"The Second Life"
THE SECOND LIFE.
I am a hard man. I wish you to remember that when I tell you my story. Hard, selfish, money-making. My life has been like this December day—bleak and gray, with a bit of red sunshine warming it up at the end.
It might have been different. I don’t know. Circumstances may have moulded me into John Lashley, the tough old California broker, peaked my nose, thinned my lips, hardened my eyes into steely gray, buttoned my pocket; circumstances may have done this, I say, or the iron may have been in my blood.
My mother was a Ililkott. They were a flinty race. She—but let the dead rest. I forgave her, because she bore me, suckled me, loved me, doubtless, when I was a baby. I try to remember that, and think of her, as other men do when they hear the name of mother.
“My mother!” I’ve heard men say that on the road to the gallows, and all that was left of God in them rose up at the word. The old touch of the mother-hand leaves a blessing on a man’s life that goes down to the grave with him.
Well, it was not so with me. Let it go.
But, you see, having lived this hard, bare life for sixty years, trading there in the plains, milling out by the ranches, drifting here and there through the world, a homeless, wifeless man, bent on making money, and making it, a curious bit of sunshine came to me in the last year or two, as I told you; and just because it is curious, and a something that never came before, I mean to write it down.
The whole story: a strange one, with some things in it I don’t understand—never shall; voices that spoke out of the other world; mysterious forces that drove men to do what they would not; love and hate, and life and death; and the same God, that has managed the world so long, working under all, and through all—all of it in Him!
Strange chances enough, it seems to me, as I sit here, smoking my pipe! They did not bring the lost years to me again, or recompense me for them—it was too late. But they brought good to others: and for me—there are other lives to come. I mean to write it down. Pressley will be glad to know, some day, how these things came about. There are some of them which it is not fitting he should know now.
Before I begin, I must assert one thing of myself, in justice. I attempt to account for nothing of a supernatural or mysterious character in these facts. They are facts. I simply accept them, and ask no further. I am not superstitious. When I was a child, four years old, I used to try and account for our cook Barbara’s stories of ghosts and warlocks; but, living as long as I have, tossing about the world, roughing it with all manner of people, I must have been a mole-eyed fool not to see that every man, in his secret soul, believe in a world of influences outside of this, invisible—good or uncanny. The more practical the man, the more absurd his superstition. “Where no gods are, spectres rule,” an old sermon says, that I read, sometime. There was Hall, the sharpest pettifogger in San Francisco, believed in the Banshee more than in his Bible. For me, I know nothing of these matters; do not care to know.
My life, as I told you, has been coarse, hard, commonplace, full of the clink of dollars. I left home, in Virginia, when I was a young man of about twenty, and never went back to it. For forty years I never heard the name of mother, brother: not even the name of the homestead where we were born.
I meant to be rich. What else was there for me to do? I was a keen trader. I like to plan out a broad, honest, far-sighted speculation, and bring it in, closer and closer, to success: it pleases me. I like the contest between intellects sharp as steel, the struggle, the triumph. If there were any more holy, more heartsome pleasures in the world, they were not for me. I knew that. In those forty years, the only women with whom I came in contact were the hard-faced landladies in inns; home was a word of which I did not know the meaning; I dared not put my hand upon the head of a child.
Wife and child!—dead words to me, meaning nothing—not even of late years—bringing pain with them. Too late even for that, I thought.
Since the sudden influx of population to California I had lived in San Francisco. Carried on the banking business with Phipps. “Lashley & Phipps” was the firm, in St. Charles street. I boarded at the National, a great house, frequented by old bachelors like myself, who liked a grave talk over stocks in the evening, a plain, well-cooked dinner, and a comfortable room, where they could be nursed through their winter’s rheumatism. Our banking office, even. “Lashley & Phipps,” had a sober, grave, well-to-do aspect. We had gone through the flush and flash of business, and retired into solid, assured permanence. Phipps was a family man, a grandfather; his children, having all married off, leaving him and his old wife alone in their house on the bay. Sometimes he asked me down to dine with them, but I never went, not caring for even so slight a change of my somber habits.
It was late, one winter evening in December, 1858, when my story begins. Bank closed at three; but, this evening, Phipps, Bowdon (the head clerk), and I had business to transact, which occupied us until late in the night. A rainy night; the sky dull, foggy, hanging low over the roofs of the houses. We were in Bowdon’s room, a plain little whitewashed apartment, with two or three chairs, a high desk, and one office-stool. The walls hung with filed papers, almanacs, etc. The door was closed, the gas burned slightly over the desk, leaving no shadow in any crevice. In one corner of the room stood the stove, a round iron one, to which Phipps and the clerk had drawn their chairs, while buttoning their overcoats, preparatory to going out. We had finished the business that brought us there, but I was still sitting on the desk-stool, directing a letter that was to go in the morning’s mail.
Phipps had just delivered a heavy opinion on what he called Buchanan’s last strategy, as I put the stamp to the letter.
“I’ll mail that for you, Mr. Lashley,” said Bowdon. “Do you know if any steamer from New York is due to-morrow?”
I turned to give him the letter and answer him, when some light touch fell on my arm. Looking around quickly, I saw a woman, half-crouching between me and the stove. A meagre, starvation-bitten face, averted from me; but I saw it clearly—knew it, in the bright light. The figure was old and haggard, dressed in a rusty, shabby suit of black. She moaned. It was a voice I had not heard for forty years. “John Lashley!” The cry was an audible breath only. “Help! help!” that was all.
I caught at her arm. She drew back, and, standing erect, lifted the white, death-struck face to mine, then moved noiselessly, swiftly to the door, and disappeared. The door had been locked to keep out intruders, it was not opened now.
Bowdon sprang toward me. “Are you ill?” I heard him say, as he forced me down on a chair, and loosened my cravat. His voice sounded far off like a whisper. I was dimly conscious of a hurry and bustle, and Phipps’ face, paler than usual, close to mine. I heard something of “apoplexy,” and almost laughed inwardly.
It was some moments before I could stand. “Did you see her?” I asked. “Where did she go?”
“There was no one here, sir,” said Bowdon, handling me water, and watching me keenly. “You were a little ill, but it’s over now. I’ll walk home with you.” He did so, persisting in making me lean on his arm, though my step was as firm as his own. “You had better keep quiet to-morrow, and not come down to bank. A day’s rest will set you all right again,” he advised, as he landed me safely at my room-door in the National. “Very well, Bowdon.” I bade him good-night, and went in.
In that short walk my determination had been taken. Of late years, I had noticed my will halted a little, walked slowly, reached conclusions with hesitation. Life was long, I always said. Time for leisure. Phipps even, sometimes, accused me of being an “old fogy,” as he called it, borrowing the term from his boys. To-night the keen, vivid fire and resolve of my youth had returned. In that walk home my course was mapped out sharply before me, without one hinted doubt, irrevocable. So I foresaw the years, and decided my action in the days dead and forgotten forty years ago. Something had brought back the days.
“John Lashley! help! help!” “Do you want me, Esther?” my soul cried. “I’ll come, so help me God!”
It may seem strange that I, so practical a man, should have accepted this message without question: but so it was. I neither felt my pulse, nor referred the appearance to charlatanry or dyspepsia; the thing was real. I did not trouble myself to account for it for one moment, nor to wonder at its strangeness.
I was alone all that night , and the next day, arranging papers, settling accounts. I meant to leave California. In novels, men tremble and weep when the great crisis of their lives come on them: I did neither: smoked my pipe, went into the schedules of my business with a clear head.
How many years of my life came back to me, and crept through the minutes of that day and night, matters not: what hope, and passions, and agony I had thought dead long ago. My soul, as God knew it—not the soul of John Lashley, sordid, broken, but of some younger, more living man—stood up wakeful then, claiming its right. It had slept, I fancy, waiting, watchful: waiting for this call. She (pure and holy through these years, I knew,) never would call me unless it was her right to do it. The time had been when to know she was free to utter my name—dared do it, would have kindled life into a splendid dream. It was too late now. Not too late for help, though where to find her in the world I knew not.
Looking out of the window, the evening of that day, on the bay, beyond which swept the sea, with great drifting clouds trailing over it, pitiful tears came to my eyes, the first in those dead years, remembering her weak, exceeding helpless cry, “John Lashley!” Help! help!” And again and again, unceasingly, I said, with an unutterably tender caress, “Do you want me, Esther? Esther, do you want me? I’ll come, so help me God!”
I have no mind to dwell on this. It was not for the purpose of baring my own nerves and tendons I wrote this story. What it purports you to know of my back history, I will tell in the regular hackneyed way; no more. I will try and tell you all the story as a cool spectator would have done.
I left California. Some days elapsed before a steamer sailed for New York, which gave me time to arrange and close my business. Phipps stood aghast; my old chums in money relations—for I had no intimates—suspected my brain was touched, hearing of the sudden attack of illness in the banking-house. It was not my habit to talk, so they asked no questions. I volunteered no explanations. I might return, I told Phipps, in a year, and drop into my old niche again. I did not withdraw my capital, therefore. I might never return: I was feeble, the journey to the States would probably exhaust my strength.
“Why make it then?” demanded the old man, with a keen glance.
“I have some business in the North to attend to before I die,” I said, carelessly.
I dined with Phipps before I left: a great concession to the friendly feeling I bore him. He was an honest man, loyal to his likings and hates. I like people with grit in them. I paid my bills, dismissed Joe, who had waited on me some ten years (going back to my youth, I was going back to my primitive habits), took my passage on the steamer for the Isthmus, not wishing to wait for the York packet, and one fair winter morning, let the shores of California. Phipps, and a dozen more merchants and bankers, gray-headed and younger fellows, sharp chaps all of them, went out with me a few hours of the way. “Good-by, Lashley; take care of yourself!” they said, when they left me.
There had been two or three others—not smart chaps, you know—whom I had helped a bit. Nothing, of course; only because I did not know how to get rid of my money; for curiosity to see what the poor devils would do with it. They had bidden me good-by at the hotel. “God bless you!” they said. I rather liked the best of the two, considering the errand I was going on. And, considering the errand, too, I noted, foolishly, that I set sail under a clear sky; and I was glad of that. On New-Year’s day—a good day to begin a new life, or make an old one live again!
The steamer was a large, strong one. She cut her way sharply through the grating breakers. I was an old sailor, used to the sea; yet it filled me with a new, strange exultation, to-day, a sense of mighty, latent difficulty to combat, to overcome: of subtle forces, against which I had to struggle; they—always unseen. Vague fancies for an old broker’s head; a wild-goose chase for a rheumatic, ease-loving sexagenarian: a thousand leagues to answer a voice! Laugh, if you will. A voice out of heaven could not have been more real to me, more certain of quiet obedience. Let that thought go.
If a new, vital motive had lanced itself into my life, stinging some old nerves into pain, my daily habits and current of thought remained unchanged. I found myself just as fretted if the tea was not made to my liking for breakfast; went on with my forty-years-old cogitations on the turns in the money-market; sat idly for hours at night, smoking, looking down into the purplish green water, with the glinting sheen of phosphorus through it. By daylight, too, I amused myself in my old fashion: my newspaper about me, but reading instead faces and fates, picking up bits of comedy and tragedy, stray leaves—such as you find in every steamboat and railroad car.
During the voyage I was left alone. I always am. The Americans have innate good-breeding, let our English cousins say what they will; they are quick to discern a whim of silence, and gratify it. Yet, like most silent people, I soon knew more of the passengers than they did of each other.
