"You refuse to do what you have planned to do? Sir, that shows you as you are. You proposed to—to live with her here, but not be bound to her elsewhere!"
"It is not true!" I said to him in somber anger. "I proposed to put before her the fact of my own weakness, of my own self-deception, which also was deception of her. I propose to do that now."
"If you did, she would refuse to look at you again."
"I know it, but it must be done. I must take my chances."
"And your chances mean this alternative—either that my girl's reputation shall be ruined all over the country—all through the Army, where she is known and loved—or else that her heart must be broken. This is what it means, Mr. Cowles. This is what you have brought to my family."
"Yes," I said to him, slowly, "this is what I have brought."
"Then which do you choose, sir?" he demanded of me.
"I choose to break her heart!" I answered. "Because that is the truth, and that is right. I only know one way to ride, and that is straight."
He smiled at me coldly in his frosty beard. "That sounds well from you!" he said bitterly. "Ellen!" he raised his voice. "Ellen, I say, come here at once!"
It was my ear which first heard the rustling of her footsteps at the edge of the thicket as she approached. She came before us slowly, halting, leaning on her crutch. A soft flush shone through the brown upon her cheeks.
I shall not forget in all my life the picture of her as she stood. Neither shall I forget the change which came across her face as she saw us sitting there silent, cold, staring at her. Then, lovable in her rags, beautiful in her savagery, the gentleness of generations of culture in all her mien in spite of her rude surroundings, she stepped up and laid her hand upon her father's shoulder, one finger half pointing at the ragged scroll of hide which lay upon the ground before us. I loved her—ah, how I loved her then!
"I signed that, father," she said gently. "I was going to sign it, little by little, a letter each week. We were engaged—nothing more. But here or anywhere, some time, I intend to marry Mr. Cowles. This I have promised of my own free will. He has been both man and gentleman, father. I love him."
I heard the groan which came from his throat. She sprang back. "What is it?" she said. The old fire of her disposition again broke out.
"What!" she cried. "You object? Listen, I will sign my name now—I will finish it—give me—give me—" She sought about on the ground for something which would leave a mark. "I say I have not been his, but will be, father—as I like, when I like—now, this very night if I choose—forever! He has done everything for me—I trust him—I know he is a man of honor, that he—" Her voice broke as she looked at my face.
"But what—what is it?" she demanded, brokenly, in her own eyes something of the horror which sat in mine. I say I see her picture now, tall, straight, sweet, her hands on her lifting bosom, eagerness and anxiety fighting on her face.
"Ellen, child, Mr. Cowles has something to tell you."
Then some one, in a voice which sounded like mine, but was not mine, told her—told her the truth, which sounded so like a lie. Some one, myself, yet not myself, went on, cruelly, blackening all the sweet blue sky for her. Some one—I suppose it was myself, late free—felt the damp of an iron yoke upon his neck.
I saw her knees sink beneath her, but she shrank back when I would have reached out an arm as of old.
"I hate that woman!" she blazed. "Suppose she does love you—do I not love you more? Let her lose—some one must lose!" But at the next moment her anger had changed to doubt, to horror. I saw her face change, saw her hand drop to her side.
"It is not that you loved another girl," she whispered, "but that you have deceived me—here, when I was in your power. Oh, it was not right! How could you! Oh, how could you!"
Then once more she changed. The flame of her thoroughbred soul came back to her. Her courage saved her from shame. Her face flushed, she stood straight. "I hate you!" she cried to me. "Go! I will never see you any more."
Still the bright sun shone on. A little bird trilled in the thicket near.
When we started to the south on the following morning, I rode far at the rear, under guard. I recall little of our journey toward Laramie, save that after a day or two we swung out from the foothills into a short grass country, and so finally struck the steady upward sweep of a valley along which lay the great transcontinental trail. I do not know whether we traveled two days, or three, or four, since all the days seemed night to me, and all the nights were uniform in torture. Finally, we drove down into a dusty plain, and so presently came to the old frontier fort. Here, then, was civilization—the stage coach, the new telegraph wire, men and women, weekly or daily touch with the world, that prying curiosity regarding the affairs of others which we call news. To me it seemed tawdry, sordid, worthless, after that which I had left. The noise seemed insupportable, the food distasteful. I could tolerate no roof, and in my own ragged robes slept on the ground within the old stockade.
I was still guarded as a prisoner; I was approached by none and had conversation with none until evening of the day after my arrival. When I ate, it was at no gentleman's table, but in the barracks. I resented judgment, sentence and punishment, thus executed in one.
Evening gun had sounded, and the flag had been furled on my second day at Laramie, when finally Colonel Meriwether sent for me to come to his office quarters. He got swiftly enough to the matters on his mind.
"Mr. Cowles," said he, "it is time now that you and I had a talk. Presently you will be leaving Laramie. I can not try you by court martial, for you are a civilian. In short, all I can say to you is to go, with the hope that you may never again cross our lives."
I looked at him a time, silently, hating not him personally as much as I hated all the world. But presently I asked him, "Have you no word for me from her?"
"Miss Meriwether has no word for you," he answered, sternly, "nor ever will have. You are no longer necessary in her plans."
"Ah, then," said I, "you have changed your own mind mightily."
He set his lips together in his grim fashion. "Yes," said he, "I have changed my mind absolutely. I have just come from a very trying interview. It is not necessary for me to explain to you the full nature of it—"
"Then she has sent for me?"
"She will never send for you, I have said."
"But listen. At least, I have brought her back to you safe and sound. Setting aside all my own acts in other matters, why can you not remember at least so much as that? Yet you treat me like a dog. I tell you, I shall not leave without word from her, and when I leave I shall make no promises as to when I shall or shall not come back. So long as one chance remains—"
"I tell you that there is no longer any chance, no longer the ghost of a chance. It is my duty to inform you, sir, that a proper suitor long ago applied for my daughter's hand, that he has renewed his suit, and that now she has accepted him."
For a time I sat staring stupidly at him. "You need speak nothing but the truth with me," I said at last. "Colonel Meriwether, I have never given bonds to be gentle when abused."
"I am telling you the truth," he said. "By God, sir! Miss Meriwether is engaged to Lieutenant Lawrence Belknap of the Ninth Dragoons! You feel your honor too deeply touched? Perhaps at a later time Lieutenant Belknap will do himself the disgrace of accommodating you."
All these things seemed to dull and stupefy me rather than excite. I could not understand.
"If I killed him," said I, finally, "how would it better her case? Moreover, before I could take any more risk, I must go back to Virginia. My mother needs me there most sadly."
"Yes, and Miss Grace Sheraton needs you there sadly, as well," he retorted. "Go back, then, and mend your promises, and do some of those duties which you now begin to remember. You have proved yourself a man of no honor. I stigmatize you now as a coward."
There seemed no tinder left in my spirit to flame at this spark. "You speak freely to your prisoner, Colonel Meriwether," I said, slowly, at length. "There is time yet for many risks—chances for many things. But now I think you owe it to me to tell me how this matter was arranged."
"Very well, then. Belknap asked me for permission to try his chance long ago—before I came west to Laramie. I assigned him to bring her through to me. He was distracted at his failure to do so. He has been out with parties all the summer, searching for you both, and has not been back at Laramie more than ten days. Oh, we all knew why you did not come back to the settlements. When we came in he guessed all that you know. He knew that all the world would talk. And like a man he asked the right to silence all that talk forever."
"And she agreed? Ellen Meriwether accepted him on such terms?"
"It is arranged," said he, not answering me directly, "and it removes at once all necessity for any other arrangement. As for you, you disappear. It will be announced all through the Army that she and Lieutenant Belknap were married at Leavenworth before they started West, and that it was they two, and not you and my daughter, who were lost."
"And Belknap was content to do this?" I mused. "He would do this after Ellen told him that she loved me—"
"Stop!" thundered Colonel Meriwether. "I have told you all that is necessary. I will add that he said to me, like the gentleman he is, that in case my daughter asked it, he would marry her and leave her at once, until she of her own free will asked him to return. There is abundant opportunity for swift changes in the Army. What seems to you absurd will work out in perfectly practical fashion."
"Yes," said I, "in fashion perfectly practical for the ruin of her life. You may leave mine out of the question."
"I do, sir," was his icy reply. "She told you to your face, and in my hearing, that you had deceived her, that you must go."
"Yes," I said, dully, "I did deceive her, and there is no punishment on earth great enough to give me for that—except to have no word from her!"
"You are to go at once. I put it beyond you to understand Belknap's conduct in this matter."
"He is a gentleman," I said, "and fit to love her. I think none of us needs praise or blame for that."
He choked up. "She's my girl," he said. "Yes, all my boys in the Army love her—there isn't one of them that wouldn't be proud to marry her on any terms she would lay down. And there isn't a man in the Army, married or single, that wouldn't challenge you if you breathed a word of what has gone between you and her."
I looked at him and made no motion. It seemed to me go unspeakably sad, so incredible, that one should be so unbelievably underestimated.
"Now, finally," resumed Colonel Meriwether, after a time, ceasing his walking up and down, "I must close up what remains between you and me. My daughter said to me that you wanted to see me on some business matter. Of course you had some reason for coming out here."
