. I should be sorry to try you, but I'm some past fifty and ain't able to change.”

[Illustration: “You kin manage me now all you've a mind to; I ain't worryin'“]

However, Uncle Ambrose simply put his arm around her, drawing her closer to him. “Lord, Peachy, ef that's all, don't you fret. You kin manage me now all you've a mind to; I ain't worryin'. I was young and didn't understand then that no man kin git on comfortable in this world 'thout bein' managed by a good woman.” And he laughed and kissed her with an ardour that was in its way as good a thing as the springtime.

A minute later, the light dying quickly down, the autumn moon rose up above the orchard, and with the disappearance of the day the warmth ended so abruptly that, with a little shiver, the two middle-aged figures moved away, the woman watching the man anxiously. “It ain't moonlight we're needin', Ambrose Thompson,” she whispered; “I'm thinkin' it's the light of the fireside.”

PART IV. HIS FOURTH WIFE

          “There are diversities of gift, but the same spirit

CHAPTER XIX. “'LIZABETH”

A VERY old man leaned over, touching a cane-bottomed rocking chair with his carpet slipper. “Seems sort er more sociable like to see a little female chair a-rockin',” he remarked to himself, for the room was otherwise unoccupied, and even the house itself.

It was a December night and snowing hard. By and by the old man got up, and crossing over to a side window where the blind had not yet been pulled down, stood there for a moment frowning and saying impatiently: “Ef that don't beat all!” for mingling with the noises outside there sounded a faint and monotonous crying.

He was an uncommonly tall old man with a head like a highly polished billiard ball rising above a fringe of thin white hair; he had a straggly beard, while over his dim blue eyes the eyebrows arched like cornices.

Finally he shuffled back toward his place by the kitchen fire, and there getting down the family Bible commenced to read, first stuffing both fingers in his ears, although every now and then partially removing one to make observations. He was reading the twenty-second chapter of St. Matthew:

“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” However, on the third reading he shut up his book, keeping three bunches of pressed flowers inside to mark the place, and half humorously and half with the irritability of old age, sighed: “I don't feel as ef I could stand it a inch longer. What mortal use is there in me tryin' to make myself at all comfortable this evenin' with that noise eternally pesterin' me? Seems like it has always been my experience a man has got to give in first an' last.”

Then wrapped in the faded splendour of a once gorgeous silk dressing-gown the old man disappeared into his bedroom, returning with a shawl crossed over his shoulders and a knitted muffler tied about his head. On opening his door he listened again for a moment, but, as the crying had not ceased, waded across his yard through the snow in his carpet slippers until he knocked with his big blue-veined old hand hard against the locked back door of a cottage adjoining his.

At first there was no answer except a continuing of the sniffling, snuffling noises which only made the visitor rap more vehemently, when at length the door opened and there stood a woman holding a lantern above her head.

“Uncle Ambrose Thompson, what kin you want o' me this time o' night?” she asked; “it's goin' on nine o'clock! You ain't sick?”

Uncle Ambrose shook his head, surveying his neighbour sympathetically, but oh, so disparagingly! She was so plainly an old-time old maid, flat in the chest and angular, a hard and bony structure, with a face that was equally barren save that its desert waste had lately been swept by a storm.

“No, I ain't sick, child,” Uncle Ambrose answered, “but you are—heartsick. And what's more it seems likely I can't stand that noise you keep on a-makin'. You come over and set by my kitchen fire a space and kind er talk things out with me. I reckon I ain't altogether lost my soothin' powers!”

Before his glowing fire the old host comfortably placed two rocking chairs side by side. For the past seven years Ambrose Thompson had been a widower for the third time and, since Peachy's death, having come back home from the Red Farm, had lived all alone in his once rose-coloured cottage, looked after only by his neighbours.

Picking up a crazy quilt cushion from his chair, the old man surveyed it tenderly. “This was my Em'ly's make,” he explained; “seems, 'Lizabeth Horton, that you and me 're most like strangers, havin' lived side by side only a little piece like seven years. Em'ly she was the second of my three wives.” And then thoughtfully passing his hand backward over his high bald crown, Uncle Ambrose smiled in a kind of slow and puzzled fashion.