One man attracted my attention, I knew not why. A pale, thin man of about my own age, with thin, fair hair, and mild, acquiescent eyes, dressed in a sober suit of brown. Keeping his throat well covered, I noticed, and eating dry toast for tea—consequently unmarried, or with a wife who coddled him. A merchant in a quiet way, or notary public. His name, I found on the register, was Donnell. As unattractive a subject for notice as one could meet. No tragedy or comedy on that face: a simple record of home-life, a tame business, and the gossip of half-a-century. Yet it did attract me. I had a vague notion that I had known the man once, needed him again on this mysterious venture on which I had set out. He was a timid, hesitating fellow, very: occasionally offering a fellow passenger a cigar, and launching a meek remark on politics, speedily quenched if his companion happened to differ from him.
So, when I had determined to know him, it was not difficult to accomplish it: merely the offer of a late English paper, and then a long session of silence, broken by a few, careless words. At his ease, thoroughly, with a man shyer than himself, he proved to have private supply of small, but shrewd observation.
“A Kentuckian, sir,” he said, nodding to a wiry, raw-boned man passing. “A lawyer, like myself. I can tell his state by the intolerant blink of his eye, and his trade by his head, obliquely dropped on the neck. Did you never notice that?”
He was vain of his sagacity, I saw.
“You can tell the native of a state, then, infallibly?
“Almost always—though there’s a good deal in blood. But, as a general rule, the states-marks are accurate and narrow. Pass through them rapidly in cars, and you will see the different types succeed each other, sharply defined. A little practice will show you the difference between Ohio and Indiana faces, as between the sluggish, farmer-moulded, deep-blooded Pennsylvanian, and the clear-cut features of the Connecticut thinker.”
“What am I?” I said, turning quickly. I would come home to what I wanted now.
He looked at me steadily. I was not desirous of the recognition he could give, for I knew him by this time. But he scrutinized my face as indifferently as a picture.
“A Virginian; from the West, or Valley,” he said, authoritatively, too well-bred to follow the remark by even a look of inquiry. I should have answered the look not given, but I did not.
“You have assigned me a free air for my first breath,” I said. “I know the West Virginians. There is enough of a trail of savage blood in them to make them a new almost, totally different from the planters of the East. Many of the Western families have Indian blood in their veins.” I knew the track of gossip I could draw him on.
“Yes,” lighting another cigar. “You see, these back mountain counties were settled by squatters mostly. In the old time, when the states were new, surveyors often, government usually paid them for their work by giving them as much land as they could ride around in so many hours. Then they brought their families, who fought, and traded, and often married the red-skins. Lots of high livers among those old country families go their land and their birth in that way. There was the Fawkeses now—”
He was safely launched. He traced the ramifications of Steins, and Farrells, and Iloyts, without tiring. An educated gossip. I quietly smoked my pipe. Dead names, he thought, to me: ghosts instead, bringing up the old forgotten time. There was not one of these people, whose career he outlined so coolly, from childhood to death, that had not once come close into my life in the keen, intense days of my boyhood. I had loved and hated them, the days when men and women were real and living to me, and not mere “parties” in the great commercial bonds that ruled the world, as now. Knowing nothing of this, he stumbled on—over grave-stones, I fancied, grimly.
Coming nearer to my own home, in his talk, to the point where I had wished to bring him; yet, weakly enough, I would now have thrust it off, if I could. A name not hard for forty years had yet a string in it.
“You know those old families along the western shore?
“Some of them,” I said, drily.
“Queer old blood that, I tell you; queer old houses, too, in nooks and crannies, along the mountains. Why, sir, I could tell you tales of some of those old homestead that would have your veins cold. Hot, fierce, revengeful people live in them, giving their feuds and likings down from father to son. The very houses are durable, like the people. They are built of stone, rough-hewed, or solid, massive brick there, in old times. The walls are thick enough to catch cannon-balls, and paneled with carved wood. No wooden houses for those old mountaineers, as in New England.”
I made no answer. It was a curious feeling, I remember, that I had then, sitting smoking close by the edge of the deck, watching the waves curl and lash themselves lazily against the sides of the vessel and listening to this man. I knew by instinct to what his maundering talk would lead, to their story: the mother and brothers I had left on that day which had broken life into two parts for me—the living and the dead. I had shrunk from hearing it for a long life-time, but it was coming now in this commonplace gossip, their story—and hers.
Well, what was it to me? There was crime in it, I know; instinct told me that, too. How could there but be crime? There would be all the elements of which life is made up: love, and hate, and death; what was it to me, old John Lashley, California banker, how these people had loved, or hated, or died?—their love or hate had not been for me: I was an alien and a stranger. With the last grain of dust from my shoes, as I left the old homestead, I had shaken their souls and life out of my life. It was nothing to me.
The mind was rising, swept low over the dun-colored sea beneath a dun-colored sky, angering the waves into impatient breaks of foam; it sighed low, wearily, like a tired soul seeking the good long rest to come. The larger sea-birds swooped now and then through the gloomy arch, the sunlight, that the world had lost and forgotten, catching and flashing on their white wings. How lonesome they looked—homeless!
So I turned and listened to the man. He had a smooth, mild voice, a good-tempered face, enjoyed himself so thoroughly, having this hoard of old stories to tell, and a patient listener. Proud, too, of these solid, lasting old houses in the West, of which the Yankees knew nothing, describing them with gusto: the forts; the old Indian fights; the mounds where the dead chiefs were buried, green, rounded heaps, full of the mystery of a dead age and race. Enough of curious incident these hills furnish in their legends of border warfare, midnight escapes, and deeds of bravery, fiercer and bolder than any Sir Walter has made immortal. Donnell did them no injustice: belonging, as they did, to his native air.
“But the strangest house in these hills,” he said, puffing the smoke from his lips, and watching it wreathe and drift away, “is the Oaks, the old Lashley homestead. You’ve heard of them—the Lashleys?” I nodded. “I thought it likely. They’re a notable race in West Virginia. The house, as I was going to tell you, was built by old Stephen Lashley, who might have been your great-grandfather or mine—an old Indian fighter, you see, who came West when Lewis Wetzel and Daniel Boone were boys. Lived in a log hut at at first, you know; afterward, when his sons grew up, and he wanted to see them better off than their neighbors, built this house, and went to rest himself in a hole in the ground. It’s the way of the world. But that house—stone, sir, the walls about three feet thick, great rambling rooms, close, dark halls and entries. It stood out from the river some dozen miles on a plain hillock of grass with one or two forest trees: round that crept the creek, and shutting in the hill, and house, were the mountains, close, a solid circle, like an amphitheatre, with only the break where the road and creek crawled out. When I was a boy, sir, living on the next farm, some five miles off, that old Lashley place was like a ghost story to me, full of queer dismal legends.
“Of what sort of clay where the Lashleys?” I asked, seeing he waited for some sign of interest.
“With the old Indian fighter’s fire in their blood. Yet quiet, talking little. The family had strongly-marked traits. Large, brawny men, with tough muscles, yellow complexions, broad, black eyebrows, and steely gray eyes. When they grew old it was one peculiarity that the hair of the head only whitened, and the eyes used to glow and burn under the bushy black brows like some stilled animals. There were three brothers in my time: boys like me. John and Robert were Lashleys. There was another, Clayton. He was a stray, as the country folk say: a fair-haired, blue-eyed, milky scoundrel, his mother’s own son. The world was purer and better, I think, when they were out of it.”
I could not speak. Why should I? What were Clayton Lashley or his mother to me? The man spoke God’s truth of both. My pipe had gone out. “Let me light it for you,” he said. His talk had made us fraternal in his fancy. So, on the brink of all I waited to hear, we stopped to fill the bowl, and exchange a light. He did not speak for a long time, perhaps would not go on. I would not prompt him. I waited, looking out again into the dull sea distance, as if life had no object of interest nearer to me than yon floating gulls. Had it? If the story was to be told to me now, it was well, I was passive: this matter was out of my hands. It was not like a keen bargain, this business that had brought me to the North. Fate had it. I was only an instrument. Yet I wondered idly when I was to come at the threads of the mystery I had to solve; how these dead old crimes were to be unearthed for me, if this man was to do it. I would not prompt him by a word.
“People never are judged justly by their outsides—by the face of the note, as one might say,” he resumed, lazily. “Now these two Lashleys, John and Robert, the elder brothers you know, were reticent, grum boys and men, but they had the sterling old knightly hearts under the grumness; I knew ‘em, hunted and fished with ‘em day in and day out for many a year. But Clayton was the favorite with the farmers, a fair-spoken, easy-tempered lad, with a jolly word for the young men and a kiss for the girls, and his cap off to the old folks. With one of those dead milk-blue eyes that hold all treachery. Maybe I wrong him. He was sluggish and selfish, and that’s enough stuff to make a devil out of without any more active poison. There was one bit of stuff in that house though, of which I never could get into an understanding. That was a young girl, their cousin. Raised like a boy with them, though—Ester Paul.” He stooped, tying his cravat tighter; the wind at night in those tropical climates is cold and subtle. “Esther Paul.” How black and flat the sea lay—how wearily the one bird left on the horizon swooped and flapped its wing! A broad, lifeless, homeless waste of muddy water, heaving and sighing with mighty, choked power—that was all. What a mild mould of face this man had, sitting by me—what a peaked nose and womanish, hesitating eyes! I wondered if any woman ever loved him, ever wrung her fair childish hands and beat her breast passionately, calling for him to come and love her, save her from worse than death? In vain.
I thought of the sea down there—what it held—how the dim light went through, and the forests of sea-weeds, green, and purple, and blue, waved and shivered in that twilight; of the dead floating there, white, and still, and rested. How calm they were! No wonder—God held them. Did He not hold the living, too? Was there no infinite power of Love in which we rested, as those still corpses in the water? He did not speak for a little while; when he did, something had changed my eye and ear; his face was pleasant, home-like; his voice cheery and cordial—I shrank no longer weakly from my name.
“Tell me the story of these Lashleys,” I said. He looked up, surprised at my wakened interest, and then went on, pleased, in his monotonous way.
“Esther Paul, it was, I was talking of. She was their cousin, some poor relation, I believe, that old Lashley made his wife take home. Sore against her will; she begrudged the child the bite she ate; fearing, I always suspicioned, what actually happened. This, you see. The girl grew up. Not beautiful exactly, but the sort of woman that men go mad to conquer and call their own. Silent, gentle, indifferent, with the cool, kindly manner to the world that hints at some shut-up depth of passion never opened. When she was a bit of a girl, caring nothing for lovers or praise, as girls do, loving little children and dogs, horses even. Like a child always in some things. I tell you, sir, I believe in these girls that have an affinity for animals. They’re pure. Esther wasn’t strong, was a trifle lame, one foot being shorter than the other. Her life might have hardened her, for she was brought up like a boy: use to go out in her linsey dress with her cousins and me fishing and rabbit-snaring. I think living together in that way made us all purer. I always thought one of her older cousins seemed nearer to her than the rest: John it was. Always John that waited for her when she was tired, carried her basket or rod, though she generally tried to be sturdy enough, and stamped along with the best of us. Sometimes she’d be shy of him, and walk with Robert; but never with Clayton. He went alone if he went with us at all: none of us endured him near, though we never spoke of it; but he preferred staying milk-sopping about the house with mother, generally. But Esther—as I was saying—it was always John came nearest to her; I used to laugh to myself, boy like, at her. She’d keep from him in that cold, indifferent way women have, until she got into trouble, tumbled down, or came across a snake, (lots of rattlesnakes and racers in those hills then,) and then it was “John Lashley—help!”
I listened as in a dream. The childish days, sacred to me in all my long life as bodies of the dead would be, rose up suddenly before me, tossed rudely into life by this man. Yet this did not bring the cold chill I feared. Did not the great spirit of power and love hold those past days as his present, the children he talked of in the hills, and me, the worn-out old man? I was content. A soft and tender memory only—this he brought.