"That was my only reason for coming," I rejoined. "I wanted to see you upon an important business matter. I was sent here by the last message my father gave any one—by the last words he spoke in his life. He told me I should come to you."
"Well, well, if you have any favor to ask of me, out with it, and let us end it all at one sitting."
"Sir," I said, "I would see you damned in hell before I would ask a crust or a cup of water of you, though I were starving and burning. I have heard enough."
"Orderly!" he called out. "Show this man to the gate."
It was at last borne in upon me that I must leave without any word from Ellen. She was hedged about by all the stern and cold machinery of an Army Post, out of whose calculations I was left as much as though I belonged to a different world. I cannot express what this meant for me. For weeks now, for months, indeed, we two had been together each hour of the day. I had come to expect her greeting in the morning, to turn to her a thousand times in the day with some query or answer. I had made no plan from which she was absent. I had come to accept myself, with her, as fit part of an appointed and happy scheme. Now, in a twinkling, all that had been subverted. I was robbed of her exquisite dependence upon me, of those tender defects of nature that rendered her most dear. I was to miss now her fineness, her weakness and trustfulness, which had been a continual delight. I could no longer see her eyes nor touch her hands, nor sit silent at her feet, dreaming of days to come. Her voice was gone from my listening ears. Always I waited to hear her footstep, but it came no longer, rustling in the grasses. It seemed to me that by some hard decree I had been deprived of all my senses; for not one was left which did not crave and cry aloud for her.
It was thus that I, dulled, bereft; I, having lived, now dead; I, late free, now bound again, turned away sullenly, and began my journey back to the life I had known before I met her.
As I passed East by the Denver stage, I met hurrying throngs always coming westward, a wavelike migration of population now even denser than it had been the preceding spring. It was as Colonel Meriwether said, the wagons almost touched from the Platte to the Rockies. They came on, a vast, continuous stream of hope, confidence and youth. I, who stemmed that current, alone was unlike it in all ways.
One thing only quickened my laggard heart, and that was the all prevalent talk of war. The debates of Lincoln and Douglas, the consequences of Lincoln's possible election, the growing dissensions in the Army over Buchanan's practically overt acts of war—these made the sole topics of conversation. I heard my own section, my own State, criticised bitterly, and all Southerners called traitors to that flag I had seen flying over the frontiers of the West. At times, I say, these things caused my blood to stir once more, though perhaps it was not all through patriotism.
At last, after weeks of travel across a disturbed country, I finally reached the angry hive of political dissension at Washington. Here I was near home, but did not tarry, and passed thence by stage to Leesburg, in Virginia; and so finally came back into our little valley and the quiet town of Wallingford. I had gone away the victim of misfortune; I returned home with a broken word and an unfinished promise and a shaken heart. That was my return.
I got me a horse at Wallingford barns, and rode out to Cowles' Farms. At the gate I halted and looked in over the wide lawns. It seemed to me I noted a change in them as in myself. The grass was unkempt, the flower beds showed little attention. The very seats upon the distant gallery seemed unfamiliar, as though arranged by some careless hand. I opened the gate for myself, rode up to the old stoop and dismounted, for the first time in my life there without a boy to take my horse. I walked slowly up the steps to the great front door of the old house. No servant came to meet me, grinning. I, grandson of the man who built that house, my father's home and mine, lifted the brazen knocker of the door and heard no footstep anticipate my knock. The place sounded empty.
Finally there came a shuffling footfall and the door was opened, but there stood before me no one that I recognized. It was a smallish, oldish, grayish man who opened the door and smiled in query at me.
"I am John Cowles, sir," I said, hesitating. "Yourself I do not seem to know—"
"My name is Halliday, Mr. Cowles," he replied. A flush of humiliation came to my face.
"I should know you. You were my father's creditor."
"Yes, sir, my firm was the holder of certain obligations at the time of your father's death. You have been gone very long without word to us. Meantime, pending any action—"
"You have moved in!"
"I have ventured to take possession, Mr. Cowles. That was as your mother wished. She waived all her rights and surrendered everything, said all the debts must be paid—"
"And all we could prevail upon her to do was to take up her quarters there in one of the little houses."
He pointed with this euphemism toward our old servants' quarters. So there was my mother, a woman gently reared, tenderly cared for all her life, living in a cabin where once slaves had lived. And I had come back to her, to tell a story such as mine!
"I hope," said he, hesitating, "that all these matters may presently be adjusted. But first I ask you to influence your mother to come back into the place and take up her residence."
I smiled slowly. "You hardly understand her," I said. "I doubt if my influence will suffice for that. But I shall meet you again." I was turning away.
"Your mother, I believe, is not here—she went over to Wallingford. I think it is the day when she goes to the little church—"
"Yes, I know. If you will excuse me I shall ride over to see if I can find her." He bowed. Presently I was hurrying down the road again. It seemed to me that I could never tolerate the sight of a stranger as master at Cowles' Farms.
I Found her at the churchyard of the old meetinghouse. She was just turning toward the gate in the low sandstone wall which surrounded the burying ground and separated it from the space immediately about the little stone church. It was a beautiful spot, here where the sun came through the great oaks that had never known an ax, resting upon blue grass that had never known a plow—a spot virgin as it was before old Lord Fairfax ever claimed it hi his loose ownership. Everything about it spoke of quiet and gentleness.
I knew what it was that she looked upon as she turned back toward that spot—it was one more low mound, simple, unpretentious, added to the many which had been placed there this last century and a half; one more little gray sandstone head-mark, cut simply with the name and dates of him who rested there, last in a long roll of our others. The slight figure in the dove-colored gown looked back lingeringly. It gave a new ache to my heart to see her there.
She did not notice me as I slipped down from my saddle and fastened my horse at the long rack. But when I called she turned and came to me with open arms.
"Jack!" she cried. "My son, how I have missed thee! Now thee has come back to thy mother." She put her forehead on my shoulder, but presently took up a mother's scrutiny. Her hand stroked my hair, my unshaven beard, took in each line of my face.
"Thee has a button from thy coat," she said, reprovingly. "And what is this scar on thy neck—thee did not tell me when thee wrote, Jack, what ails thee?" She looked at me closely. "Thee is changed. Thee is older—what has come to thee, my son?"
"Come," I said to her at length, and led her toward the steps of the little church.
Then I broke out bitterly and railed against our ill-fortune, and cursed at the man who would allow her to live in servants' quarters—indeed, railed at all of life.
"Thee must learn to subdue thyself, my son," she said. "It is only so that strength comes to us—when we bend the back to the furrow God sets for us. I am quite content in my little rooms. I have made them very clean; and I have with me a few things of my own—a few, not many."
"But your neighbors, mother, the Sheratons—"
"Oh, certainly, they asked me to live with them. But I was not moved to do that. You see, I know each rose bush and each apple tree on our old place. I did not like to leave them.
"Besides, as to the Sheratons, Jack," she began again—"I do not wish to say one word to hurt thy feelings, but Miss Grace—"
"What about Miss Grace?"
"Mr. Orme, the gentleman who once stopped with us a few days—"
"Oh, Orme! Is he here again? He was all through the West with me—I met him everywhere there. Now I meet him here!"
"He returned last summer, and for most of his time has been living at the Sheratons'. He and Colonel Sheraton agree very well. And he and Miss Grace—I do not like to say these things to thee, my son, but they also seem to agree."
"Go on," I demanded, bitterly.
"Whether Miss Grace's fancy has changed, I do not know, but thy mother ought to tell thee this, so that if she should jilt thee, why, then—"
"Yes," said I, slowly, "it would be hard for me to speak the first word as to a release."
"But if she does not love thee, surely she will speak that word. So then say good-by to her and set about thy business."
I could not at that moment find it in my heart to speak further. We rose and walked down to the street of the little town, and at the tavern barn I secured a conveyance which took us both back to what had once been our home. It was my mother's hands which, at a blackened old fireplace, in a former slave's cabin, prepared what we ate that evening. Then, as the sun sank in a warm glow beyond the old Blue Ridge, and our little valley lay there warm and peaceful as of old, I drew her to the rude porch of the whitewashed cabin, and we looked out, and talked of things which must be mentioned. I told her—told her all my sad and bitter story, from end to end.
"This, then," I concluded, more than an hour after I had begun, "is what I have brought back to you—failure, failure, nothing but failure."
We sat in silence, looking out into the starry night, how long I do not know. Then I heard her pray, openly, as was not the custom of her people. "Lord, this is not my will. Is this Thy will?"
After a time she put her hand upon mine. "My son, now let us reason what is the law. From the law no man may escape. Let us see who is the criminal. And if that be thee, then let my son have his punishment."
I allowed the edge of her gentle words to bite into my soul, but I could not speak.
"But one thing I know," she concluded, "thee is John Cowles, the son of my husband, John; and thee at the last will do what is right, what thy heart says to thee is right."
She kissed me on the cheek and so arose. All that night I felt her prayers.