“No, now I've done mixed things up a bit; I'm gittin' a little oncertain these days. Em'ly wasn't never the sewin' one,” he continued, “besides, this crazy quiltin' business was most too new fashioned fer my Em'ly. I kin recollect now bringin' that sofy cushion in from the farm, so it must 'a' been Peachy's. Funny how I keep puttin' everything on to Em'ly these days!”

Then seeing that his caller's red-rimmed eyes had been yearning toward the coffee pot at the back of his stove, the old man put it down before her with a nicked but brightly flowered cup and saucer, and afterward, settling himself in his own place, peacefully began smoking, finding a kind of unholy joy in the old maid's horrified glances about his untidy but nobly littered kitchen.

“S'pose you go ahead now'n tell me just what ails you?” Uncle Ambrose suggested after a reasonably sustaining pause.

And straightway Elizabeth returned to the slow and monotonous weeping that had so disturbed his nerves for the past few hours. However, he let her alone for a time, and except for moving restlessly about in his chair and biting hard on his pipe stem made no other signs until at last he placed a trembling hand on her bowed shoulder. “'Lizabeth Horton, there is some women that just nachurally runs away to tears, but I wouldn't waste myself en_tirely ef I was you. Seems like when a female has cried 's long as you have, she must need something to fill up the places that has gone dry on the inside; so you take another cup of coffee; it may be bitter but it's liquid. I ain't sayin' I ain't used to women's weepin', but I'm gittin' older an'——”

Elizabeth at this gulped down her second dose. “I hadn't ought to cry so much, Uncle Ambrose,” she apologized, “but you must know I'm havin' to give up my little home and it most breaks my heart.”

Uncle Ambrose looked meditatively about his ancient and patched fourteen-foot-square kitchen, and his dim eyes shone with the never failing pride of possession. “These cottages ain't so bad,” he said defensively. “I been living in mine off'n on fer most seventy years, and I kin remember when yours and old Mrs. Barrows', now deceased, was built like it. Still I am obleeged to say there may be finer places; more'n likely now this nephew's house is stylisher where you're bein' took in to live. Seems like I've done heard it's in a su-burb and sets up on a hill. Kind er onnecessary Pennyrile's havin' a su-burb, but mebbe you're thinkin' the young folks won't be good to you when you go up there to dwell.”

Now that her crying had ceased the old maid's face looked gray.

“It ain't that I ain't goin' to a good home, Uncle Ambrose,” she explained, “and I suppose they'll be as good to me as they can to a piece of furniture that don't fit in and ain't nowheres needed in their house. I can't expect a man to understand, but when a woman don't never marry and hasn't a husband or children of her own, seems like all she has to set store by is just things, havin' a home of her own. I done my best to keep mine since mother died and her pension stopped, by picklin' and preservin', but somehow I can't manage it.” And now the woman's voice held the quiet acceptance of defeat which is sadder than any protest of tears.

She was looking into her lap at her knotted, hardworking and yet unsuccessful hands as she spoke, or else she would have seen the light of the understanding she denied in the old face opposite hers, which had not, I think, failed any woman in nearly threescore years.

“I've done smelt your efforts, 'Lizabeth,” Uncle Ambrose murmured kindly. “They've often come right through the boards of my side wall. I wisht I knowed some way to help you out, but I can't somehow see it.”

Nevertheless when Elizabeth had made her old neighbour as comfortable for the night as she knew how by putting fresh coals on his fire and by fastening down his windows, and had said good night, still he continued sitting in the same place, wearing a look of uncomfortable gravity, until by and by hobbling once more into his bedroom he returned with a small daguerreotype in his hand and for a long while kept studying it, with his lips moving silently, and then suddenly said aloud: “Whatever on this earth am I goin' to do 'bout that old maid, Em'ly honey? She's poor and lonesome and she's scaired, and, moreover, she's powerful homely.” And then just for an instant piercing the mists over his old eyes the immortal light of laughter flickered.

“I reckon you think I've done earned a trifle of repose from worryin' on females, don't you, honey?” he inquired as he made his solitary way toward bed.