“All this hunting and fishing was when we were children together, you know. Jolly times they were. But I went off about that time; was sent on a flat-boat down the Ohio, and never stopped till I reached Orleans. That trip undone me. I never was contented again to settle down in the hills; so I put off, and knocked about until I made enough to study law, and here I am. But the Lashleys stayed on the home place till they were men and women. Robert’s there now. It’s one of the richest farms in the border counties. John’s dead, I believe. At least, he left home half a century ago, and never came back. The old woman died about that time. Too soon to be punished on earth for her life; but there’s justice beyond, thank God! Still, I’d like her to have tasted a little of the cup her sons drank, here.”
He stopped, looking out over the sea. Was that all? I was to hear no more. My heart gave a fierce tug, there was a choking in my throat, then I was still.
“I’d rather not tell the story of the Lashleys,” he said, gravely. “It would have no interest to a stranger, and it’s a horrible thing to rip open. Besides, I can’t get over the feeling that they are blood-kin to me. Being with them as a boy so much, you know. They turned out different from what I should have predicted, every way. I told you Esther married Clayton!”
There was another long silence. But he began again. The man could not help but talk.
“It’s that woman troubles me. I’ve tried to reconcile her story with her as I knew her when she was a child, and I cannot do it. Why, sir, I’ve seen that girl, so tender-hearted was she, try to succor toads and lizards—the vilest things that live—when they were in pain and suffered. I’ve known her nurse a hurt dog for a month, gentle, pitiful as if it had been human: seen her eyes fill sudden up with tears when a true word touched her. When I think of what she came to be, knowing this, my faith in human nature is shaken. She was as pure a little girl as drew breath in God’s air.”
“She was pure till the end,” I said.
I stood up. How close the air was, it choked me: clammy and stifling!
The man shook his head. “I tried to think so. But it was too plain.”
I came closer, leaning on the capstan. “What did she come to be?”
“It’s a damning story. Don’t talk of it.” He wiped his forehead. “I’m foolish, sir, but I’ll tell you. I have a little girl at home, she is no purer, no more woman-hearted than Esther Paul was when I knew her. I look in that child’s face—my child, you know, an only one—sometimes, and I think, ‘You may, some day, be like her—one of the foulest things that creeps God’s earth!”
I came up to him then, close, turning my face to the bow-light, baring my head, and told him who I was.
I do not know what he said, or I. I remember he was frightened, remorseful at the pain he thought he had given.
I only was conscious that the night was dark, that the time was long before I could compose him and force him down to tell me all he knew. Then I sat down, and very quiet, looking out to the east where I should find her, I heard her story. Always to the east where I should find her. What if she was foul?—or they called her by a name no man or woman can bear and live! I was going to her. She was Esther, and I heard her cry, “John Lashley, help! help!”
I am awkward in my new vocation. My story is not clear. That you may understand, in all its horror, what Donnell told me, I must got back to the days of which he spoke, and narrate the history of Esther Paul and those Lashleys, shut up by the great hills into their solitary home, with their dumb ways, cold speech, and fierce blood, come down, from the Indian fighter, hot with passion; and, saddest of all, their faint belief in a God overhead, or a hell beneath.
I was one of them, as you know. When I remember the young man with the sallow face, as Donnell said, the square, black brows and steely eyes, I do not know him. No trace or germ of the old broker Lashley there. This young man had bound his heart by every nerve to a single purpose; to conquer a high, noble life, to fight it out, if need be; scorning shams, loving with a fierce intensity his own honor. But one thing else: the weak, lame girl that had tramped at his side since they were babies, as a sister—yet no sister. As cold in speech, as fierce, as honorable, as hungry for love as he. He knew what she was—only he. She was his, his own soul, purer, tenderer—in a woman’s frail body.
I do not know if Esther was beautiful; it startled me when I heard her spoken of as if she were like other women, to be criticised in form and color. I had been used to find myself looking at me from her eyes, but glorified—as I might be. I liked to fancy that there was but one soul in both. I did fancy it was a savage disbelief of all religion. I had a whim that if she chose, being resolute and masterful as I, she could overcome her woman’s weakness, share my masculine strength. I used to drag her with me over gullies and rocks, impatient at her hesitating feebleness. She was mine; why was not my vital nerve in her? If she loved me, she would grow like me—be me.
And then, when she halted, panting, exhausted, with a remorse as fierce as the error, I would clasp her tired, trembling little body, bathe the swollen feet, cover the hands with passionate caresses. The love of the man I was then, for that girl, was a simple savage instinct—I know that—such as prompts the lion, solitary and high-blooded, to seek its mate. But it was a true instinct. It was, I dare to say, the religion of my nature: through it I came nearest to the divine life. Had it been suffered to grow, to develop itself, it would have broadened and dawned into a pure and holy day of love to man and God.
How thoroughly it absorbed all that was pure or high in my nature then, was proved by the wreck it left when taken from me. It was taken from me. I’ll tell you how, in as few words as I can. I do not wish to dwell on it; if there is any tragedy or pitiful tenderness in the story, you must find it yourselves.
I had a brother Clayton; my mother’s favorite, as Donnell said. They were alike, unlike the Lashleys; the same blood ran in their veins. I think sometimes it was as slimy and cold as stagnant water. My mother, as I said before, was a Ililkott: a gentle, tepid, purring race, cruel and hard as fate.
I told you this little cousin and I loved each other. She had a hard life of it at home. My mother cowed and trampled her under foot, and stung her, when there, by those thousand little contumelies that women know how to goad with.
The girl, as child or woman, had no chance to be womanly, or shy, or loving, as God meant her to be. Her fierce temper was kept alive, alert, defiant, all the time, by wrong. Oh! how tired she was, my poor little Esther! How she loathed herself after her outbreaks of passion, strove to forgive, to be tender and patient! How she tried to make the rough clothes and shoes look like those of other women, to be neat and girl-like when no one had taught her how! It vexed her, her ungainly patched dress; women have always a little vanity, and one loves them better for it, after all. She was growing up an uncouth country hoyden, forced into it by habit, when every instinct and longing of her nature was refined and womanly. I never will forget one time when we had planned an escape—she and I—to the county fair. How for two weeks the child labored to trim her old dress a world too short, and I to cobble and polish her shoes. How anxiously I, the great, strong man, bent over the frock, consulting, advising her, knowing how her heart was troubled within her; how, at last, a sudden movement tore the shabby stuff in a great gaping rent, and the poor little face dropped into the nervous hands with a real heart-broken cry. “There’s no use, John,” she used to sob out. “I never shall be anything but awkward and vulgar. I’m not worth your loving. Just go down into the river shore, and you’ll see girls so fair and gentle, you’ll be glad to forget Esther.” Clinging, as she spoke, to my heart closer in deadly terror, let I might take her at her word. Silly, loving Esther! Let me talk of that old foolish time, it does my hackneyed heart no harm. There were no schools then, no learning made cheap and easy. Yet Esther wanted to learn: she could only write and read. I tried to teach her the little I knew myself. I had been a dull student, (I had been sent over the mountains for a year,) but she was quicker, more eager than I. When I went up to Pittsburg with the sheep-shearing, I used to save a bit, and buy a book for her, and in the evenings we went out beyond the barn, out of my mother’s sight, and puzzled over it together. I remember those evenings so sharply and clear. I don’t think I have forgotten one trifling incident of them all, though the years between blurred and gone.
Well, I had a brother, Clayton. Did I tell you what he was? Sometimes I think that there might have been some germ of purity and truth in him when he was born. I don’t know. My mother loved him. She was coarse, hard; she pampered his soul by selfish pleasures, just as she pampered his body with gross food; soul and body grew diseased, rotten. Yet, as he gained strength by manhood, he forced the disease out of sight, whitewashed the foulness under a smooth, gracious manner; but the thick lip, the thicker eyelid, the tigerish, sensual eye betrayed him. While Esther Paul was a child, she was the victim of his petty, cruel spite. She grew into womanhood, became beautiful, they said, then she became something else; he gave her something more terrible than hate.
Let me not think of those days, they drive me mad.
The girl had only felt contempt for him before—now, she loathed him: more intensely with every look of love with which he pursued her. I did not fear. Why should I? She was mine, my pure, gentle, loving little lamiter. My brawny body and strong arms should come between her and him, if he had brought all the power of hell to help him. He only brought my mother. She balked me.
At first, angry at the thought of the disgrace to Clayton, for so she called his marriage with the girl, she heaped reproaches on him, for the first time in his life; threatened the child, vowed to drive her out of the house. I did not much heed the storms of passion of either mother or son. Nor did Esther.
We knew. Down in the Cove, a narrow ledge of land running along Wheeling creek, there was a small sheep farm which I meant to take in the fall. It belonged to this very Donnell’s father, and I, being, as he said, a likely young man, had found favor in his eyes, and secured the lease of it. There was a house on it, only a shanty, but, having taken the farm, I used secretly to go over there and work at it. I nearly rebuilt it, being my own mason and carpenter, papered the walls cheaply, but with pure hangings; we didn’t care for carpets, the boards were white. There was a little chamber with a pine closet by the bed, wherein hung two dresses I had bought for Esther down in the town: there was a kitchen with a small grate, a row of tins above the table. “Just large enough to cook for two,” she said, her eyes on fire with a still delight.
Am I foolish to recall these things? I have opened a ranch in California; filled my hands with the glittering gold—it never cast half as glittering light over my life as did those homely tins, that I had earned by hard labor—hard labor, every cent put away one by one. “Just large enough for two.” I think I hear her say it, half under her breath, her nervous little fingers twisting in one another, her great brown eyes shining with happy tears.
There was a little “keeping room” too, with a work-table and chair for her in one corner, which I had made out of the gnarled branches of the cedars, a shelf with our hardly won books; the walls were white papered, and I had hung, instead of pictures, square pieces of cardboard, on which were glued gray and brown feathery mosses and lichen. She and I had made them.
We used to come down on Sunday afternoons to look at our house, and see the progress we had made, as innocent and simple-minded, in our love and great hope, as two children. What did we care for the cold, sensual snake behind, groveling in his low passion? Our plans were very practical. In October I was to go down to the river shore with the late crops. When I came back, we would go, some early morning, to old Father Hill and be married, and then walk over the hills to our house, and begin our new life. He was a good, pure old man, he had baptized us both, his blessing on us would have power. The day was fixed, we were so assured of our self-managed fate.
In our foolish, fond fancy we called our house the Home, as if there were no other, you know, just the Home in all the world. So, that’s our story—Esther’s and mine. The rest is of a deed so foul I think I will hurry over it.
One September day, on Sunday, Esther had stolen out and joined me. My mother was not well. When she was ill, like some animals, she crept away alone, gnawing on her own pain: no one dared approach her. So Esther was able to come out, unseen, and go with me. Love had made her tender to all men, opened her real woman’s nature: she spoke of even my mother gratefully, gently.
“See, John,” she said, “I owe her my life. Whatever she has been to me since, she took me when I was a helpless baby, and reared me. I owe her that debt. Some day I may be able to pay it.”
I said nothing, only held her tanned little hand closer. It was very beautiful to me, this saintly forgiveness. We walked in an opposite direction from our “Home” at first, that no one might trace us, then turned to it through the hills.
It was a clear September day; the hills were beginning to forget their soft green, and glow crimson, and gold, and purple. The air too was condensing into the yellow, thick light of autumn, lay moveless, like molten gold, between heaven and earth. How close it brought them together! How near God seemed to me, walking in its still light, holding her hand in mine! We came at last, passing through the pine forests, their dry, crisp carpet of brown crackling beneath our feet, to the nook where the little farm lay. The soft sunset light reddened it—such a glory of hope it seemed. For a moment my little Esther stood solemn, subdued, that her light girlish fancy broke out in a mischievous gayety. She always covered her deepest feeling thus.