The next morning at the proper hour I started for the Sheraton mansion. This time it was not my old horse Satan that I rode. My mother told me that Satan had been given over under the blanket chattel mortgage, and sold at the town livery stable to some purchaser, whom she did not know, who had taken the horse out of the country. I reflected bitterly upon the changes in my fortunes since the last time I rode this way.
At least I was not so much coward as to turn about. So presently I rode up the little pitch from the trough road and pulled the gate latch with my riding crop. And then, as though it were by appointment, precisely as I saw her that morning last spring—a hundred years ago it seemed to me—I saw Grace Sheraton coming down the walk toward me, tall, thin. Alas! she did not fill my eye. She was elegantly clad, as usual. I had liefer seen dress of skins. Her dainty boots clicked on the gravel. A moccasin would not.
I threw my rein over the hook at the iron arm of the stone gate pillar and, hat in hand, I went to meet her. I was an older man now. I was done with roystering and fighting, and the kissing of country girls all across the land. I did not prison Grace Sheraton against the stone gate pillar now, and kiss her against her will until she became willing. All I did was to lift her hand and kiss her finger tips.
She was changed. I felt that rather than saw it. If anything, she was thinner, her face had a deeper olive tint, her eyes were darker. Her expression was gay, feverish, yet not natural, as she approached. What was it that sat upon her face—melancholy, or fear, or sorrow, or resentment? I was never very bright of mind. I do not know.
"I am glad to see you," she said to me at length, awkwardly.
"And I to see you, of course." I misdoubt we both lied.
"It is very sad, your home-coming thus," she added; at which clue I caught gladly.
"Yes, matters could hardly be worse for us."
"Your mother would not come to us. We asked her. We feel deeply mortified. But now—we hope you both will come."
"We are beggars now, Miss Grace," I said. "I need time to look around, to hit upon some plan of life. I must make another home for myself, and for—"
"For me?" She faced me squarely now, eye to eye. A smile was on her lips, and it seemed to me a bitter one, but I could not guess what was hidden in her mind. I saw her cheek flush slowly, deeper than was usual with a Sheraton girl.
"For my wife, as soon as that may be," I answered, as red as she.
"I learn that you did not see Colonel Meriwether," she went on politely.
"How did you know it?"
"Through Captain Orme."
"Yes," said I, quietly, "I have heard of Captain Orme—much of him—very much." Still I could not read her face.
"He was with us a long time this summer," she resumed, presently. "Some two weeks ago he left, for Charleston, I think. He has much business about the country."
"Much business," I assented, "in many parts of the country. But most of all with men of the Army. So Captain Orme—since we must call him Captain and not minister—was so good as to inform you of my private matters."
"Yes." Again she looked at me squarely, with defiance. "I know all about it. I know all about that girl."
So there it was! But I kept myself under whip hand still. "I am very glad. It will save me telling you of myself. It is not always that one has the good fortune of such early messengers."
"Go on," she said bitterly, "tell me about her."
"I have no praises to sound for her. I do not wish to speak of this, if you prefer to hear it from others than myself."
She only smiled enigmatically, her mouth crooking in some confidence she held with herself, but not with me. "It was natural," she said at last, slowly. "Doubtless I would have done as she did. Doubtless any other man would have done precisely as you did. That is the way with men. After all, I suppose the world is the world, and that we are as we are. The girl who is closest to a man has the best chance with him. Opportunity is much, very much. Secrecy is everything."
I found nothing which suited me to say; but presently she went on, again leaning on the ivy-covered stone pillar of the gate, her hat held by its strings at her side, her body not imprisoned by my arms.
"Why should you not both have done so?" she resumed, bitterly. "We are all human."
"Why should we not have done what—what is it that you mean?" I demanded of her.
"Why, there was she, engaged to Mr. Belknap, as I am told; and there were you, engaged to a certain young lady by the name of Grace Sheraton, very far away. And you were conveniently lost—very conveniently—and you found each other's society agreeable. You kept away for some weeks or months, both of you forgetting. It was idyllic—ideal. You were not precisely babes in the woods. You were a man and a woman. I presume you enjoyed yourselves, after a very possible little fashion—I do not blame you—I say I might have done the same. I should like to know it for a time myself—freedom! I do not blame you. Only," she said slowly, "in society we do not have freedom. Here it is different. I suppose different laws apply, different customs!"
"Miss Grace," said I, "I do not in the least understand you. You are not the same girl I left."
"No, I am not. But that is not my fault. Can not a woman be free as much as a man? Have I not right as much as you? Have you not been free?"
"One thing only I want to say," I rejoined, "and it is this, which I ought not to say at all. If you mean anything regarding Ellen Meriwether, I have to tell you, or any one, that she is clean—mind, body, soul, heart—as clean as when I saw her first."
"Do you know, I like you for saying that!" she retorted. "I would never marry a man who knew nothing of other women—I don't want a milksop; and I would not marry a man who would not lie for the sake of a sweetheart. You lie beautifully! Do you know, Jack, I believe you are a bit of a gentleman, after all!
"But tell me, when is the wedding to be?" This last with obvious effort.
"You have not advised me."
"Oh, I beg your pardon. I meant your marriage with Ellen Meriwether. I supposed of course you had quite forgotten me!"
"Ellen Meriwether is already married," I said to her, with a calmness which surprised myself. But what surprised me most was the change which came upon her face at the words—the flush—the gleam of triumph, of satisfaction. I guessed this much and no more—that she had had certain plans, and that now she had other plans, changed with lightning swiftness, and by reason of my words.
"Lieutenant Lawrence Belknap and Miss Ellen Meriwether were married, I presume, some time after I started for the East," I went on. "But they were never engaged before our return to the settlements. It was all very suddenly arranged."
"How like a story-book! So he forgot her little incidents with you—all summer—side by side—day and night! How romantic! I don't know that I could have done so much, had I been a man, and myself not guilty of the same incidents. At least, he kept his promise."
"There had never been any promise at all between them."
"Then Captain Orme was quite mistaken?"
"Captain Orme does not trouble himself always to be accurate."
"At least, then, you are unmarried, Jack?"
"Yes, and likely to be for some years."
Now her face changed once more. Whether by plan of her own or not, I cannot say, but it softened to a more gentle—shall I say a more beseeching look? Was it that I again was at her side, that old associations awakened? Or was it because she was keen, shrewd and in control of herself, able to make plans to her own advantage? I cannot tell as to that. But I saw her face soften, and her voice was gentle when she spoke.
"What do you mean, Jack?" she asked.
If there was not love and caress in her tones, then I could not detect the counterfeit. I reiterate, if I should live a thousand years, I should know nothing of women, nothing. We men are but toys with them. As in life and in sex man is in nature's plan no master, no chooser, but merely an incident; so, indeed, I believe that he is thus always with a woman—only an incident. With women we are toys. They play with us. We never read them. They are the mystery of the world. When they would deceive us it is beyond all our art to read them. Never shall man, even the wisest, fathom the shallowest depths of a woman's heart. Their superiors? God! we are their slaves, and the stronger we are as men, the more are we enslaved.
Had it been left to my judgment to pronounce, I should have called her emotion now a genuine one. Mocking, cynical, contemptuous she might have been, and it would have suited my own mood. But what was it now on the face of Grace Sheraton, girl of a proud family, woman I once had kissed here at this very place until she blushed—kissed until she warmed—until she—
But now I know she changed once again, and I know that this time I read her look aright. It was pathos on her face, and terror. Her eye was that of the stricken antelope in dread of the pursuer.
"Jack," she whispered, "don't leave me! Jack, I shall need you!"
Before I could resolve any questions in my mind, I heard behind us the sound of approaching hoofs, and there rode up to the gate her brother, Harry Sheraton, who dismounted and hitched his horse near mine, saluting me as he pushed open the great gate. It was the first time I had seen him since my return.
"Am I intruding?" he asked. "I'm awfully glad to see you, Cowles—I heard below you were home. You've had a long journey."
"Yes," I answered, "longer than I had planned, by many weeks. And now I am glad to be back once more. No—" in answer to his turning toward his horse as though he would leave us. "You are looking well, Harry. Indeed, everything in old Virginia is good to see again."
"Wish I could be as polite with you. Have you been sick? And, I say, you did meet the savages, didn't you?"
I knew he meant the scar on the side of my neck, which still was rather evident, but I did not care to repeat the old story again. "Yes," I answered a bit shortly, "rather a near thing of it. I presume Captain Orme told you?" I turned to Miss Grace, who then admitted that she had heard something of the surgery which had thus left its mark. Harry seemed puzzled, so I saw it was news to him. Miss Grace relieved the situation somewhat by turning toward the house.
"I am sure you will want to talk with Jack," she said to him. "And listen, Harry, you must have him and Mrs. Cowles over here this very evening—we cannot think of her living alone at the old place. I shall send Cato down with, the carriage directly, and you may drive over after Mrs. Cowles." She held out her hand to me. "At dinner to-night, then?"
I bowed, saying that we would be very happy, by which I meant that we would be very miserable.