CHAPTER XX. “GIVING IN MARRIAGE”

IN A similar cottage on one side of old Ambrose Thompson, as has already been explained, there now dwelt the single departing spinster, Elizabeth Horton, whom Uncle Ambrose regarded as a newcomer, her occupancy lying somewhat within the period of twenty years, while on the other side there still remained his youthful enemy, Susan Barrows. Not Mrs. Susan Barrows, Sr., because of course some years before that old lady had been translated to that country where we hope all human curiosity may be satisfied, but her daughter, Susan Jr.; a little prying, spiteful girl she would always remain to Ambrose, although now a married woman past middle age, with grown-up children of her own.

And among her other inheritances she claimed an interfering interest in the old man's mode of life.

Now a set of signals having been arranged between them in case of urgent need on his part, at about six o'clock the next morning Susan was aroused by a violent knocking on his wall on the side of the house next hers, and hurrying over she found the old man lying half dressed on his bed and groaning with pain.

“Seems like I can't turn over or move or draw long breath, Susan Jr.,” he gasped. “'Course I know I got my feet wet; 'tain't no use of you startin' in on that. I've got the lumbago, but bein's as I feel I mayn't be able to git up fer a right smart spell you'd better step next door and tell that old maid 'Lizabeth to come over here and look after me. She ain't no kith and kin to keep her busy like you.”

Susan eyed her old neighbour narrowly; she never had and never would be able wholly to trust him, but now his fine old wrinkled face seemed to be twisting with pain and his nose and lips twitching.

“'Lizabeth can't come, you know it well as I do, Ambrose Thompson,” she replied. “I've just got to do the best fer you I kin, though it ain't noways convenient to me. This comes from you tryin' to live alone 'cause Aunt Ca'line and the others who used to see to you is passed. 'Lizabeth Horton is movin' within a few hours, bein' turned out of her house, bag and baggage,” and there was such richness of superiority in Susan Jr.'s voice, the kind of superiority which the prosperous always feel in the presence of the unprosperous, that the old man longed to shake her.

But instead he only remarked with suspicious meekness: “'Lizabeth's furniture is bein' moved, Susan Jr., but not necessar'ly 'Lizabeth; leastways I don't believe she is engaged to go off in the movin' van settin' on top her best dresser like a hen, though it's what a lot of women would like, they're so bound up in things mortal.” And then Uncle Ambrose fixing his gaze on a far spot in the ceiling shivered and groaned until his audience hurried away, when he was able to relax into greater comfort.

Thus it was that 'Lizabeth took up the business of caring for Uncle Ambrose Thompson until such time as the lumbago should depart from his back.

[Illustration: “Thus it was that 'Lizabeth took up the business of caring for Uncle Ambrose Thompson"]

From the first the old man could see that the spinster was enjoying herself thoroughly; true, his cottage was small, but then it was exactly like her own save that he had let his grow truly magnificent in its dirt and disorder, being not of the type of male with perverted feminine instincts, while Elizabeth never had had but one womanly passion gratified and that was her love of putting a house to rights.

So for some little time Uncle Ambrose rather found pleasure in staying in bed with the hateful burden of solitariness removed from him; he loved listening to the familiar homely sounds of sweeping and the moving about of furniture; it brought back—ah well, perhaps at seventy-six it is something to have many things to remember.

And then, lying alone, he used to talk very often to his picture of Emily, which still hung on its nail by the old pine bureau, for this habit, begun after her death and only practised in secret during his marriage to Peachy, had grown on him in these last seven years of failing body and mind.

“She's a real good woman, Em'ly,” he said several times, “and you'll be glad to know she's makin' me more comfortable than I been in some time. I was gittin' pretty tired. Seems like I might as well let this old spinster stay on here and keep house fer me; she plumb likes it and I reckon it's just one little thing more I kin do fer the sex. I ain't much good at lonin' it, and 'tain't like I had old Miner now fer the in betweens.” And then he would laugh silently until the wrinkles in his old face seemed little channels for merriment: “I been married so frequent and got broke in to so many different sets of housekeepin' ways, seems like I ain't troubled to form no ways of my own.”