“Only a week longer,” I said, “and I will go to the river; and when I come back—the Home will be a home, the happiest in the world!”
She answered only by a nervous laugh. “Nothing more to be done, John,” she said, with a curious, matronly little air that became her well. “Only the curtains to tack up. You can come and do that to-morrow.”
We entered the house as she spoke. We had a habit of sitting at the door, watching the sun go down: I, in a wicker chair; and she—such was her childish fancy—on a footstool, by my side. I pushed open the door, and turned for her to enter, when I heard a slight noise within. Looking around suddenly, I saw the figure of a man lolling full-length in my Esther’s little chair, its light frame-work creaking beneath his weight. He listed his head with a sneering laugh. I knew it well, the face, with its white glazed eye and brutish mouth.
“So you’ve built a cozy nest for some bird, John? So secret, too? And you’ve brought her with you,” he broke out, with a savage oath, “to bill and coo!”
He came toward me, for the first time in his life made courageous by fury. My little girl held me by the arm; besides—he was my brother. I did not forget that. I did not touch him, though he came close, trembling with rage.
“Go out, Clayton Lashley,” I said, quietly. “I would rather you had not entered here. It was so pure before!”
“What is this girl to you?” he asked, his voice as steady now as mine.
Esther answered him. My poor little late girl, with her earnest face and trustful eyes, facing him, as pure as Ithuriel, when he stood before Satan. “I love him,” she said, in a low voice. “Very soon I will be his wife. That is what I am to him, Clayton.”
In an instant he was calm. There was not a trace of passion in his face or voice.
“I am sorry, Esther,” he said gravely. “I hoped you would have cared for me.” He stopped. Was this manliness, or art only? “I never will come between you and happiness,” he said, after a pause. “And you, John—are my brother.” He held out his hand, and grasped mind firmly.
I was baffled—ashamed to doubt. Yet I did not believe. He stopped even—such was his self-control—to drop a pleasant word to me, before he went out, upon the taste and skill I had shown.
“A new talent in a Lashley,” he said, with a smile meant to be cheerful. “I will not stay, John. It is not a heart-warming home to me. I loved little Esther here.” And he left us, and walked slowly down the cove.
I watched his retreating figure from the gate. So simple and natural had been his words, not hiding his disappointment, that, as I said, I was thoroughly put at bay, looked after him, sorrowfully, even thinking I had wronged him.
Yet when I left the hills, I did not leave my Esther in this den we called Home. I took her from there, openly, to a neighbor, and there asked shelter for her until my return. I am glad of that now; glad that, so far as I could, I guarded her from the fate that overtook her.
God help me! There is not much to say. I have no mind to spin it into a tragedy. Take the bare facts, and know what they are to me. My mother grew ill while I was gone, in those few days—died at last. Esther came to nurse her—a brute would have done it. So, there, in the hands of these two creatures—God forgive me, if I hate the blood in my veins that is theirs!—they tortured, tempted her. Even Robert was not there, to defend her from the maddening strait they brought her to. My mother was dying. She took the girl’s hands, and dragged her over the bed until her face touched her own, livid, with the death-foam on her lips. She told her all she had done for her, when she was a helpless baby; upbraided her with the life she had given her, the shelter of years; prayed her, with her dying breath, to give herself to this boy she loved. And Esther—yielded.
I forgive her—she was mad. The curse of the dying woman terrified her reason away—a woman to whom she owed life.
Let it be. Three weeks afterward, I returned, going to the house where I had left her—to find that she was gone. I came home. The old homestead was deserted. Robert had not yet returned, and the servants had wandered off, as blacks do, from a house where death had been. It was a cold October evening. I left the hills and struck into the path for our Home. “Wherever the others might be, doubtless she was there, waiting for me. A pretty fancy!” So I came to the Home, just as the sun set. She was there! There was a light smoke curling up from the trees. I hurried to the gate. There was a woman kneeling in the little garden-patch, clearing away the weeds. It was Esther—but Esther stricken with age. Years had fallen on her since I had seen her last. She looked up: stony, returning my look with one that meant nothing—a vacant, idiotic stare! Clayton lounged out of the door, and lazily came near me. “I took your house, John, thinking your bird would prefer the nest she had helped to build. My wife now. Speak, Esther—love! Tell him it is true.” She looked up again, like an automaton. “Yes, true. I am your wife, Clayton.” That was all.
For the rest, I know nothing. Only that, a month after, I found myself out in the western wilderness, never to return, never even to inquire after home. A different man. God had touched me; taken the soul from me, I think. “I am your wife, Clayton.” In my long life time I fought down the memory of the voice that had uttered those words. I would forget. I did. I never wrote back to Virginia. I never asked of those old days. They died out of my life as a thing that never had been. Whether she had lived or died, mattered nothing to me; she was dead to me, until that night in San Francisco, when she came to me—God knows from whence!—an old, bent woman, and cried out of the depth of some utter need, “John Lashley, help!” Then I rose, and went to her.
Do you understand now?
I left Donnell, and went to the edge of the deck, looking down into the water, noting—so curiously do the surface-trifles infest our deepest passion—how its color had changed into a dull brown, with a gleam of phosphorescent light in the depths.
Well, I knew all. “Never was so pure a woman, who fell into so foul a depth.” The world had agreed with him; her crime had been made a nine-days’ wonder of. They believed—this charitable world—that this Esther, my poor little lamiter! had gone forward, with the stony eyes from which looked last at me, and taken upon herself a fate, for which the lost even have no parallel. There had not been one to think her innocent. Coarse men felt the little purity within them revolt at her name; women, gentle, Christian women, had driven her, starving and thirsty, from their doors—would not give her a cup of cold water. God’s mercy, they thought, was not for her—or theirs. Did I believe it? I? Men are curiously fashioned. I stood—the keen, sagacious broker, you know—tapping with my fingers on a barrel, weighing probabilities, remembering the depth of fierce, latent passion in her soul—knowing that, with that whole passion, she loathed this man, Clayton Lashley—counting the days, the nights, the years, when he held her there, a weak, helpless girl, in the little home, where she had dreamed of being a happy wife—my wife: the old story of the woman bound forever to a corpse was nothing to this. In the very room, sacred to her pure, womanly love, he forced his presence, his embraces on her, holding her with his pale, snaky eyes, his whiskey-poisoned breath on her lips. And so—the end. It was a strange story, unreal, as I looked about the crowd of business-men, and pleasant-faced women, promenading the dock—at the heaps of barrels, and boxes—the smoking—the newspapers—the joking; why, a deed of crime and passion like this belonged only to the boards of a theatre. What would these snug, merchants, or their dressy wives, know of such passions? Know? There was not one of them to whom these things were not real and commonplace. Every one of those newspapers held a dozen such histories.
That was the way my head treated Donnell’s story. Underneath, John Lashley, as he had been forty years ago, struggled madly with it, forcing it down, a mean, pitiful lie; holding to his breast the loving, pure little wife he had lost—soothing her, petting her, saying “I believe in you, Esther. You are mine—always mine!”
A bright, frosty day, in early January. I looked down into the water again, to-day; but it was the foaming, ash-colored Ohio now, not the Pacific. Our boat, the Orient, was a stout stern-wheel steamer, such as ply that river in low water. She was laden with freight, for Pittsburgh, and passengers, who came and went at every city or coaling-station along the shores. The river was muddy as usual, choked with broken masses of ice, from the upper streams, that clogged the way, and made the sturdy little boat puff and snort, indignantly bluffing them aside. The shores were flat until we came into the Virginia country; then the hills rose precipitous from the water, clothed with cedars and oaks. Natural, familiar, every step of the way now. I was nearing home. My plans were quite definite now. I should find Robert living in the old homestead, I knew. They told me the Lashley estate had grown, under his care, until it rivaled a German principality. If Esther still lived, she would linger somewhere near the old place, I knew. I was going there.
It was cheery, bright weather, as I said. The passengers were wide-awake, hearty Southerners, Western merchants, Kentucky drovers, a few fastidious, delicate-faced women; strangers to each other before, yet fraternizing, as was the habit on those Western carry-alls before the war, in a pleasant, hearty way.
Shortly after we left Claire, I was sitting, one day, with the captain, on some boxes in the lower deck. I rather liked the man. He had my own whim of silence. A fellow feeling, I suppose, drew us together; for, except to myself, I saw him speak to no one, during the voyage, unless when he was compelled to do so.
There was an Irish woman near us, a steerage passenger, whose husband was one of the deckhands. The woman was lazy, dirty, half-drunk most of the time, with but one trace of the soul men and women are popularly supposed to have about her—her passionate love for a little boy, her child, whom—the surest proof of her love—she kept delicately clean.
This morning, the woman had gone into the furnace-room, and the child, escaping from her, ran to the railing, and peeped through. Suddenly I heard it cry, and, looking around, saw its blue dress flutter and sink under a huge lump of mud and ice. The captive shouted, deck hands rushed, cursed, dragged at ropes; the cabin passengers crowded the deck, women crying and fainting; the mother standing motionless, pushing up her red shock of hair with both hands. All she said was, “I don’t understand. Billy! Billy!” Two or three of the men, stout swimmers, had swung themselves overboard; but the child was nowhere to be seen. A young man, a slight, small boned fellow, was dragging off his boots and coats beside me. “He is under the wheel,” he said, quietly. “I’ll get him. Throw me a rope, if the boat draws too strongly for me.” He threw himself in, diving to the wheel, where the suction was strongest, ignorant or careless of the danger. A moment after he reappeared, holding the child, and, catching by a spar, threw it up to the captain, and then pulled himself up. The woman went off into an Irish outcry of blessings and sobs; while the ladies gathered round the child, each one thinking, no doubt, “If it had been mine!” But I was most interested in the young fellow who had saved it. What strong, brawny muscles he had under his woman’s skin! Good cricketer or boxer, I knew. It warmed my heart to see physical nerve and vigor like that. A face, too, that warmed and heartened you, as he shook back the dripping hair, and laughed, wringing it out—a manly man’s face, brave, hopeful, tender.
“That was nobly done, sir!” said some one near him.
“Pooh! You wouldn’t make a hero out of a fellow for a ducking like that! I’m not hurt,” hurrying through the crowd. “Not hurt, Emmy,” in an earnest whisper, as he passed a young girl who stood leaning against a post, going off to change his clothes.
I looked involuntarily at “Emmy.” A childish, innocent face looking out from a fur hood; the cheeks pale, the crimson lips very tremulous, the big brown eyes full of tears. She turned away, and went up to the cabin.
“A fine young chap that,” said the gruff captain, when the bustle was over, and we were seated at our smoking again. “And a nice little girl, that, crying for him.”
“Great favorite on board. Got a cheery, encouraging way with him, as if he was friends with God and the world. Somehow young faces like that always seem to say, ‘Trust in God and go forward.’”
I was a little astonished at the captain’s poetic notion; but thinking it true enough, said nothing.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, after a pause. “You wouldn’t think that youngster had anything of mystery about him; yet there’s the queerest dodge taking place on this boat, along of him, as ever crossed my observation.”
I looked attention, and he went on.