This, then, was all that had been determined by my visit. I was still an engaged man. Evidently nothing otherwise had been discussed in the Sheraton family councils, if any such had been held. If never suitor in Old Virginia rode up in sorrier case than mine that morning, as I came to call upon my fiancee, certainly did never one depart in more uncertain frame of mind than mine at this very moment. I presume that young Sheraton felt something of this, for he began awkwardly to speak of matters related thereto.
"It's awfully hard," he began, "to see strangers there in your own house—I know it must be hard. But I say, your father must have plunged heavily on those lands over West in the mountains. I've heard they're very rich in coal, and that all that was necessary was simply cash or credit enough to tide the deal over till next year's crops."
"My father always said there was a great fortune in the lands," I replied. "Yes, I think another year would have seen him through; but that year was not to come for him."
"But couldn't funds be raised somehow, even yet?"
I shook my head. "It is going to be hard in these times to raise funds in any way. Values are bad now, and if the Republican party elects Lincoln next month, there will be no such things as values left in Virginia. I don't see how anything can save our property."
"Well, I'm not so sure," he went on, embarrassed. "My father and I have been talking over these matters, and we concluded to ask you if we might not take a hand in this. At least, we have agreed all along that—in this case you know—you and my sister—we have planned definitely that you should live in your old place. We're going to take that over. The redemption time has plenty of margin, and we can't allow those people to come in here and steal one of the old Virginia places in that way. We are going to arrange to hold that for you and my sister, and we thought that perhaps in time something could be worked out of the rest of the property in the same way. That is, unless Colonel Meriwether, your father's partner, shall offer some better solution. I suppose you talked it over with him?"
"I did not talk with him about it at all," said I, dully. For many reasons I did not care to repeat all of my story to him. I had told it often enough already. "None the less, it seems very generous of you and your father to take this interest in me. It would be very churlish of me if I did not appreciate it. But I trust nothing has been done as yet—"
"You trust not? Why, Cowles, you speak as though you did not want us to do it."
"I do not," said I.
"You know our family well enough."
"That's true. But you won't be offended if I suggest to you that there are two sides to this, and two prides. All the country knows of your engagement, and now that you have returned, it will be expected that my sister will set the day before long. Of course, we shouldn't want my sister to begin too far down—oh, damn it, Cowles, you know what I mean."
"I presume so," said I to him, slowly. "But suppose that your sister should offer to her friends the explanation that the change in my fortunes no longer leaves desirable this alliance with my family?"
"Do you suggest that?"
"I have not done so."
"Has she suggested it?"
"We have not talked of it, yet it might be hard for your sister to share a lot so humble and so uncertain."
"That I presume will be for her to decide," he said slowly. "I admit it is a hard question all around. But, of course, in a matter of this kind, the man has to carry the heavy end of the log if there is one. If that falls to you, we know you will not complain."
"No," said I, "I hope not."
His forehead still remained furrowed with the old Sheraton wrinkles. He seemed uneasy. "By Jove," he broke out at length, flushing as he turned to me, "it is hard for a fellow to tell sometimes what's right, isn't it? Jack, you remember Jennie Williams, across under Catoctin?"
I nodded. "I thought you two were going to make a match of it sometime," I said.
"Prettiest girl in the valley," he assented; "but her family is hardly what we would call the best, you know." I looked at him very hard.
"Then why did you go there so often all last year?" I asked him. "Might she not think—"
He flushed still more, his mouth twitching now. "Jack," he said, "it's all through. I want to ask you. I ought to marry Jennie Williams, but—"
Now I looked at him full and hard, and guessed. Perhaps my face was grave. I was beginning to wonder whether there was one clean thing in all the world.
"Oh, she can marry," went on Harry. "No difficulty about that. She has another beau who loves her to distraction, and who doesn't in the least suspect—a decent sort of a fellow, a young farmer of her own class."
"And, in your belief, that wedding should go on?"
He shifted uneasily.
"When is this wedding to be?" I asked.
"Oh, naturally, very soon," he answered. "I am doing as handsome a thing as I know how by her. Sometimes it's mighty hard to do the handsome thing—even mighty hard to know what is the handsome thing itself."
"Yes," said I. But who was I that I should judge him?
"If you were just where I am," asked Harry Sheraton, slowly, "what would you do? I'd like to do what is right, you know."
"Oh no, you don't, Harry," I broke out. "You want to do what is easiest. If you wanted to do what is right, you'd never ask me nor any one else. Don't ask me, because I don't know. Suppose you were in the case of that other young man who loves her? Suppose he did not know—or suppose he did know. What would be right for him?"
"Heavy end of the log for him," admitted he, grimly. "That's true, sure as you're born."
"When one does not love a girl, and sees no happiness in the thought of living with her all his life, what squares that, Harry, in your opinion?"
"I've just asked you," he rejoined. "Why do you ask me? You say one ought to know what is right in his own case without any such asking, and I say that isn't always true. Oh, damn it all, anyway. Why are we made the way we are?"
"If only the girl in each case would be content by having the handsome thing done by her!" said I, bitterly.
THE UNCOVERING OF GORDON ORME
It is not necessary for me to state that dinner in the Sheraton hall, with its dull mahogany and its shining silver and glass, was barely better than a nightmare to me, who should have been most happy. At least there remained the topic of politics and war; and never was I more glad to plunge into such matters than upon that evening. In some way the dinner hour passed. Miss Grace pleaded a headache and left us; my mother asked leave; and presently our hostess and host departed. Harry and I remained to stare at each other moodily. I admit I was glad when finally he announced his intention of retiring.
A servant showed me my own room, and some time before midnight I went up, hoping that I might sleep. My long life in the open air had made all rooms and roofs seem confining and distasteful to me, and I slept badly in the best of beds. Now my restlessness so grew upon me that, some time past midnight, not having made any attempt to prepare for sleep, I arose, went quietly down the stair and out at the front door, to see if I could find more peace in the open air. I sat down on the grass with my back against one of the big oaks, and so continued brooding moodily over my affairs, confused as they had now become.
By this time every one of the household had retired. I was surprised, therefore, when I saw a faint streak of light from one of the windows flash out across the lawn. Not wishing to intrude, I rose quietly and changed my position, passing around the tree. Almost at that instant I saw the figure of a man appear from the shrubbery and walk directly toward the house, apparently headed for the window from which emerged the light.
I watched him advance, and when I saw him reach the heavily barred trellis which ran up to the second gallery, I felt confirmed in my suspicion that he was a burglar. Approaching carefully in the shadow, I made a rapid run at him, and as his head was turned at the time, managed to catch him about the neck by an arm. His face, thus thrown back, was illuminated by the flare of light. I saw him plainly. It was Gordon Orme!
The light disappeared. There was no cry from above. The great house, lying dark and silent, heard no alarm. I did not stop to reason about this, but tightened my grip upon him in so fell a fashion that all his arts in wrestling could avail him nothing. I had caught him from behind, and now I held him with a hand on each of his arms above the elbow. No man could escape me when I had that hold.
He did not speak, but struggled silently with all his power. At length he relaxed a trifle. I stood close to him, slipped my left arm under his left along his back, and caught his right arm in my left hand. Then I took from his pocket a pistol, which I put into my own. I felt in his clothing, and finally discovered a knife, hidden in a scabbard at the back of his neck. I drew it out—a long-bladed, ivory thing I found it later, with gold let into the hilt and woven into the steel.
He eased himself in my grip as much as he could, waiting; as I knew, for his chance to twist and grapple with me. I could feel him breathing deeply and easily, resting, waiting for his time, using his brains to aid his body with perfect deliberation.
"It's no use, Orme," I said to him, finally. "I can wring your neck, or break your back, or twist your arms off, and by God! I've a notion to do them all. If you make any attempt to get away I'm going to kill you. Now come along."
I shoved him ahead of me, his arms pinioned, until we found a seat far away in a dark portion of the great front yard. Here I pushed him down and took the other end of the seat, covering him with his own pistol.
"Now," I demanded, "tell me what you are doing here."
"You have your privilege at guessing," he sneered, in his easy, mocking way. "Have you never taken a little adventure of this sort yourself?"
"Ah, some servant girl—at your host's house. Excellent adventure. But this is your last one," I said to him.
"Is it so," he sneered. "Then let me make my prayers!" He mocked at me, and had no fear of me whatever.
"In Virginia we keep the shotgun for men who prowl around houses at night. What are you doing here?"
"You have no right to ask. It is not your house."
"There was a light," said I. "For that reason I have a right to ask. I am a guest, and a guest has duties as well as a host."
A certain change in mood seized him. "If I give you parole," he asked, "will you believe me, and let us talk freely?"
"Yes," said I at length, slowly. "You are a liar; but I do not think you will break parole."
"You gauge me with perfect accuracy," he answered. "That is why I wish to talk."
I threw the pistol on the seat between us. "What is it you want to know," I asked. "And again I ask you, why are you here, when you are supposed to be in South Carolina?"
"I have business here. You cost me my chance out there in the West," he answered, slowly. "In turn I cost you your chance there. I shall cost you other things here. I said you should pay my debt." He motioned toward my neck with his slim finger.
"Yes, you saved my life," I said, "and I have hated you for that ever since."