And in between dozing and talking to himself and the neighbours, who ran in to inquire for his health, Uncle Ambrose used to spend some time in reading his Bible. One afternoon when Elizabeth had been sitting by his bedside sewing and thinking him asleep, he suddenly rose up in bed as though completely ignoring the pain in his back and drawing his old Bible across the coverlid opened it again at the place of the pressed flowers.

“'Lizabeth,” he asked after a moment of uncommon gravity in which his hand frequently glided over his bald crown, “are you a good Bible woman? I mean are you a good interpreter of the Scriptures? Seems like I didn't used to look to others fer the meanin' in things, but I'm gittin' a leetle mite older and folks is pretty apt to confuse wishes with facts——”

But Elizabeth's austere face, with its rigid regard for set duties, was reddening. “I read my chapter every night and I try to live accordin',” she answered.

Then into Uncle Ambrose's old voice there crept such an eagerness it might have held the warm desire of youth: “Mebbe you kin tell me then—the meanin' of this here Bible text. I ain't never regarded it for seventy years, but I been worryin' over it consider'ble of late, and now I'd like to get a woman's views on it.” And with his trembling forefinger following the lines he had read to himself on the evening before Elizabeth's installation he said: “It is what Jesus remarked to the Sadducees: 'For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.'“ And here Uncle Ambrose's eyes travelled wistfully toward the faded daguerreotype on his side wall.

Naturally his listener was puzzled, but afterward laughed a laugh with a touch of new humour in it. “Lord! Uncle Ambrose, I am sorry,” she apologized, “but I ain't had cause to worry over that text same as you have; bein's as I'm turned fifty now and ain't had so much as one husband on this earth, I'm kind of expectin' to carry my same single blessedness along with me on the t'other side.”

Uncle Ambrose's eyes twinkled appreciatively, but a moment later he looked uncomfortable again. “Well, I reckon that's reasonable of you, 'Lizabeth,” he agreed. “Folks can't understand things fer other folks; there's plenty can't comprehend me marryin' so often and now worryin' over arrangements for the future. But it's like this, child: a man may git a lot of help_mates in this world, but he don't find his real mate but once. And I want to know which one of my three wives is goin' to claim me in heaven, 'cause it looks like that combination's got to be eternal. To tell you the truth, I was so worried lately I sent fer the latest Baptist preacher and put this question up to him, and all he did was to read this selfsame verse out of St. Matthew as though I hadn't read and studied over it more'n a hundred times. The new brother seemed to think we'd have to travel alone up in heaven 'thout playin' favrits, but I can't come to agree with him. To tell you the truth, 'Lizabeth”—and here Uncle Ambrose's words sunk to a hoarse whisper—“ef the facts be known I want my Em'ly. I done my best without her, but it wasn't whole livin' 'cept when I had her, and I ain't meanin' nothin' in disfavour of no one else. Of course ef it's true that the Lord don't believe in marriages in the next world, with me such a marrier in this, then that text'll be a whole lot of assistance to me in gittin' things fixed. For when my three wives come a-floatin' up to me as the angels are, I'll be more'n pleased to see 'em all, but I got to speak up pretty positive: 'I want my Em'ly, and there ain't no marriages nor givin' in marriage in heaven.' For you see I marries little Sarah first and that might give her the first claim, and Peachy last, so it's likely she might think a last tie would bind. Seems like it wouldn't look regular to have the three of 'em to once.” And at this the speaker smiled with a kind of appreciative vision of things to come, while at the same time wiping his brow, which was gleaming with perspiration.

A day or so after this, having suddenly found his confinement unendurable, Uncle Ambrose demanded to be taken outdoors, and so wrapping him carefully in blankets Elizabeth set him out on the back stoop to look over his little snow-covered yard, leaving the door open that she might hear if he called to her.

And the woman was so happy now that she sang as she went about her work, for in moving him out the old man had asked her to stay and keep house for him so long as he should live.