“He come aboard at a little town above Orleans. Before the boat left its starting-place, I got a letter from him engaging two state-rooms: two, mind you. Well, he come aboard, as I said, at that landing at night. No one took special account of him, or if he was alone, or not. But the next morning he was in one of his state-rooms, the other was locked, and never is opened, except late at night, when he goes in and shuts himself up. The guard swears he hears voices, this young fellow’s arguing, commanding, and a low, feeble cry like an animal’s. If it’s a human being he was there, I don’t know when he feeds it, or how. If it’s a beast, what is he so secret about it for? Though,” after another silence, “I incline to the last opinion myself, for, at times, being in the cabin, I’ve heard a low scratching against the panel of that locked state-room door, and one night a low, whinnying sort of cry, like an ape, or some creature in pain.”
“Who is this young man?” I asked.
“Everything that is clever, and reputable, and likeable. A young lawyer in Western Virginia, or Pennsylvania, they tell me, a nephew and heir of one of the richest landholders thereabout. He’s as generous-hearted, cheery a young fellow as I’d wish to see: passengers mightily taken with him. If you’d come all the way with us, you’d have seen that. That young girl—cousin of life—same name, did ye see? Well, there’s a pretty story there, going on. I always had a bit of an eye for a love affair, old as I am. That young couple don’t know anything outside of their two selves, I guess. The young lady’s under charge of a Louisiana high flyer, going home to Virginia, and this Louisiana woman keeps between them; the young chap don’t get near her except in the evening, and then he goes up to her when there is a crowd on deck, and she takes his arm, and off they go right before the she-dragon’s eyes. She daren’t say a word as there’s people near. So they go, slow pacing up and down in the moonlight. I takes care to order the guard from the side of the boat.”
The old man’s eyes twinkled with fun. I laughed at the vein of romance turned up in such an odd digging as a smoke-dried river-captain.
“Where are they from, did you say, this Romeo and Juliet of yours?
“Virginia—some border county. Jim Pike, he knows them. They was raised together in the same house—her father. Name of Lashley.”
“No fate in this?” I thought, as I rose abruptly, and left the captain without a word. Robert’s daughter—this girl; and her cousin—whose son was he? “Clayton Lashley’s and—Esther’s?” God forbid!
I went into the cabin up on the upper deck, driven by an impulse I could not master. My nerves grew weak for the first time. I must see him, this boy—her son—a part of herself; hear him speak. He was up on the top of the boat talking politics with some half-dozen gentlemen. What clear, manly tones he had, distinct and low—like hers. Eager too in thought, rapid in conclusion—like her! I drew near to listen; her soft brown eyes, purely cut features, mobile mouth, Esther Lashley’s son. Thank God! Not one trace of Clayton in him. His race perished with him when he died. Was he dead? I must know that. For I was striving hard not to believe Donnell’s story.
From this moment I felt that my hour for work had come. I laid aside my silent habit, and began to arrange my plans. I went up to the group and joined, as was not improper then to do, in their desultory talk. Fortune favored me. One by one dropped off, and I was left alone with young Lashley. I turned to him smiling.
“Accidentally I heard your name, and am tempted to claim you for an acquaintance. A long time ago I knew—your mother. Is she yet alive?”
He held out his hand cordially. “I never have met any one who knew her. I never did. She died in giving birth to me. You knew my uncle, Robert Lashley? He adopted me.”
I understood: they had kept his mother’s fate a secret from him. It was kindly done. Like Robert. Clayton was dead then? That part of Donnell’s story, at least, was true.
“My name is Pressley,” he said, touching his hat.
I did not give him mine in return. How could I? Pressley Lashley was thoroughly well-born and bred. He did not suffer his face to alter at my rude silence, and, perceiving with a quick instinct, that his questions about his mother pained me, was silent on that theme: though I saw how eager at heart he was to know. It vexed me to disappoint the boy.
But after that he was constantly near me: an earnest, cordial-hearted man, true as truth himself, and never doubting others.
He made himself my daily companion; was I glad he did? Why, it was like bringing back the old days with their warmth and holiness. This boy, with his fresh young heart, with her face and figure, the very trick of her voice, might have been her son and mine. I often have wondered since if he suspected what his mother had been to me; if that was the reason why he was so tender, so shy in offering his friendship to the old solitary man? I think he did. His instincts were vivid as a woman’s. Yet open as he was, on all other things, there were two where he was secret as the grave. His love for this young girl, his cousin, and the mystery of the locked room.
I watched the girl—Robert’s daughter, closely. I liked her, thought her even worthy of Pressley. Not because she was so fair and young, but because there was about her a fresh sincerity, impulsiveness in every gesture that argued well for her heart. The blood did not spring more quickly to her cheek, nor the tears to her eye, than earnest, eager words to her lips. It satisfied me too, her feeling for her cousin, it was deep, and pure, and maidenly. She sent, in defiance of her rich, vulgar chaperone, with such quiet dignity to his side every evening, modest and firm, with a light in her eyes that said, Whom God hath joined, who shall put asunder? So Esther had come to me once.
And so, thinking of that old loss out of my life, for which nothing could atone, I took another purpose into my heart; to save this boy from such a loss, to so make myself his fate, as to insure him this wife that would bless him; would save him as Esther could have saved me.
With this newly-discovered object in view, I kept a close and watchful scrutiny upon Pressley and the young girl. There was something in their intercourse I could not comprehend. I knew from the young man’s own lips that he had been taken by his uncle, when an infant, and brought up in the house with his cousin. Yet there was between them a distance, a formality of intercourse unaccountable. What obstacle lay between them which their fresh young love had to fight down? Pressley was poor, it might be. My brother Robert might refuse her to him for that cause. Or else—the shadow crossed me again. Was it that? He would be kind to the boy, just, and generous; but he would not suffer blood so foul as that of Clayton and Esther Lashley’s son to mingle with his own. There was an absolute pain in the thought. This boy was, from the first, strangely near, dear to me. I, who never had a son, began to know what fathers feel for Esther’s child. It warmed me, made my pulse beat faster to even hear his steps. It was a good omen, this meeting with him—an omen that if his mother lived I should find her.
For two days I was silent to the boy; then I resolved to make myself known to him. We had grown into a curious knowledge of each other in that time; were seldom apart; instinct (I believe in instinct, as every one with open eyes in the world does) taught each that the other had some power over his life. The boy was troubled by it more than I, not knowing the tie that bound us together.
One evening it had rained heavily. I put on my overcoat and shawl, and seated myself on the upper deck in a safe shelter, watching the heavy drops in the water, and the dull, sodden sky overhead. It gave me a cozy, home-life feeling to be wrapped up under shelter, though it was a transient passenger on a river steamer. Pressley had sauntered up and stood leaning on the railings, dropping now and then a careless remark. Watching my face, I saw, with the doubtful, perplexed look I had seen him give several times. Looking up suddenly I caught it.
“Of what does my face remind you? Be frank now.”
“Only my uncle Robert’s,” he said, his face coloring ingenuously. “You must pardon me. The likeness is a strange one.”
“The family traits of the Lashleys are strongly marked, Pressley,” I said. “Sit down, I have something to tell you. I have a fancy that I may be of use to you in some way, in some future time. For that reason I think it is best to disclose a secret to you which I had meant to hold yet a little longer. Your uncle Robert had a brother John, who—“
“Died, sir!” he said hastily, looking intently, sharply in my face.
I laughed. “His family are determined he shall be extinct, at any rate, without giving him a chance to plead against sentence of death. I think.”
“You do not mean—“
“I mean, boy, that I am a Lashley as well as yourself, with whatever shame or honor may accrue to the name. John Lashley, as you see.”
He stood a moment bewildered, then held out his hand. “I almost had forgotten to welcome you. But—forty years? My uncle John was a very young man when he left home, I have heard them say—”
“Very young. And comes back. Look at me!” I uncovered my head, that he might see the gray hairs and the yellow, wrinkled forehead.
The boy stopped eagerly forward, reading my face with his keen, youthful instinct. He was anxious; he did not know me, the warm Lashley blood was glad to claim kindred: but it was a shy, reserved instinct also.
I could not confess how I shrank before that boy’s eyes—every mean deed I had done—every sharp bargain rose up before me, and made me cower. He drew back with a half-sigh, yet holding my hand in his more warmly.
“Very like my uncle Robert. I wonder I did not guess your secret sooner.”
“But what, boy? What is the difference between my brother and me? Speak out boldly. I am anxious to know. Kindred may be candid. And remember I have known no kindred for forty years.”
The frank young face was clouded. “You have not been so happy a man as your brother, uncle John, and—“
“Therefore am not so good a one? Eh? Better philosophy than you think. It needs influences and touches that I have never known to smooth out the crabbed lines on mouth and chin. Pressley, sit here. I want to talk to you. I’ll tell you why I told you this. Blood is strong, they say. From the first moment I knew you were Esther’s child, you were different to me from all other men. A foolish old man? Hungry for what belongs only to youth, affection, and kindness? Well, well, that may be, but I could not help it. Your thought about me is true, boy. We’ll not talk sentiment; but it is sound gospel that, if my life had been better fed with happiness, it would have been more healthful.”
I stopped. I could not go on for a few moments. How heavy the sky lay in the soggy air, the rain falling steadily and slow! The wind blew keenly.
The boy sat by me, his eyes full of trouble—my trouble. He wrapped his worsted comforter about my neck to keep the air out. A trifle, but it meant much to me and him. My son, if I had a son, would have done that for me.
“Boy,” I said, “I do not wish your life to be like mine. Let it be as hard a struggle, it will do you good. Work your own way up, fight fate, but take love along with you. Let me help you, Pressley. I am more powerful than you think. Be frank with me.”
I paused, not looking at him. Turning my face rather to the sobbing rain on the muddy hill shore, for I would not take his confidence unwillingly from him. His eyes were giving it without his control now.
After awhile he laughed cheerfully. “I have only a boy’s trouble. I can conquer it. You see I was reared indolently; my uncle Robert, to be kind, as it is his nature to be, brought me up as his son would have been, if he had one. With neither care nor forethought for the future. Every wish I had was gratified; if it had been the half of his fortune I craved, he would have indulged me at last, I believe. I only asked one thing of him, and that he refused.”
“Do you know? Well, uncle John, as I said, it is a small trouble in the eyes of others. It shall be small in mine too, for I mean to fight it down,” with a nervous laugh. “I’ll win at last. ‘Trust in God,’ and then ‘paddle your own canoe,’ you know the song says.”
Through the stained glass windows of the skylight in the cabin, I could see the young girl of whom we spoke. How pure and fair she was! Yet with the warm woman’s blood tingling her cheek and heaving in her bosom. With the latent fire of passion, temper—call it what you will—that makes a woman worth a true, generous man’s love.
Pressley saw her too. “She’s worth caring for, uncle John?” his eyes dim. My hero, Pressley, had a woman’s heart. All heroes have.
I nodded. What was the use of saying anything? No matter how ardent my praise had been, it would have disgusted him as feeble.
“Do you know what comes between you?” I said. “Robert did not use to be unreasonable.”
“He never was. Nor given to whims. And he loves me as his son. I believe him honest when he says that. But he says the bar between us is fatal as death. Last June he told me this: sending Emmy away to avoid me. To New Orleans they took her. But the little thing was brave. She told her father God had made us one, and that though he had the power to keep us apart, she was no less mine. I left The Oaks—that’s the Lashley place, you know?”
“I could not stay. I went up to Pittsburg, and got some business there. Had no profession, you know. But I have a place as shipping-clerk that pays well. I’m saving every dollar. I tell you, uncle John, that goes hard,” with a laugh, sorrowful for something more than the dollars.
“It won’t hurt you, learning to save.”
“No. I have not seen Emmy since June, until now. It was not intentional, my meeting her. I will do nothing dishonorable. I got on the boat at a point above New Orleans, and found her here, going home. I shall tell her father how it chanced, and what I have said to her. I know she must submit to his authority now; but, some day, I will win.”
There was a long silence.