"Will you make me one promise?" he asked.
"Perhaps, but not in advance."
"And will you keep it?"
"If I make it."
"Will you promise me to do one thing you have already promised to do?"
"Orme, I am in no mood to sit here and gossip like an old woman."
"Oh, don't cut up ugly. You're done out of it all around, in any case. Belknap, it seems, was to beat both you and me. Then why should not you and I try to forget? But now as to this little promise. I was only going to ask you to do as much as Belknap, or less."
"Very well, then."
"I want you to promise to marry Grace Sheraton."
I laughed in his face. "I thought you knew me better than that, Orme. I'll attend to my own matters for myself. I shall not even ask you why you want so puerile a promise. I am much of a mind to shoot you. Tell me, who are you, and what are you, and what are you doing in this country?"
"Do you really want to know?" he smiled.
"Assuredly I do. I demand it."
"I believe I will tell you, then," he said quietly. He mused for a time before he raised his head and went on.
"I am Charles Gordon Orme, Marquis of Bute and Rayne. Once I lived in England. For good reasons I have since lived elsewhere. I am what is known as a black sheep—a very, very black one."
"Yes, you are a retrograde, a renegade, a blackguard and a murderer," I said to him, calmly.
"All of those things, and much more," he admitted, cheerfully and calmly. "I am two persons, or more than two. I can't in the least make all this plain to you in your grade of intelligence. Perhaps you have heard of exchangeable personalities?"
"I have heard of double personalities, and double lives," I said, "but I have never admired them."
"We will waive your admiration. Let me say that I can exchange my personality. The Jews used to say that men of certain mentality were possessed of a devil. I only say that I was a student in India. One phrase is good as another. The Swami Hamadata was my teacher."
"It would have been far better for you had you never known him, and better for many others," was my answer to his astonishing discourse.
"Perhaps; but I am only explaining as you have requested. I am a Raja Yogi. I have taken the eight mystic steps. For years, even here in this country, I have kept up the sacred exercises of breath, of posture, of thought."
"All that means nothing to me," I admitted simply.
"No, it means nothing for me to tell you that I have learned Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dyhana and Samadhi! Yes, I was something of an adept once. I learned calm, meditation, contemplation, introspection, super-conscious reasoning—how to cast my own mind to a distance, how to bring other minds close up to me. But,"—he smiled with all his old mockery—"mostly I failed on Pratyahara, which says the senses must be quelled, subdued and set aside! All religions are alike to me, but they must not intrude on my own religion. I'd liefer die than not enjoy. My religion, I say, is to play the great games—to adventure, and above all, to enjoy! That is why I am in this country, also why I am in these grounds to-night."
"You are playing some deeper game than I know?"
"I always am! How could you be expected to understand what it took me years to learn? But I suppose in your case you need a few practical and concrete proofs. Let me show you a few things. Here, put your hand on my heart."
I obeyed. "You feel it beat?" he said. "Now it stops beating, does it not?" And as I live, it had slopped!
"Feel on the opposite side," he commanded. I did so, and there was his heart, clear across his body, and beating as before! "Now I shall stop it again," he remarked, calmly. And I swear it did stop, and resumed when he liked!
"Put your hand upon my abdomen," he said. I did so. All at once his body seemed thin and empty, as a spent cocoon.
"I draw all the organs into the thorax," he explained. "When one has studied under the Swami, as I have, he gains control over all his different muscles, voluntary and involuntary. He can, to a great extent, cut off or increase the nerve force in any muscle. Simple tricks in magic become easy to him. He gains, as you may suppose, a certain influence over men, and more especially over women, if that be a part of his religion. It was not with the Swami. It is with me!"
"You are a strange man, Orme," I said, drawing a long breath. "The most dangerous man, the most singular, the most immoral I ever knew."
"No," he said, reaching for his cigar case, "I was only born without what you call morals. They are not necessary in abstruse thought. Yet in some ways I retain the old influences of my own country. For instance, I lie as readily as I speak the truth, because it is more convenient; but though I am a liar, I do not break my word of honor. I am a renegade, but I am still an English officer! You have caught that distinction."
"Yes, I would trust you," I said, "if you gave me your word of honor."
He turned full upon me. "By Jove, old chap," he said, with a queer note in his voice, "you touch me awfully close. You're like men of my own family—you stir something in me that I used to know. The word of a fighting man—that's the same for yours and mine; and that's why I've always admired you. That's the sort of man that wins with the best sort of women."
"You were not worth the best sort of woman," I said to him. "You had no chance with Ellen Meriwether."
"No, but at least every fellow is worth his own fight with himself. I wanted to be a gentleman once more. Oh, a man may mate with a woman of any color—he does, all over the world. He may find a mistress in any nationality of his own color, or a wife in any class similar to his own—he does, all over the world. But a sweetheart, and a wife, and a woman—when a fellow even like myself finds himself honestly gone like that—when he begins to fight inside himself, old India against old England, renegade against gentleman—say, that's awfully bitter—when he sees the other fellow win. You won—"
"No," said I, "I did not win. You know that perfectly well. There is no way in the world that I can win. All I can do is to keep parole—well, with myself, I suppose."
"You touch me awfully close," he mused again. "You play big and fair. You're a fighting man and a gentleman and—excuse me, but it's true—an awful ass all in one. You're such an ass I almost hesitate to play the game with you."
"Thank you," said I. "But now take a very stupid fellow's advice. Leave this country, and don't be seen about here again, for if so, you will be killed."
"Precisely," he admitted. "In fact, I was just intending to arrange a permanent departure. That was why I was asking you to promise me to—in short, to keep your own promise. There's going to be war next spring. The dreams of this strange new man Lincoln, out in the West, are going to come true—there will be catastrophies here. That is why I am here. War, one of the great games, is something that one must sometimes cross the globe to play. I will be here to have a hand in this one."
"You have had much of a hand in it already," I hazarded. He smiled frankly.
"Yes," he said, "one must live. I admit I have been what you call a secret agent. There is much money behind me, big politics, big commercial interests. I love the big games, and my game and my task—my duty to my masters, has been to split this country along a clean line from east to west, from ocean to ocean—to make two countries of it! You will see that happen, my friend."
"No one will ever see it happen," I said to him, soberly.
"Under which flag, then, for you?" he asked quickly.
"The flag you saw on the frontier, Orme," I answered him. "That is the flag of America, and will be. The frontier is free. It will make America free forever."
"Oh, well," he said, "the argument will be obvious enough by next spring—in April, I should guess. And whatever you or I may think, the game will be big, very big—the biggest until you have your real war between black and white, and your yet bigger one between yellow and white. I imagine old England will be in that with you, or with one of you, if you make two countries here. But I may be a wandering Jew on some other planet before that time."
He sat for a time, his chin dropped on his breast. Finally he reached me his hand.
"Let me go," he said. "I promise you to leave."
"To leave the State?"
"No, I will not promise that."
"To leave the County?"
"Yes, unless war should bring me here in the course of my duty. But I will promise to leave this town, this residence—this girl—in short, I must do that. And you are such an ass that I was going to ask you to promise to keep your promise—up there." He motioned toward the window where the light lately had been.
"You do not ask that now?" I queried.
"You are a fighting man," he said, suddenly. "Let all these questions answer themselves when their time comes. After all, I suppose a woman is a woman in the greatest of the Barnes, and one takes one's chances. Suppose we leave the debt unsettled until we meet some time? You know, you may be claiming debt of me."
"Will you be ready?" I asked him.
"Always. You know that. Now, may I go? Is my parole ended?"
"It ends at the gate," I said to him, and handed him his pistol. The knife I retained, forgetfully; but when I turned to offer it to him he was gone.
A CONFUSION IN COVENANTS
During the next morning Harry Sheraton galloped down to the village after the morning's mail. On his return he handed me two letters. One was from Captain Matthew Stevenson, dated at Fort Henry, and informed me that he had been transferred to the East from Jefferson Barracks, in company with other officers. He hinted at many changes in the disposition of the Army of late. His present purpose in writing, as he explained, was to promise us that, in case he came our way, he would certainly look us up.
This letter I put aside quickly, for the other seemed to me to have a more immediate importance. I glanced it over, and presently found occasion to request a word or so with Colonel Sheraton. We withdrew to his library, and then I handed him the letter.
"This," I explained, "is from Jennings & Jennings, my father's agents at Huntington, on whose advice he went into his coal speculations."
"I see. Their advice seems to have been rather disastrous."
"At first it seemed so," I answered, "but now they advise me by no means to allow foreclosure to be completed if it can be avoided. The lands are worth many times the price paid for them."
"I see—and they have some sort of an offer as well—eh?"
"A half loaf is better than no bread," I assented. "I think I ought to go out there and examine all this in detail."
"But one thing I don't understand about this," began Colonel Sheraton, "your father's partner, Colonel Meriwether, was on joint paper with him. What did he say to you when you saw him?"
"Nothing," I replied. "We did not discuss the matter."
"What? That was the sole reason why you went out to see him!"
"Other matters came up," said I. "This was not brought up at all between us."