Uncle Ambrose did not observe Susan Jr.'s birdlike black eyes peer slantingly at him through her partially closed blind, for two lady sparrows who had chosen to perch on the same twig were keeping up such a violent discussion of their territorial rights that they held his amused attention, so that Susan was able quietly to slip out through her front door and into his by a surreptitious move that outflanked her enemy. But pretty soon the old man caught the notes of her ever meddlesome voice and then a little later the sound of monotonous weeping. He had heard Elizabeth Horton crying one evening for two mortal hours and so was not apt to mistake her particular sniff. At first he squirmed restlessly in his chair, attempting to rise, but both the blankets and his reputation as an invalid enveloped him so that finally he called sharply: “Susan Jr., Susan, don't pretend you don't hear me. Come right out here on my stoop, I got to speak to you alone.”

And Susan crept stealthily out. She had grown up to be a thin, small woman with a meddlesome soul out of all proportion to her body, and now she wore a wheedling smile such as one might employ with a fretful baby.

“You are lookin' right smart better, Uncle Ambrose,” she began, “and 'Lizabeth Horton tells me you'll soon be yourself again.”

“Susan,” the old man interrupted, “you are in that kitchen hatching up trouble fer me sure as sin. I heard you tellin' 'Lizabeth that she oughtn't to be stayin' much longer with me. What did you do that fer?” And Uncle Ambrose's eyes, which could be like points of steel in righteous anger, now emitted certain fiery sparks. “'Lizabeth is happy and is makin' me comfortable after seven more lonesome years, and you've always been preachin' I ought to git some one to take kire of me. Susan Jr., the Lord gives and the Lord taketh away, but don't you try comin' around here playin' the part of the Lord. You let this spinster be.”

Again Susan Jr. smiled with an air of superior virtue. “It ain't me that's talkin', Uncle Ambrose; I ain't seein' anything so wrong in your present relations, but I must say folks in Pennyrile is beginnin' to speculate some, bein's as 'Lizabeth is just turned fifty and you with such a reckernized taste fer female folks, why, though things ain't to say scanderlous, there is some that thinks 'em a little pe-cul-iar.”

“Go, Susan,” and though Uncle Ambrose spoke with restraint his long finger pointed toward the intervening space which lay between his house and hers. “Go, afore I'm able to tell you what I think of you, 'cause I've known you from a child and you ain't changed none—fer the better. To think of you sneakin' over here fer the supreme pleasure of worryin' one poor homely old maid with your gossip and suggestin's.” And Uncle Ambrose's face worked with the annoyance of frustrated old age. “Ef only 'Lizabeth had had one or two husbands she wouldn't be payin' no attention to this, but bein's as she's never had none, well, I kin see that I'm goin' to have my hands pretty nigh full. Seems like I'd rather turn a child out'n the world than this poor unrequited female.”

Late that evening Elizabeth gave Uncle Ambrose his supper as usual, although her eyes were so nearly closed from weeping that she was unable to catch the worried gleam in his. However, before going to bed she told him that she would have to leave him and go to her nephew's as soon as he was well enough to be about again.

CHAPTER XXI. “I SHALL WANT MY EM'LY.”

ON THAT same night Uncle Ambrose suffered a relapse and remained in bed for another week; however, he had already got sufficiently rested from his previous laying up and, besides, even at seventy-six he had not yet come to evading an issue. He was merely taking time to think.

One evening just as the lamps in his room were being lighted he called Elizabeth to his bed. “I'm goin' to git up to-morrow, 'Lizabeth, and stay up; I'm 'bout as well now as I'm ever goin' to be, seein' as I'm gittin' older each day 'stid of younger,” he said with the gentle firmness that had always come to him in big moments.

With a nervous trembling Elizabeth smoothed the old man's pillows, tucking his blankets in more closely about him. “I'm reel glad fer you, Uncle Ambrose; then you won't be needin' me much longer.”

But the old man shook his head. “Set down, 'Lizabeth, I want to talk to you; I don't want my supper, leastways not yet.”

But when Elizabeth had seated herself by the side of his bed for a time he continued silent while his glance wandered from the spot where his daguerreotype hung alongside the wall to the figure of the elderly worried spinster, and once catching a reflection of himself in the looking glass with a night cap tied under his chin and then a vision of Elizabeth, suddenly his blue eyes under their overhanging brows brimmed over.