“Many years ago,” I said, at last, “there was an evil fate, I think, Pressley, stretched its hand out, and thrust it into our family. My life has been shriveled up by it. But yours shall not be, if my hand is strong, and the good God reigns.” I had lifted my hat involuntarily.
“Amen!” he said, in a low voice.
“I know what bar has risen before you to keep you from her, I think. I do not blame Robert. But I can balk it. I will. For my soul’s sake and yours.”
He asked no questions; that was strange. Now and then, too, a curious shadow had crossed his face, as if he held some thought secret. There has been a sudden silence in his talk, as if there were a literal fate behind him, clutching him now and then with its skinny hand. It puzzled, baffled me. Was this my open-hearted boy that I was learning to trust so utterly? The old story which the captain had told of the locked state-room recurred to me. What was this mystery he held there? Whatever it was, I felt assured that it, and not his life’s trouble, caused this unquiet look of pain on his face. One was open, bare, to be battled with, and subdued. The other—what was it? I fancied—the ghost of some crime, some foul mystery that dared not see the light.
We sat silent, side by side. It was a dull, sombre evening, as I said. The rain had ceased, but the sky, the crouching hills, the sluggish river were soaked with a breathless fog, dark, poisonous, motionless. Only the boat moved slowly, with great pants, like the moan of an exhausted beast.
I told you that the bench on which we sat was on the upper deck. The outer doors of the state-rooms had small panes of glass, extending above the floor at our feet, according to the customary habit of building such small stern-wheel boats. The doors of Pressley’s state-room were close at our side. This, to render clear what I am about to tell you.
He turned to me, as if he had been mediating on what I had said. “There are some fates—outside circumstances, I mean,” he said, “Against which we cannot struggle. A man may lock up the skeleton in his house—cover it as he will; but it is there.”
“No,” I answered, cheerfully; “there is no ghost which cool courage and a trust in God will not lay.”
He did not answer. I saw a nervous twitching about his mouth, as of one who kept down some intolerable pain. There has been a peculiar sound which had attracted my attention in the last few minutes: a low purring and scratching, as if some animal were trying to escape through wooden panels. I wondered if Pressley heard it. He became instantly silent, still, his face rigid with attention; then began to talk again, as though he would drown out all echo of it.
The boat was grounding heavily against the rocks on the shore, the fog growing so heavy that the pilot had lost her bearing. A damp, noisome fog. Suddenly, from under or beside my feet, as it were, came a sharp, fierce, whinnying cry, like a horse in mortal agony; the glass of the state-room door was shivered to pieces, and a bony arm—whether of an ape or a human being, I know not, but whose claws even were overgrown with hair—was thrust out. Groping in the darkness, clutching—like one who drowns, sinks in depths of death—and again—the low, awful cry.
My companion started to his feet, his face white, clammy; but not a word escaped him. He, at least, was not unprepared for the apparition. He thrust the arm back, with a something very like a muttered prayer.
“Will you come away?” he said, turning to me. “There is something there no man must look on; you, least of all.”
I had turned from him before he spoke. Intense as my curiosity and wish to help him was, I dared not drag out his skeleton to view.
“Wait here,” he said, hurriedly. “It is necessary. I will go below. If any one comes this way, detain them. Don’t let my disgrace be made public. She—she must not know of it.”
He left me, going down the steps to the cabin. I waited until I heard his key turn in the lock of the state-room. Then followed again the purring, caressing sound—and silence. It was conquered. I turned away, and, during the few days remaining of the voyage, never approached that part of the deck again. My boy’s secret was his own. I would not filch it from him.
His secret was his own: it did not make me doubt him. Whatever relic of a foul deed was locked up in that room, it was no deed of his. I knew that.
As the days passed, and we drew nearer the end of our journey, the boy’s face saddened, his voice lost its clear, cordial ring, he spent hours now each day in this mysterious chamber. Even when he gained, which he rarely did, an interview with Emmy, the secret weight was on his mind, I saw; the constant terror of discovery. At night I observed that he took food into the state-room, sometimes remaining there until morning. When he did, he came out haggard and pale: it had not let him sleep. Twice, in these days, the strange brutal whine penetrated into the cabin, but neither Emmy nor her escort noticed it. I was as anxious as my boy to know this.
Yet in proportion as this pain, whatever it might be, oppressed and shut him in, he grew more tender and watchful of the poor young girl that loved him; more warm and affectionate in his manly care of me, as though he knew himself powerless, through that pain, to give us more than his poor show of feeling; as if this secret was an iron wall between him and happiness, and love, through which he vainly stretched his hungry hands.
As we drew nearer home too, I saw that poor little Emmy’s face began to look care-worn and anxious; the chaperone, a shrewd Louisianian, put on more strict guard, having received injunctions from her father, I presume. If I had been in a mood to laugh, I would have been amused to see the weariness with which the woman dragged her heavy limbs rustling in silks about after the girl, droning out unceasing maxims on her duty to society, to her position, to her father, to which Emmy listened with a smothered smile on her chubby, crimson lips. Duty! The child never would do anything counter to her duty, had not the foolish woman sense enough to see that? An honester face than little Emmy’s I never saw, a sweeter, more loving, or a firmer. What was right she would abide by, though it broke her heart. It was right in her to love this man, chosen by her, from among all men. She would love him to the end. But she never would marry him when her duty forbade it.
For reasons of my own, I had not permitted Pressley to make known to her my relationship. I was not sure how Robert would receive the brother lost for so many years. I must be certain of that first. Yet it was curious how quickly the longing for home and affection had grown and strengthened in me, how anxiously I looked forward to meeting him, wondered if he would remember the old times when we were boys!
The weather was hardening into mid-winter. The creeks and small streams were frozen, and the river each morning had a thin glaze of ice upon it, which quickly disappeared before the noonday sun. Along the shores, the Virginia and Ohio hills rose white and solemn, every pine of their clothing forest sheathed in glittering ice. The sky was gray, heavy with snow that fell now and then in drifting storms. Here and there, nestled in the hills, we passed a lonely farm-house that seemed to have gathered into its broad, jolly sides and glowing windows, the warmth and comfort which the winter without had lost.
“We’ll have a tough job to get up to Pittsburg,” the captain said. “This river’ll be frozen tight two days. See, how the big lumps of ice are going slower down stream, to-day. However, we’ll put on steam and make a push for’t.”
We did put on steam, puffed and panted through the closing water, breaking sometimes the thin ice before us.
It was late in the evening when a heavy cloud of smoke told us we were nearing Pittsburg. “Be in about nine,” the captain said. The few passengers began to prepare for disembarking; women came out of their state-rooms, muffled in furs; trunks were piled on the cabin floor; men bustled about making themselves beasts of burden for their wives’ bundles. Emmy’s chaperone, who was to part from her as soon as she had delivered her over to her father, sat watching her black woman’s preparations with a sublime composure. She was so like a faded dahlia, that woman.
“Will you speak to me a moment, uncle John?” Pressley asked.
I followed him out on the deck.
“You will see my uncle Robert when he comes for Emmy. You said you wished to proffer me help. To the very core of my heart I felt your kindness, but—it is too late.” He stopped.
“Boy, this is idle—cowardly,” I said. “You shall not give up the great hope of your life as I gave up mine. Let me speak to Robert. He is kind, reasonable. Whatever is the bar he calls fatal, I can remove it.”
He read my face wistfully. “No, I am not cowardly. I do not yield for any fancied bar of his whim.” Again he paused, wiping the clammy drops from his face, his eye wandering uncertainly.
“Pressley—tell me what your pain is? I am nearer to you than you think; secret, cautious. I do not ask for idle curiosity. Let me help you.”
“You cannot. I dare not speak, or I would, to you. I thought once I would win that woman if all earth or hell opposed me. We need each other: together, we would be wiser, better, purer. It is too late now. God has laid another duty on me, bidden me take it up as the work of life. I will take it up,” looking dreamily out into the drifting snow-flakes as he spoke
“It may not last long. God forgive me for thinking of that. While it does last, I will be true to it. There is none other so near to me.”
“Does Emmy know of this?”
A twinge of pain crossed his face. “I dare not tell her. That is hardest of all. She will doubt me, think me false, unfaithful.” The boy turned away to hide his face from me.
“There is no deception here, Pressley? You do not balk yourself with fancied duty?” He faced me—not a boy—a pale, stern man.
“I wrong every better impulse of my nature when I do this thing. I make life barren, mean, for me and—her. I render her years as miserable as my own. Would I do this for a ‘fancied duty?’ Say nothing to her father on my behalf. I will speak to him to-night, tell him I know nothing of this fatal bar, that I hold her love and the hope of it as the one light of my life. When I am a free man again, when my hands are untied, I will make it my own.
“May God help you, boy!” I said.
“I think He will,” he answered, reverently. “I am sincere, if ever man was. I’m trying to do right. He knows that. We will go in now. My fate is calling me.” With a sad attempt at a smile as the low, brutish whine was heard.
The boat, with divers convulsive gasps and throes, rounded to, and slowly drifted up to the wharf. A dark, cold night, the steadily falling snow whitening the air. The far off lights on the streets threw but an uncertain gleam on the crowd about the wharf. I went to the deck, and stood among the struggling mass of passengers, hackmen, servants, rushing pell-mell off of the steamer. The levee was thronged with carriages and omnibuses; apart from the rest, I noted one carriage of different build apparently from the rest, a private equipage, with liveried black servants attendant, and blooded bays. An old gentleman, tall, spare, but muscularly made, descended and came slowly down the wharf. I caught a glimpse of his face beneath his broad planter’s hat. A strangely benign countenance, but as markedly firm, with a certain high pride lining the compressed lips; white hair thrown off of a broad, sallow forehead; singularly black eyebrows, and eyes of gleaming steel gray. I knew the Lashley marks: it was my brother Robert.
He made his way through the crowd and went into the boat, almost touching me as he passed. The passengers were nearly gone now, so hurriedly had they dispersed, the hackney coaches were leaving the levee. I waited but a few moments, yet that was a long enough for an almost absolute silence to succeed the bustle and confusion. Only Robert’s carriage remained and one other, a closely-covered car, to whose driver I had seen Pressley speak. The clerk stood at the boat superintending the unlading of some freight. Otherwise there was a profound quiet. I looked up; the sullen snow-clouds hung heavy; a pale moon swung like a portentous beacon low over the water. It seemed a fitting night for the gathered deeds of years to approach their unfolding, for the long buried mystery and crime to be unraveled. Yet I was hopeful. Behind the clouds and the storm was the all-embracing spirit of God that held the world. It held me as well, poor Pressley and his secret, that brave-hearted girl, and surely—surely, if there were justice and truth, it held her, whom the world had driven out like Cain, and whom I came to save. I turned, and slowly ascended the steps to the cabin. It was deserted. Entering my own room, I perceived three figures standing together at the desk: I saw them by the dim light of a lamp swung in the lower cabin. They were Robert, his daughter, and Pressley. The young girl clung to her lover’s arm, and her father did not interfere to part them, but stood gravely, sorrowfully regarding them.
“Whatever blame is to fall on us, father,” she said, “let it come on me. Pressley has told you our meeting was accidental.”
“I would to God,” he said, “you never had met, my children!”
“If we were together more than was in accordance with your command,” she continued, “it was my fault as well as Pressley’s. If it hurts you that in this time we have learned to know each other better, to cling closer together, it need pain you no longer. Because he told me that he cared for me did not increase my love for him. It was there before.”
I saw my boy smile at this, and look down passionately into her eyes. But he was silent. What defence he had to make was made: now, back to his strange and loathsome duty. He dared not plead his cause.