Colonel Sheraton looked at me keenly. "I must admit, Mr. Cowles," said he, slowly weighing his words, that of late certain things have seemed more than a little strange to me. If you will allow me so to express myself, there is in my own house, since you came, a sort of atmosphere of indefiniteness. Now, why was it you did not take up these matters with Colonel Meriwether? Certainly they were important to you; and under the circumstances they have a certain interest to myself. What are you trying to cover up?"
"Nothing from you of a business nature, sir; and nothing from Miss Grace of any nature which I think she ought to know."
He turned on me swiftly. "Young man, what do you propose to do in regard to my daughter? I confess I have contemplated certain plans in your benefit. I feel it is time to mention these matters with you."
"It is time," I answered. "But if you please, it seems to me Miss Grace and I should first take them up together. Has she spoken to you in any way that might lead you to think she would prefer our engagement to be broken?"
"No, sir. There has only been a vagueness and indefiniteness which I did not like."
"Had my affairs not mended, Colonel Sheraton, I could not have blamed any of you for breaking the engagement. If conditions prove to be practically the same now as then, it is she who must decide her course and mine."
"That is perfectly honorable. I have no criticism to offer. I have only her happiness at heart."
"Then, if you please, sir, since I am rather awkwardly situated here, I should like very much to see Miss Grace this morning."
He bowed in his lofty way and left me. Within a half hour a servant brought me word that Miss Grace would see me in the drawing-room.
She was seated in a wide, low chair near the sunny window, half hid by the leafy plants that grew in the boxes there. She was clad in loose morning wear over ample crinoline, her dark hair drawn in broad bands over the temples, half confined by a broad gold comb, save two long curls which hung down her neck at either side. It seemed to me she was very thin—thinner and darker than ever. Under her wide eyes were heavy circles. She held out her hand to me, and it lay cold and lifeless in my own. I made some pleasant talk of small matters as I might, and soon as I could arrived at the business of the letter I had received.
"Perhaps I have been a little hurried, after all, in classing myself as an absolute pauper," I explained as she read. "You see, I must go out there and look into these things."
"Going away again?" She looked up at me, startled.
"For a couple of weeks. And when I come back, Miss Grace—"
So now I was up to the verge of that same old, definite question.
She sat up in the chair as though pulling herself together in some sudden resolve, and looked me straight in the face.
"Jack," she said, "why should we wait?"
"To be sure," said I. "Only I do not want you to marry a pauper if any act of my own can make him better than a pauper in the meantime."
"You temporize," she said, bitterly. "You are not glad. Yet you came to me only last spring, and you—"
"I come to you now, Miss Grace," I said.
"Ah, what a difference between then and now!" she sighed.
For a time we could find nothing fit to say. At last I was forced to bring up one thing I did not like to mention.
"Miss Grace," said I, seating myself beside her, "last night, or rather this morning, after midnight, I found a man prowling around in the yard."
She sprang up as though shocked, her face gray, her eyes full of terror.
"You have told!" she exclaimed, "My father knows that Captain Orme—"
It was my own turn to feel surprise, which perhaps I showed.
"I have told no one. It seemed to me that first I ought to come to you and ask you about this. Why was Orme there?"
She stared at me. "He told me he would come back some time," she admitted at length. All the while she was fighting with herself, striving, exactly as Orme had done, to husband her powers for an impending struggle. "You see," she added, "he has secret business all over the country—I will own I believe him to be in the secret service of the inner circle of a number of Southern congressmen and business men. He is in with the Southern circle—of New Orleans, of Charleston—Washington. For this reason he could not always choose his hours of going and coming."
"Does your father know of his peculiar hours?"
"I presume so, of course."
"I saw a light at a window," I began, "whose window I do not know, doubtless some servant's. It could not have been a signal?"
"A signal? What do you mean? Do you suspect me of putting out a beacon light for a cheap night adventure with some man? Do you expect me to tolerate that sort of thing from you?"
"I ask you to tolerate nothing," I said. "I am not in the habit of suspecting ladies. But I ask you if you can explain the light on that side of the house."
"Jack," she said, flinging out a hand, "forgive me. I admit that Captain Orme and I carried on a bit of a flirtation, after he came back—after he had told me about you. But why should that—why, he did not know you were here."
"No," said I, dryly, "I don't think he did. I am glad to know that you found something to amuse you in my absence."
"Let us not speak of amusements in the absence of each other," she said bitterly. "Think of your own. But when you came back, it was all as it was last spring. I could love no other man but you, Jack, and you know it. After all, if we are quits, let us stay quits, and forgive, and forget—let us forget, Jack."
I sat looking at her as she turned to me, pleading, imploring in her face, her gesture.
"Jack," she went on, "a woman needs some one to take care of her, to love her. I want you to take care of me—you wouldn't throw me over for just a little thing—when all the time you yourself—"
"The light shone for miles across the valley," said I.
"Precisely, and that was how he happened to come up, I do not doubt. He thought we were still up about the place. My father has always told him to make this his home, and not to go to the tavern. They are friends politically, in many ways, as you know."
"The light then was that of some servant?"
"Certainly it was. I know nothing of it. It was an accident, and yet you blame me as though—why, it was all accident that you met Captain Orme. Tell me, Jack, did you quarrel? What did he tell you?"
"Many things. He is no fit man for you to know, nor for any woman."
"Do I not know that? I will never see him again."
"No, he will never come back here again, that is fairly sure. He has promised that; and he asked me to promise one thing, by the way."
"What was that?"
"To keep my promise with you. He asked me to marry you! Why?"
Infinite wit of woman! What chance have we men against such weapons? It was coquetry she forced to her face, and nothing else, when she answered: "So, then, he was hard hit, after all! I did not know that. How tender of him, to wish me married to another than himself! The conceit of you men is something wondrous."
"Mr. Orme was so kind as to inform me that I was a gentleman, and likewise a very great ass."
"Did you promise him to keep your promise, Jack?" She put both her hands on mine as it lay on the chair arm. Her eyes looked into mine straight and full. It would have taken more imagination than mine to suspect the slightest flickering in their lids. "Jack," she murmured over and over again. "I love you! I have never loved any other man."
"So now," I resumed, "I have come to you to tell you of all these things, and to decide definitely and finally in regard to our next plans."
"But you believe me, Jack? You do promise to keep your promise? You do love me?"
"I doubt no woman whom I wed," I answered. "I shall be gone for two or three weeks. As matters are at this moment it would be folly for either of us to do more than let everything stand precisely as it is until we have had time to think. I shall come back, Miss Grace, and I shall ask your answer."
"Jack, I'm sure of that," she murmured. "It is a grand thing for a woman to have the promise of a man who knows what a promise is."
I winced at this, as I had winced a thousand times at similar thrusts unconsciously delivered by so many. "No," said I, "I think Orme is right. I am only a very stupid ass."
She reached out her hand. I felt her fingers close cold and hard on mine, as though loth to let me go. I kissed her fingers and withdrew, myself at least very glad to be away.
I retired presently to my room to arrange my portmanteaus for an early journey. And there, filling up one-half of the greater valise, was a roll of hide, ragged about its edge. I drew it out, and spread it flat upon the bed before me, whitened and roughened with bone, reddened with blood, written on with rude stylus, bearing certain words which all the time, day and night, rang, yes, and sang, in my brain.
"I, John Cowles—I, Ellen Meriwether—take thee, for better, for worse—till death—" I saw her name, E-l-l-e-n.
ELLEN OR GRACE
Presently once more I departed. My mother also ended her visit at Dixiana, preferring to return to the quiet of her two little whitewashed rooms, and the old fireplace, and the sooty pot-hooks which our people's slaves had used for two generations in the past.
As to what I learned at Huntington, which place I reached after some days of travel, I need say no more than that I began to see fully verified my father's daring and his foresight. The matter of the coal land speculation was proved perfectly feasible. Indeed, my conference with our agents made it clear that little remained excepting the questions of a partition of interests, or of joint action between Colonel Meriwether and my father's estate. The right of redemption still remained, and there offered a definite alternative of selling a part of the lands and retaining the remainder clear of incumbrance. We wrote Colonel Meriwether all these facts from Huntington, requesting his immediate attention. After this, I set out for home, not ill-pleased with the outlook of my material affairs.
All these details of surveying and locating lands, of measuring shafts and drifts, and estimating cubic yards in coal, and determining the status of tenures and fees, had occupied me longer than I had anticipated. I had been gone two days beyond a month, when finally, somewhat wearied with stage travel, I pulled up at Wallingford.
As I approached the little tavern I heard much laughing, talking, footfalls, hurrying, as men came or went on one errand or another. A large party had evidently arrived on a conveyance earlier than my own. I leaned against the front rail of the tavern gallery and waited for some stable-boy to come. The postmaster carried away his mail sack, the loungers at the stoop gradually disappeared, and so presently I began to look about me. I found my eyes resting upon a long figure at the farther end of the gallery, sitting in the shade of the steep hill which came down, almost sharp as a house roof, back of the tavern, and so cut off the evening sun. It was apparently a woman, tall and thin, clad in a loose, stayless gown, her face hid in an extraordinarily long, green sun-bonnet. Her arms were folded, and she was motionless. But now and then there came a puff of smoke from within the caverns of the sun-bonnet, accompanied with the fragrant odor of natural leaf, whose presence brooked no debate by the human nose. I looked at this stranger again and yet again, then slowly walked up and held out my hand. No one in all the world who could counterfeit Mandy McGovern, even so far away, and under conditions seemingly impossible for her presence!