“'Lizabeth,” he inquired at length, “did I ever show you the picture of my Em'ly?”

“You ain't exactly showed it to me,” she replied kindly, “but I been seein' it every day when I come in here to clean; she's got a kind of different face; it's a pity she had to leave you.”

Uncle Ambrose only cleared his throat a trifle more huskily. “You're a good woman, too, 'Lizabeth, and so was little Sarah and Peachy Tarwater, and you're makin' my declinin' days peacefuller, givin' me a chance to relish things that is past, and to hope fer things to come. Not that I kin say you're one mortal bit like Em'ly, cause you ain't, but all women 'a' got different ways, fer which the Lord be praised. I been lyin' here thinkin' a darn sight lately; ain't had much else to do.” But if Uncle Ambrose expected a look of understanding in his companion's face at this he was disappointed. “I know I got to vacate this earthly tenement pretty soon, and though I've had good times and sorry in the building I ain't objectin' to quit. Seems like a new dwellin' house'll give us more light and space. It's many times I've wondered ef mebbe the spirits of them that love us ain't always hoverin' close, ef only we had the right kind of windows to look out at 'em with. Why, child, there's certainly been times when I've felt my Em'ly's arms a-holdin' me up and her wings brushin' my face. She's done been helpin' me about you lately; 'cause you see I know she'd always want me to do anything that'd make me comfortable and——”

But Elizabeth was not listening to the old man's soliloquy. She was thinking of herself, trying to tear out the tendrils that had grown so close about Uncle Ambrose's house, which had lately come to seem so like her own. So finally when she could bear the pain no longer she rose and started stumbling from the room.

Uncle Ambrose called out after her. “Don't go, 'Lizabeth, and don't try to stop cryin'. Tears is nachural to some women and you sure are one of 'em. I ought to be used to 'em by now. 'Lizabeth, I don't want you to leave me; I want you to stay by me till my trumpet sounds.” Elizabeth shook her head.

“Think you got to go 'cause of what Susan Jr. said?” Uncle Ambrose's long nose twitched between amusement and scorn. “Good Lord! why is it the good women that is so afeard of talk?” he muttered to himself. “But thinkin' it all out kireful, 'Lizabeth, I ain't able to let you go. I can't stan' livin' 'thout female aid, and there ain't no use me tryin'. So now you listen to me. When I'm out o' this bed, and it'll be to-morrow, do you think you could bring yourself to marry me?” Uncle Ambrose laughed. “Don't git scaired, child; ef you ain't heard them words before it ain't the first time I've said 'em. But don't you answer me too quick; think it over and when you come back after fixin' my supper's time enough, for I ain't yet told you all I been steddyin' over, believin' the rest'd come in better later on.”

Then while Elizabeth was away this lover of many women lay with his dim old eyes still steadfast upon the picture of her who after all was “the only woman.” “You feel I'm doin' what's best, don't you, honey?” he said with the completeness of a perfect union. “She's poor and lonesome and homely, but I've worked it out so it'll be all right.”

Afterward, when Uncle Ambrose discovered that his supper tray held all the dishes he most liked, he did not let his expression betray him, but ate his well-cooked meal peaceably and enjoyably until Elizabeth came to take away his tray, when his feeble hand caught hold of her hard one, trying to give it the rightful pressure.

“I can't,” the old maid answered sorrowfully; “it's only because you are sorry for me.”