“Come, Emmy.” How deep and cordial Robert’s tones were—heart-warm from a long-loving life! “You are silly children—that is all. God knows, if I could, I would make you happy your way. Pressley’s sorrow hurts me as much as yours. But it never can be—never, child. Think of that and so grow used to it. In time it will cease to pain.”
Pressley’s face paled indignantly. “I will not think it, uncle Robert. It shall be. Some time, not far from now. If I were free, I would hold my fate in my own hands, and Emmy should be mine. She shall be. Look up, Emmy. My dear little wife, good-by.”
She lifted her tearful little face to his and he kissed it, then turned away.
“Pressley!” said Robert—“stop. Give me your hand, boy, as ever before. I do not blame your ardor. It is not easy to submit to an irrevocable fate at your age. But do not forget in your passion that you are very dear to me—my son always.”
The young man’s face flushed as he gave his hand. No truer men ever joined hands than they
I drew back into my own room as Robert and his daughter passed slowly down the cabin, and went to the deck to land. A moment after, I heard the clatter of their horses’ feet on the stones of the levee.
Pressley stood gazing vacantly down in the water. “Good-by, boy.” I said, touching his shoulder. “Come and see me to-morrow. You must make me feel I am at home again, you know.”
“Even that I cannot promise,” he said. “You don’t doubt me, uncle John. You know what my welcome is to you. But if I am not able to come, do not blame me. I am not longer my own master,” with a glance at the state-room door—a strange glance: of pity, disgust, and utter weariness.
“I know. May God help you, boy, to be patient with your work!”
“I need help.” He wrung my hand, and I left him. Left him standing alone there in the darkening cabin, a young man, love and hope wrenched from him, left solitary there to grapple with some fate, inflexible secret, cruel.
Going out into the night again, I found the silence deeper than before. Business was over for the night, the wharf was deserted, a gray, silent darkness had fallen on river and city. Close by the river was the covered car waiting. Leaving the boat, I slowly ascended the steep wharf, but at the entrance to one of the narrow streets paused to look back. The boat swung uneasily to and fro. I fancied it knew it held some foul load, and panted to disgorge it. A cold, lonesome night. Two figures came slowly down the steps and stood on the boat-edge. I knew Pressley’s muscular figure: but what that shadow at his side? It tottered, would have fallen, but that he supported it by his arm. A horrible, vague shape, that might have been bestial or human, but that from out of its wrappings, there was a great skinny, bony arm extended, covered with hair even to the claws. Clutching: always clutching: the same unceasing motion. They came forward. Pressley reached the bank, and held out his hand to assist it. But the instant its foot touched the ground, I heard, close at my side, a sound that curdled my blood. Only a low, awful sigh, as of some one stifling to death, an audible breath forming itself into words. “John Lashley, help! help!”
I determined not to make myself known to Robert until I came to his home, my old home, at The Oaks. At the hotel, next day, I saw near him at dinner, and was amused at the deference paid to the rich Virginian, and his beautiful daughter. For Emmy was beautiful. Out of her sober gray traveling dress, attired as became her fresh youth in delicate rose-color or white, she bloomed into as radiant a little blossom as ever gladdened God’s green earth. Robert was proud of her; she was his only child, you see, ruled him with a very gentle hand.
As I said, I remained in the same hotel with them for several days, learning in that time, very thoroughly, into what manner of man time had moulded my brother. Under all the genial kindness, the cordiality of his nature, there was the old Lashley pride of birth, pride in the purity of blood. Not mean vanity of station. I do not mean that, but the wish no drop in his veins should claim kindred with vicious or mean sources. This accounted for his resolute refusal to give his daughter to Pressley. I saw the bar. Nor could I censure him deeply. So black a crime would stain any man’s birth, if it had been committed. If it had been committed? That was my errand to prove true or false.
First, I must know my brother, follow him to his home. Only there, I thought, would I find traces of Esther.
A week nearly passed before Robert and Emmy left the city for Virginia.
In that time, Pressley never came near them or me. I was chagrined, disappointed. What could this duty be which forbade his seeking even a look from the lady of his love? I could forgive his neglect, but I could not forgive the pale face of the little girl, who cast such anxious glances through the halls as she passed through them every day. He was sincere in his love for her, earnest, I knew, as few men can be. What did it mean? Whatever duty this was, it must be one that he felt to be an eternal barrier between them, and so deemed it kindest to himself and her to part at once. Even Col. Lashley, as they called Robert, I saw was surprised at his non-appearance. The morning they started, I overheard him say, as he lifted Emmy into the carriage, “I thought Pressley would have been here to bid us good by. There could be no objection to that.” She made no reply, shut her eyes for a moment, as if to keep back the hot tears, then opened them brighter than ever. She did not doubt my boy: would not doubt him if he never came.
As the carriage drove away, I turned into the hotel: under the balcony, among the crowd, I caught sight of a man wrapped in a cloak, following the carriage intently with his eyes—hungry, impatient eyes. It was Pressley Lashley. I did not accost him, nor follow when he went hastily down the street. He had left his evil fate behind him, for a moment, to look on her—his last look, it might be. Something in his face said, “Never—never.” I did not follow him; having no help in my hands for him now. But if there was help in the world, I would find it. I waited for two days: giving them time to reach home, making no effort to find my boy. What could I do for him now? Then I followed Robert.
Winter had now set in heavily. The air was bitingly cold; the snow on hills and road, deep, crusted over with a glaze of ice; the rivers were frozen, immovable; through the pine-clad gorges of the mountains the wind sighed drearily; the sky had faded into a New England blue. Finding it impossible to reach my destination by water now, I started across the country by land to the county where the Oaks lay. It was several days before I reached it, coming, near the close of a bleak, snowy day, to the little inn on the border of the estate. Stopping there to leave my horse, I buttoned my great-coat tighter about me, and started on foot to the house. Robert had added farm after farm, hill after hill, to the old place, yet every inch of the ground was familiar to me. My old heart throbbed and beat as I thought it never could again, passing along the beaten path which I had helped to make, with my boy’s feet, fifty years ago. It was a pleasant winter evening, cold but clear, the snow glittering rose on the hill-tops far off, pale gray shadows gathering thicker in the valleys and forests. I felt as if I were coming home. No house was in sight; the old mansion lay in the center of an unbroken sweep of mountain and farm land; no living thing crossed my path, save now and then a farm-boy, driving a herd of fat, sleepy cattle, or a bird chirping like a cricket out of the bare bushes. My path ran sometimes down by the creek; there was the very rock where Esther fell into the water, and Robert and I pulled her out; forgetting, for a moment, all that has passed, I almost laughed to think how Bob stole into the house to bring her dry clothes, and was caught in the act. She was a chubby little girl then. There were the very holes in the creek where we used to wade after crawfish, having our toes bitten at very turn; there was “Devil’s Hollow,” where Bob caught the big bass. I wondered if he ever thought of these things now. That wood of cedars and forest trees used to be alive with squirrels: it was so still. I could see their see their swift black shadows disappearing up the trunks as my steps crackled on the snow. It was strange how young these remembered trifles made me feel: how the future seemed brighter, cheerier, my hope certain. I believed if I could find a home again in these hills, knowing her content and safe, I could forget age, aches, pain, go hunting and fishing, like a boy. I was coming near the dwelling house now; passed here a barn, there a sheep-fold. The whole estate bore evidence of plenty, comfort, hospitality; the carriage roads were broad, well-worn; the heart of the place, like that of its owner, was warm and genial. I did not turn my eyes once to the narrow path leading to the Home. I could not.
There was a narrow stream that passed through the garden, and joined the creek just as it entered the amphitheatre of hills wherein the mansion house lay. I have told you the Oaks was shut in as by walls of mountains. A light wooden hand-bridge crossed the stream at this place; standing on it, I saw the house for the first time. It was altered: if it had stood there, grim, stony gray with moss as before, I think it would have seemed like a gloomy prophet of my fate. But Robert had enlarged it, beautified it. It had a noble, heartsome look now, as its broad windows caught the glow of the sinking sun; and the warm smoke curling from its many chimneys glowed purples overhead. It was a home: wide, warm, open to the beggar as the rich man: the like the hand of its owner. The very sight of it welcomed me.
I stopped, leaning over the little hand rail of the bridge; the stream was frozen, but the creek was yet open in dark great holes. Near one of these an old negro was perched on a stump fastening a leather collar on the neck of a yellow dog. The old man’s hair was gray as my own; his limbs, feeble, tottering; but there was something in the blink of the eye I knew. Dressed in broad cloth too, with a silver watch: an old family servant, evidently.
An odd fancy seized me. I went down to the bank, and, standing near him, spoke,
“A good dog, uncle?”
“Berry good, massa,” touching his cap; “for setter, not got um’s like in dese parts.”
“Yours, uncle Scip?”
He looked up when I named him. “Es, massa. Was Mas’ Pressley’s, but um gib him to old Scip. You ‘quaint wid Massa Pressley, sah?”
“Yes. He’s well now, would be glad to see you, too,” anticipating his question.
He touched his hat again with a broad grin of delight.
“Can that dog fish, uncle?”
“Fish! Lor gory, what does mas’ mean? Neber knew a dog fish in um’s natural life.”
“Never? I knew one once. He caught cat-fish with his fore-paws. In that hole yonder by the bridge.”
“Lor a massy, dats Pipe! So um did; I done forgot him. Bin dead these fifty years.” He stopped, ruminating; a sudden thought striking him at last. “Massa!” rising and standing before me, “who’s you bin, ef I mout ask? Dar wasn’t but tree boys knowed ‘bout Pipe, dat was me, and Massa John, and Massa Bob.”
I did not answer. He fixed his hand trembling on my arm, peering with his purblind eyes into my face.
“Mars! tell old Scip. Who’s you bin?” Tracing with his hand the mark of an old scar on my forehead. “It’s de Lashley white hair and black eye-brow! And de mark where Mars’ Clayton cut him wid de knife!” His staring, terrified eyes asked the question.
“Yes, Scip. John Lashley!”
His action was characteristic. He drew back a step, his eyes yet more wide open. “Mebbe um’s ghost—“
I took the poor, old skinny hand in mine and squeezed it with a grip no ghost was equal to.
“Gor-a-mighty! dat’s Mars’ John all ober!” shouting out some unintelligible yells as he shuffled to the house, stopping now and then to hurry me on, divided between the desire to usher in the dead alive, and to be first to communicate the tidings.
I lingered on the field of snow outside. I trembled, I am not ashamed to confess; hesitated to meet the brother my very soul thirsted to claim.
The broad windows of the dining-room opened on to the lawn; there was a ruddy glow of light within. I saw the old negro rush in with a wild shriek. There was a moment’s confusion inside, then the window was flung open, and Robert, his old face pale, his lips trembling, stood in it, looking toward me, doubtfully.
I threw off my hat. “Bob, old boy!” I said, in the words I had been used to call him.
“John! For God’s sake, Emmy come here! Why, John!” And like Joseph, the old man literally fell on his brother’s neck and wept.
A moment after, I found myself pushed down into his great chair before the fire; his shaking hands untying my comforter that the heat might breach my breast; little Emmy, half-laughing, and half-crying, chafing my old hands; the door filled with curious, grinning black faces; and old Scip, who could do nothing better, hoisting my feet up on a footstool. They seemed to feel as if all the affection and home-warmth, which my life had wanted for forty years, must be crowded into it now.
“God bless you, John Lashley!” cried my brother, “you have come home at last. Never to leave it again. Never!”