Mandy's pipe well-nigh fell from her lips. "Well, good God A'mighty! If it ain't you, son!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," I smiled.
"They told me you-all lived somewheres around here."
"Aunt Mandy," I interrupted. "Tell me, what in the world are you doing here?"
"Why, me and the folks just come down to look around. Her and her Pa was comin', and I come, too."
"Who came with you, Aunt Mandy?"
"Still askin' fool questions like you didn't know! Why, you know who it was. The Colonel's ordered to jine his rigiment at Fort Henry. Gal come along o' him, o' course. I come along with the gal, o' course. My boy and my husband come along with me, o' course."
"Your son, Andrew Jackson?"
"Uh-huh. He's somewheres 'round, I reckon. I see him lickin' a nigger a few minutes ago. Say, that boy's come out to be the fightenest feller I ever did see. Him allowin' he got that there Injun, day we had the fight down on the Platte, it just made a new man out'n him. 'Fore long he whupped a teamster that got sassy with him. Then he taken a rock and lammed the cook 'cause he looked like he was laffin' at him. Not long atter that, he killed a Injun he 'lowed was crawlin' 'round our place—done kilt him and taken his skulp 'fore I had time to explain to him that like enough that Injun was plum peaceful, and only comin' in to get a loaf o' bread."
"Bread? Aunt Mandy, where was all this?"
"Where d'ye suppose it was unlessen at our hotel? My man and me seen there was a good openin' there on the trail this side o' the south fork, and we set up a hotel in a dugout. Them emigrants would give you anything you aste for a piece o' pie, or a real baked loaf o' bread. We may go back there some time. We could make our pile in a couple o' years. I got over three hundred dollars right here in my pocket."
"But I don't quite understand about the man—your husband—"
"Yep, my lastest one. Didn't you know I married ole man Auberry? He's 'round here somewheres, lookin' fer a drink o' licker, I reckon. Colonel Meriwether 'lowed there'd be some fightin' 'round these parts afore long. My man and my son 'lowed the West was gettin' right quiet for them, and they'd just take a chanct down here, to see a little life in other parts."
"I hadn't heard of this last marriage of yours, Aunt Mandy," I ventured.
"Oh, yes, me and him hooked up right soon atter you and the gal got lost. Don't see how you missed our place when you come East. We done took at least six bits off'n every other man, woman or child that come through there, east or west, all summer long. You see I was tired of that lazy husband o' mine back home, and Auberry he couldn't see nothin' to that woman o' his'n atter he found out how I could bake pie and bread. So we both seem' the chanct there was there on the trail, we done set up in business. Say, I didn't know there was so many people in the whole world as they was of them emigrants. Preacher come along in a wagon one day—broke, like most preachers is. We kep' him overnight, free, and he merried us next mornin' for nothin'. Turn about's fair play, I reckon."
I scarcely heard her querulous confidences. "Where is Colonel Meriwether?" I asked her at last.
"Inside," she motioned with her pipe. "Him and the gal, too. But say, who's that a-comin' down the street there in that little sawed-off wagon?"
I looked. It was my fiancee, Grace Sheraton!
By her side was my friend, Captain Stevenson, and at the other end of the seat was a fluttering and animated figure that could be no one else but Kitty. So then I guessed that Stevenson and his wife had come on during my absence and were visiting at Dixiana. No doubt they had driven down now for the evening mail.
Could anything have lacked now to set in worse snarl my already tangled skein of evil fortune! Out of all the thousand ways in which we several actors in this human comedy might have gone without crossing each other's paths, why should Fate have chosen the only one to bring us thus together?
Kitty seemed first to spy me, and greeted me with an enthusiastic waving of her gloves, parasol, veil and handkerchief, all held confusedly, after her fashion, in one hand. "P-r-r-r-t!" she trilled, school-girl-like, to attract my attention meanwhile. "Howdy, you man! If it isn't John Cowles I'm a sinner. Matt, look at him, isn't he old, and sour, and solemn?"
Stevenson jumped out and came up to me, smiling, as I passed down the steps. I assisted his vivacious helpmeet to alight. I knew that all this tangle would presently force itself one way or the other. So I only smiled, and urged her and her husband rapidly as I might up the steps and in at the door, where I knew they would immediately be surprised and fully occupied. Then again I approached Grace Sheraton where she still sat, somewhat discomfited at not being included in these plans, yet not unwilling to have a word with me alone.
"You sent me no word," began she, hurriedly. "I was not expecting you to-day; but you have been gone more than two weeks longer than you said you would be." The reproach of her voice was not lost to me.
Stevenson had run on into the tavern after his first greeting to me, and presently I heard his voice raised in surprise, and Kitty's excited chatter. I heard Colonel Meriwether's voice answering. I heard another voice.
"Who is in there?" asked Grace Sheraton of me, curiously. I looked her slowly and fully in the face.
"It is Colonel Meriwether," I answered. "He has come on unexpectedly from the West. His daughter is there also, I think. I have not yet seen her."
"That woman!" breathed Grace Sheraton, sinking back upon her seat. Her eye glittered as she turned to me. "Oh, I see it all now—you have been with them—you have met her again! My God! I could kill you both—I could—I say I could!"
"Listen," I whispered to her, putting a hand on her wrist firmly. "You are out of your head. Pull up at once. I have not seen or heard from either of them. I did not know they were coming, I tell you."
"Oh, I say, Cowles," sang out Stevenson, at that moment running out, flushed and laughing. "What do you think, here's my Colonel come and caught me at my leave of absence! He's going across the mountains, over to his home in Albemarle. We're all to be at Henry together. But I suppose you met them—"
"No, not yet," I said. "I've just got in myself."
We both turned to the girl sitting pale and limp upon the seat of the wagonette. I was glad for her sake that the twilight was coming.
The courage of her family did not forsake Grace Sheraton. I saw her force her lips to smile, compel her face to brighten as she spoke to Captain Stevenson.
"I have never met any of the Meriwethers. Will you gentlemen present me?"
I assisted her to alight, and at that time a servant came and stood at the horse's head. Stevenson stepped back to the door, not having as yet mentioned my presence there.
There came out upon the gallery as he entered that other whose presence I had for some moments known, whom I knew within the moment I must meet—Ellen!
Her eyes fell upon me. She stepped back with a faint exclamation, leaning against the wall, her hands at her cheeks as she stared. I do not know after that who or what our spectators were. I presume Stevenson went on into the house to talk with Colonel Meriwether, whom I did not see at all at that time.
The first to speak was Grace Sheraton. Tall, thin, darker than ever, it seemed to me, and now with eyes which flickered and glittered as I had never seen them, she approached the girl who stood there shrinking. "It is Miss Meriwether? I believe I should know you," she began, holding out her hand.
"This is Miss Grace Sheraton," I said to Ellen, and stopped. Then I drew them both away from the door and from the gallery, walking to the shadows of the long row of elms which shaded the street, where we would be less observed.
For the first time in my life I saw the two together and might compare them. Without my will or wish I found my eyes resting upon Ellen. Without my will or wish, fate, nature, love, I know not what, made selection.
Ellen had not as yet spoken. "Miss Sheraton," I repeated to her finally, "is the lady to whom I am engaged to be married."
The vicious Sheraton temper broke bounds. There was more than half a sneer on my fiancee's face. "I should easily know who this lady is," she said.
Ellen, flushed, perturbed, would have returned to the gallery, but I raised my hand. Grace Sheraton went on. "An engagement is little. You and he, I am advised, lived as man and wife, forgetting that he and I were already pledged as man and wife."
"That is not true!" broke in Ellen, her voice low and even. She at least had herself in hand and would tolerate no vulgar scene.
"I could not blame either of you for denying it."
"It was Gordon Orme that told her," I said to Ellen.
She would not speak or commit herself, except to shake her head, and to beat her hands softly together as I had seen her do before when in distress.
"A gentleman must lie like a gentleman," went on Grace Sheraton, mercilessly. "I am here to congratulate you both."
I saw a drop of blood spring from Ellen's bitten lip.
"What she says is true," I went on to Ellen. "It is just as Gordon Orme told your father, and as I admitted to you. I was engaged to be married to Miss Sheraton, and I am still so engaged."
Still her small hands beat together softly, but she would not cry out, she would not exclaim, protest, accuse. I went on with the accusation against myself.
"I did not tell you. I had and have no excuse except that I loved you. I am here now for my punishment. You two shall decide it."
At last Ellen spoke to my fiancee. "It is true," said she. "I thought myself engaged to Mr. Cowles. I did not know of you—did not know that he had deceived me, too. But fortunately, my father found us before it was too late."