And Uncle Ambrose hesitated. To tell any woman he did not love her, here at the end of his seventy-six years! “I'm growin' powerful fond of you, 'Lizabeth Horton,” he hedged, “but ef I'm sorry too, what's the odds? I reckon I'm sorry fer myself and been sorry fer most everybody I've knowed in this world one time or another. But mebbe you kin see things better like this. I'm more'n anxious fer you to look after me till I die and keep me from gittin' too darned lonesome and, moreover, I want to leave you this here cottage when I go away. See here, 'Lizabeth, I've done had some experience with women and I've been thinkin' a lot on what you said to me that evenin' you come over here to dry your tears. I kin see there are some women who kin live 'thout husbands and some that's just got to live 'thout children, but there's some women that ain't able to live 'thout homes of their own. Why, you poor old 'Lizabeth, you'd just pine away and die ef the time ever come when you didn't have a house to keep: it would be worse'n food starvin', 'cause it would last longer. I ain't no children of my own”—and even now Uncle Ambrose winced at saying it—“and what with selling my interest in the store when Miner went and a remembrance from Peachy I got a tidy sum of money in the bank. So I've got no special call to leave my money to nobody, but I know Pennyrile, and she sure would make it warm fer you ef I willed you my property 'thout makin' you my wife. Give me my answer, 'Lizabeth; I ain't tryin' to bribe you, though I want you to stay by me, but I'm gittin' kind er tired and I ain't said all I've got to say yet.”

And here Uncle Ambrose turned his eyes for another time toward Emily's picture with their familiar appeal for light in dark places.

“There is one more request I'm bound to make, but it ain't goin' to hurt you or any female to be sensible.”

“Uncle Ambrose,” the old maid faltered, her yellow cheeks flushing palely, “ef you're sure you want to marry me I shall be plumb glad. I like to stay here and take care of you, and I don't want to leave you or this house. I'll try my best to do my part.”

“Then you listen to me,” said the old man, speaking like a grown-up person to a confused child, “and you remember I don't want to hurt your feelin's, but whatsomever cometh I've got to git this out of me.”

“What is it, Uncle Ambrose?” Elizabeth inquired anxiously. “I told you I was hopeful to do my part.”

Before replying the old face set into beautiful lines of dignity and untarnished faith. “Do you recollect, 'Lizabeth, I told you once that when I died and crossed over the Jerden I was hopin' to spend the life eternal with Em'ly. T'ain't nothin' against little Sarah or Peachy, but you see I married Sarah 'fore I'd met up with Em'ly, and then Peachy she'd kind er staked out an original claim. It won't matter nothin' to Em'ly, but ef the truth be known I ain't no ways easy in my mind 'bout that Bible text I was a-repeatin' over to you. It may be I ain't got the Lord's meanin' exactly clear, whether the marriages made on this earth are goin' to hold good in heaven, so you kin surely see, 'Lizabeth, that there ain't no use in me addin' complications to the future at my time of life.”

And here reaching under his pillow Uncle Ambrose drew forth a crumpled sheet of paper torn from a book which deeded his cottage to Elizabeth Horton and five thousand dollars in bank in the event of her becoming his wife.

“I know this document ain't legal,” he explained, “but I'll have it writ out fair and square by a lawyer and sign it soon as ever I can ef you'll only give me a little slip of paper in return with a few easy words written on it.”

The woman waited a moment puzzled. “I don't quite understand you, Uncle Ambrose,” she returned.

“No, of course you don't, child. I just want to know ef you feel willin' to write down these here words: 'I, Elizabeth Horton, bein' fourth wife to Ambrose Thompson, do hereby relinquish all claim to him come the time when I shall meet him in heaven.' You see how 'tis, 'Lizabeth,” Uncle Ambrose argued wistfully. “I wisht I'd thought to make some such plan with Peachy 'fore she died; not that I'm at all certain she'd 'a' done it,” he added truthfully, “but it would 'a' eased my mind consid'ble in these last childish days ef I only had little gentle Sarah to explain things to on the other side. I don't want there should be any argufyin' or confusion just when Em'ly and me are tryin' to git off quiet to ourselves and talk things over.”

Elizabeth did not answer at once, for her vision did not naturally travel beyond the confines of this world, but other women before this old maid had travelled far in this now old man's leading. So she did not feel his request to be either childish or unreasonable, only she too wanted time to think. For after a while with her eyes resting affectionately upon the old face now lying so quiet on the pillow, and at the still beautiful and once so strong hands clasped together outside the counterpane, she leaned over toward him and whispered.

“I'll give you that paper you want, Uncle Ambrose, and I'll write on it same as you wish me to, for I shall have the home, and somehow I feel it will be only right that you and Em'ly should have each other.”

“Amen!” whispered Uncle Ambrose.

THE END

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