"Let us spare ourselves details," rejoined Grace Sheraton. "He has wronged both of us."
"Yes, he has done wrong," I heard Ellen say. "Perhaps all men do—I do not want to know. Perhaps they are not always to blame—I do not want to know."
The measure of the two women was there in those words, and I felt it.
"Could you want such a man?" asked Grace Sheraton, bitterly. I saw Ellen shake her head slowly. I heard her lips answer slowly. "No," she said. "Could you?"
I looked to Grace Sheraton for her answer, and as I looked I saw a strange and ghastly change come over her face. "My God!" she exclaimed, reaching out a hand against a tree trunk to steady herself, "Your leavings? No! But what is to become of me!"
"You wish him?" asked Ellen. "You are entirely free. But now, if you please, I see no reason why I should trouble you both. Please, now, I shall go."
But Grace Sheraton sprang to her side as she turned. I was amazed at her look. It was entreaty on her face, not anger! She held out her hands to Ellen, her face strangely distorted. And then I saw Ellen's face also change. She put out her hand in turn.
"There," she said, "time mends very much. Let us hope—" Then I saw her throat work oddly, and her words stop.
No man may know the speech with which women exchange thought. I saw the two pass a few paces apart, saw Grace Sheraton stoop and whisper something.
It was her last desperate resource, a hazard handsomely taken. It won, as courage should, or at least as much as a lie may win at any time; for it was a bitter, daring, desperate shaming lie she whispered to Ellen.
As Ellen's face turned toward me again I saw a slow, deep scorn invade it. "If I were free," she said to me, "if you were the last man on earth, I would not look at you again. You deceived me—but that was only a broken word, and not a broken life! This girl—indeed she may ask what will become of her!"
"I am tired of all these riddles," I broke out, my own anger now arising, and myself not caring to be made thus sport of petticoats.
"Your duty is clear," went on my new accuser, flashing out at me. "If you have a trace of manhood left, then let the marriage be at once—to-morrow. How dare you delay so long!" She choked in her own anger, humiliation, scorn—I know not what, blushed in her own shame.
Orme was right. I have always been a stupid ass. It took me moments to grasp the amazing truth, to understand the daring stroke by which Grace Sheraton had won her game. It had cost her much. I saw her standing there trembling, tearful, suffering, her eyes wet. She turned to me, waiting for me to save her or leave her damned.
I would not do it. All the world will say that I was a fool, that I was in no way bound to any abhorrent compact, that last that any man could tolerate. Most will say that I should have turned and walked away from both. But I, who have always been simple and slow of wit, I fear, and perhaps foolish as to certain principles, now felt ice pass through all my veins as my resolution came to me.
I could not declare against the woman who had thus sworn against me. With horror I saw what grotesque injustice was done to me. I broke out into a horrible laughter.
I had said that I had come for my punishment, and here it was for me to take. I had told Orme that one day I would pay him for my life. Here now was Orme's price to be paid! If this girl had not sinned with me, she had done so by reason of me. It was my fault; and a gentleman pays for his fault in one way or another. There seemed to me, I say, but one way in which I could pay, I being ever simple and slow of wit. I, John Cowles, without thinking so far as the swift consequences, must now act as the shield of the girl who stood there trembling, the girl who had confessed to her rival her own bitter sin, but who had lied as to her accomplice in her sin!
"It is true," I said, turning to Ellen. "I am guilty. I told you I deserved no mercy, and I ask none. I have not asked Miss Sheraton to release me from my engagement. I shall feel honored if she will now accept my hand. I shall be glad if she will set the date early as may be."
Night was now coming swiftly from the hills.
Ellen turned to pass back toward the door. "Your pardon!" I exclaimed to Grace Sheraton, and sprang after Ellen.
"Good-by," I said, and held out my hand to her. "Let us end all these heroics, and do our best. Where is your husband? I want to congratulate him."
"My husband!" she said in wonder. "What do you mean?"
Night, I say, was dropping quickly, like a shroud spread by a mighty hand.
"Belknap—" I began.
"Ah," she said bitterly. "You rate me low—as low as I do you!"
"But your father told me himself you two were to be married," I broke out, surprise, wonder, dread, rebellion now in every fiber of my body and soul.
"My father loves me dearly," she replied slowly. "But he cannot marry me until I wish. No, I am not married, and I never will be. Good-by."
Again I heard my own horrible laughter.
Night had fallen thick and heavy from the mountains, like a dark, black shroud.
FACE TO FACE
I did not see Colonel Meriwether. He passed on through to his seat in Albemarle without stopping in our valley longer than over night. Part of the next morning I spent in writing a letter to my agents at Huntington, with the request that they should inform Colonel Meriwether at once on the business situation, since now he was in touch by mail. The alternative was offered him of taking over my father's interests through these creditors, accepting them as partners, or purchasing their rights; or of doing what my father had planned to do for him, which was to care individually for the joint account, and then to allot each partner a dividend interest, carrying a clear title.
All these matters I explained to my mother. Then I told her fully what had occurred at the village the night previous between Ellen Meriwether and my fiancee. She sat silent.
"In any case," I concluded, "it would suit me better if you and I could leave this place forever, and begin again somewhere else."
She looked out of the little window across our pleasant valley to its edge, where lay the little church of the Society of Friends. Then she turned to me slowly, with a smile upon her face. "Whatever thee says," was her answer. "I shall not ask thee to try to mend what cannot be mended. Thee is like thy father," she said. "I shall not try to change thee. Go, then, thy own way. Only hear me, thee cannot mend the unmendable by such a wrongful marriage."
But I went; and under my arm I bore a certain roll of crinkled, hairy parchment.
This was on the morning of Wednesday, in November, the day following the national election in the year 1860. News traveled more slowly then, but we in our valley might expect word from Washington by noon of that day. If Lincoln won, then the South would secede. Two nations would inevitably be formed, and if necessary, issue would be joined between them as soon as the leaders could formulate their plans for war. This much was generally conceded; and it was conceded also that the South would start in, if war should come, with an army well supplied with munitions of war and led by the ablest men who ever served under the old flag—men such as Lee, Jackson, Early, Smith, Stuart—scores and hundreds trained in arms at West Point or at the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington—men who would be loyal to their States and to the South at any cost.
Our State was divided, our valley especially so, peace sentiment there being strong. The entire country was a magazine needing but a spark to cause explosion. It was conceded that by noon we should know whether or not this explosion was to come. Few of us there, whether Unionists or not, had much better than contempt for the uncouth man from the West, Lincoln, that most pathetic figure of our history, later loved by North and South alike as greatest of our great men. We did not know him in our valley. All of us there, Unionists or Secessionists, for peace or for war, dreaded to hear of his election.
Colonel Sheraton met me at the door, his face flushed, his brow frowning. He was all politics. "Have you any news?" he demanded. "Have you heard from Leesburg, Washington?"
"Not as yet," I answered, "but there should be messages from Leesburg within the next few hours." We had no telegraph in our valley at that time.
"I have arranged with the postmaster to let us all know up here, the instant he gets word," said Sheraton. "If that black abolitionist, Lincoln, wins, they're going to fire one anvil shot in the street, and we can hear it up this valley this far. If the South wins, then two anvils, as fast as they can load. So, Mr. Cowles, if we hear a single shot, it is war—war, I tell you!
"But come in," he added hastily. "I keep you waiting. I am glad to see you this morning, sir. From my daughter I learn that you have returned from a somewhat successful journey—that matters seem to mend for you. We are all pleased to learn it. I offer you my hand, sir. My daughter has advised me of her decision and your own. Your conduct throughout, Mr. Cowles, has been most manly, quite above reproach. I could want no better son to join my family." His words, spoken in ignorance, cut me unbearably.
"Colonel Sheraton," I said to him, "there is but one way for a man to ride, and that is straight. I say to you; my conduct has not been in the least above reproach, and your daughter has not told you all that she ought to have told."
We had entered the great dining room as we talked, and he was drawing me to his great sideboard, with hospitable intent to which at that moment I could not yield. Now, however, we were interrupted.
A door opened at the side of the room, where a narrow stairway ran down from the second floor, and there appeared the short, stocky figure, the iron gray mane, of our friend, Dr. Samuel Bond, physician for two counties thereabout, bachelor, benefactor, man of charity, despite his lancet, his quinine and his calomel.
"Ah, Doctor," began Colonel Sheraton, "here is our young friend back from his travels again. I'm going to tell you now, as I think I may without much risk, that there is every hope the Cowles family will win in this legal tangle which has threatened them lately—win handsomely, too. We shall not lose our neighbors, after all, nor have any strangers breaking in where they don't belong. Old Virginia, as she was, and forever, gentlemen! Join us, Doctor. You see, Mr. Cowles," he added to me, "Doctor Bond has stopped in as he passed by, for a look at my daughter. Miss Grace seems just a trifle indisposed this morning—nothing in the least serious, of course."
We all turned again, as the front door opened. Harry Sheraton entered.
"Come, son," exclaimed his father. "Draw up, draw up with us. Pour us a drink around, son, for the success of our two families. You, Doctor, are glad as I am, that I know."