A bright, frosty winter’s morning. The pale gray sunlight flashed back from the snowy hills, the great forests glittering in ice, even the eaves of the old mansion fringed with rainbow-hued icicles. A sharp gusty wind careering as it pleased through mountain and defile, shouting as if it had caught the echo of a thousand happy homes. The library fire burned boisterously on the andirons—a wood fire it was—great logs of glowing, angry pine, throwing out red-hot sparks far into the cool morning air, until it too grew warm and high-tempered. It was a cozy home-room, that library; with crimson carpet and crimsoner chairs gathered snugly about the broad hearth; the clear winter landscape outside of the windows; the walls lined with books in dark, rich bindings. I don’t know if Robert penetrated much farther into their mysteries than a certain shelf of works on Democracy; and as for Emmy, she knew more of the arts of pickling and preserving than of any art or science; but the books were there, at any rate, and the room was called the library, and a very snug cozery it was, as I said. Robert had forced me to keep his own chair in the warmest corner, and now sat opposite to me, his old face glowing; watching mine as if he feared I would vanish out of his sight, rubbing his hands occasionally.
“Mars’ Bob look twenty years younger dis day,” mumbled old Scip, who had made a hundred excuses to come in and out of the room all the morning.
“I do feel, John, as if you had given me a new lease of life. I have had hard troubles lately, one way or another. I feel as if I were going back to be a boy again since you came. You will stay now, quietly. Life has been rougher with you than me, old fellow! It is my work to make it more cheerful now.”
The night long we had talked over all that had befallen us. Not touching on the black shadow that lay under all. But we must come to it at last. There was a sudden pause in every story, a something darkly understood, omitted, a knowledge hinted at only by an abrupt silence. Sometimes we had halted as if the pervading memory would not be kept down: thrust its fierce face between us. But—I was growing old and nervous, fanciful as a woman—I had put it aside with the dull presentiment that I would talk only of my hope in daylight, and that so it should be fulfilled; that if this old buried crime was brought into fresh light, its foulness would disappear, and the truth would be found.
Sitting, therefore, with Robert in the clear morning, with the great home-fire making a splendor through the room, I determined to drag the old secret out, let it cost what pain it would. It was not hidden deep; what thought of our daily life was there that it did not underlie?
“I told you, John,” Robert said, twitching his gray bear uneasily, “of how pained and anxious I am about Pressley? I never fitted the boy for self-support, always meant him to share the estate at my death, to live with me until then. But this whim of him and Emmy’s has put a stop to that. I cannot recall him to the house.”
“Not such an unreasonable whim, Robert, after all! You might have averted it. It seems to me you are most to blame for bringing them together.”
“Pish! I never thought of such nonsense! Why, John, they are mere children—a boy and girl.” He rose and began to pace the floor impatiently.
“You love Pressley?” I said. “He is an honorable boy?”
“As though he were my son. He is honorable. A thorough scion of the old Lashley stock. Not one drop of his father’s blood in his veins.”
“What is your bar then?”
He faced me abruptly. “Can you ask? Could I give my child to a man whose mother—“
I stood up. The floor reeled beneath me. “Robert Lashley, do you believe that lie? You? Esther lives as pure to-day from crime as the day when she first kissed my lips; or dying, died pure: wronged as any saint from heaven!”
He did not answer for a moment, took my hand and held it in his, spoke in a low, smothered tone. “Forgive me. I did not know you felt it yet. John—of all of us, it came hardest on you.”
I left him and went to the window. I was choking. She was mine, my Esther. I would defend her against the world. What if we never met in this life? There was another; there our fates were one. God would not forever cruelly part those loved as we had done.
“You believe it?” I said, turning.
“I wish, John, I could doubt. But it was damning proof. Sit down. You have heard the outlines of the story. Let me tell you all I know.”
“No, I seek to know no more. I have heard this, Robert. That the girl, tortured by the foul beast who called her wife, fell into a slow morbid gloom akin to madness. That ten years after their marriage, he took her and her child to a little inland town in Pennsylvania; that there she murdered him; that she was tried for the murder, and acquitted only for the want of some technical evidence. That she wandered about the country, seeking shelter and finding none, until at last she died. Is that the story?”
“I do not know if she died,” he said, his head bent looking gloomily in the fire. “I took the child from her before the trial. I told her I would rear him as my own son, that the story should never reach his ear. It never has. He was an infant then. In this country district news travels slowly. But few persons ever heard the tale, and they would keep it secret for my sake and his. Pressley is much beloved—“
“She disappeared a year after the trial. Twice before that time she came at night to see her boy, stealing up, unseen, to his cradle, crying and praying over him. It hurt her to give him up. He was her only hold on life or love, poor thing! After that I never saw or heard of her more. Long years after, indeed, when Pressley was a boy of twelve, he told me of an old ragged woman, who beset him in his walks to school, and sometimes would kiss his hands, even his shoes. The boy was frightened, and drove her off thinking her mad. I have thought at times it might have been his mother.”
I did not reply. If it has been told of a stranger, this awful tale of sorrow would have closed my lips, made my heart sick. The woman, cast off by God and man, stealing to her boy to kiss his shoes—kicked aside as a beggar! And she my Esther!
There was a long silence. “You did not know my errand to the North, Robert?”
“No. I thought you came to me—home.”
“I thought you had forgotten me. I was unjust. I came to find her—Esther. To save the remnant of her days, if I could, from want and shame. To prove her innocence!”
“I hope, under God, you may succeed, but—”
“I know your doubts. You have the poofs against her! Let me have them. Let me see all that can be brought to prove her guilt! I will find in it some clue to her innocence!”
“I have tried to do that.”
“You never loved her, Robert.”
Again the pitying grasp of the hand. “It was a foul wrong, yours, brother.”
“Let that be, Robert. The past is past—dead. Let me see these proofs.”
“I have only the record of the trial. That is enough. She had the ablest counsel, but they saved her only by a quibble of the law. Even that might have had no effect, but for her youth and magnificent beauty.”
“Was she so beautiful then?”
“No richness of form or color; but the rare chiseling of high, fierce passion. She stood like a pale statue, facing her accusers, her dark eyes full of the pain smothered down for years, her crimson lips immovable, the whole tense rigid figure, waiting face, breathing one ides—a longing for rest. I heard a bystander say Eve might have looked so when the curse fell on her, looking for the promised death.”
This was my poor bonny Esther of whom he spoke, the lame, little girl, whom they had tortured for ten long years, and then driven out, homeless, despised.
When he went out to bring the papers, I stood motionless, watching the broad field of snow, unconscious of what I looked on. There was a wide stretch of woods at the end of the lawn. The trees were bare, but the undergrowth of bushes was thick. As I stood there, a dark figure moved repeatedly through them, beckoning eagerly to the house. I gave no thought to the matter, my brain was heavy with pain, yet I remembered it as one does a surface trifle, finding afterward its meaning.
“These are the papers, John,” he said, entering. “They need no explanation. Lay these aside until to-morrow. Give us one day of cheerful pleasure.”
“No. When she is saved, it will be time for pleasure and cheerfulness for me. I will go to my chamber. I would rather be alone when I read them.”
“As you will, John.”
I left him, and shut myself up in my own room. The papers were old, yellow, and the ink faded. But the story was clear enough. I sat down by the fire holding the must sheets before me. There are times when the pain of life stings us to sudden passionate outcry against God, to a summoning of fate, heaven, and hell to answer why these things are. One of those fierce moments came upon me now. The room I sat in, the house, were but the type and out-growth of a full beneficent life—my brother’s. We had been boys together, nursed on the same mother’s knee; this was his fate; and mine? I held its record of withered strength in this mouldy paper—not of mine alone, but of another, as much purer and truer than mine as a woman is nearer God than a man. Why had these things been? My soul rose up passionate and fierce, demanding answer. I was no believer; a doubter always, or rather coldly neglecting all thought of God, and his providence. If I could see in the strangely working events of my life any end of blessing, any over-ruling Hand of good, now with my whole being I would have bowed down and rendered my eternal allegiance. Was there any? Few men sacrifice the highest hunger of their nature to any earthly good; infinite truth, infinite love only can satisfy them. My soul cried out for the lost love of my youth, the purpose of my life was to atone to her for the years gone; yet deeper than this was the eternal hunger—for a God, a something all-powerful, all-holy, on which she and I could lie down and rest forever. The hunger never left me. Latent all my life long it sprang up now, making me—a man. Yet now, at this moment, it was but a maddening doubt. The paper shook in my trembling hand; it trembled with rage. Why had these things been? Of what use had it been to her soul or mine thus to be tormented? Was the question ever answered? Time will show.
The papers were one or two lawyers’ documents, notes of the trial, and a couple of newspapers published in the county town, containing all the evidence and some of the speeches for the defence. Robert had spoken truly; she had been given every advantage of counsel. I read over the whole without comprehending it the first time; my eyes glazed, my heart throbbing. Then, ashamed of my want of manhood, I took them again, and quietly compressed my thought, resolved myself into a cold critic, and judged of them dispassionately. I will give you the simple facts divest of legal technicalities.
In M— County, Pennsylvania, there is a sleepy, country village, with no road connecting it with any great thoroughfare. A close, shut-in hamlet, into which the Dutch farmers ride stolidly on market days with their crops, and where the housewives make butter and yeast after the fashion of their grandmothers. There is a narrow, deep creek, which runs through this village, which loses itself afterward among the mountains, and, hundreds of miles further on, empties into the Schuylkill. About half a mile out of the hamlet, at the time of which I tell you, there was a country inn on the shore of the creek, kept by a woman named Chandler, a mere stopping place for an occasional traveler to water his horses and drink a mug of beer himself. The house was small, built of stone, with a garden rich in cucumbers and Lima beans, with borders of hollyhocks opening on the creek. The stream here was deep, fringed with a dark woods, an impenetrable thicket on the other side of thorns and haw-bushes: sinking just below the little garden into a succession of black holes, so deep, unsoundable, the villagers said, that they gave them the name of Hell’s Mouths.
To this village Clayton Lashley, in the summer of the year 181—, brought Esther and her child, Pressley, then an infant of a few months old. He took lodging for them in this house, and remained there until in the fall, employing his time with fish or hunting. His wife never was known to leave the house, except to pace up and down the garden walks each day, with her baby in her arms. Why Clayton had sought this obscure retreat, Robert could not inform me. Our way of accounting for it was, that his finances were terribly straitened. “I was struggling then myself,” he said, “and could not help him. He had wasted his share of the estate with debauchery; how he lived at all I never knew. At times he was in possession of unlimited means, and in a few weeks without a dollar. I thought he gambled. There was a horde of river sharks on the border towns with whom he herded. He may have hid himself in that hamlet until some chance of better luck would come, for the cheap living, or, forgive me, John, he may have thought he could better torture Esther there. She was free from no outrage that his petty, fiendish spirit could devise.” Both reasons, I thought, might have influenced him. Yet in this hamlet he had no chance of repairing his fortunes by gambling; he was absent, professedly on hunting expeditions, for weeks at a time, several times during the summer. With regard to his treatment of Esther, the woman Chandler and her servants testified to no positive ill-usage. He was a mild, fair spoken gentleman, pleasant and sociable-like in the house; she, dumb, gloomy, giving vent, now and then, to wild bursts of frantic pain, as if driven to insanity. Caring for nothing, taking no heed to the people about her, clinging only to her baby, from which she was never an instant parted. They never heard an unkind word from her husband to her; at nights, though, they could hear her passionate moans, and his low, even pleasant voice. Sometimes she would escape from the room, carrying her child, and pace the garden walk until morning. They thought her deranged; indeed, her husband hinted as much when they first came. The fact that seemed to have prejudiced the inmates of the house most against her, was her total indifference to them. As if she were in a stupor always, they said; except once, when a neighbor’s child fell from the loft, breaking its arm. She roused then, binding the arm as skillfully and tenderly as a surgeon, the slow tears running down her cheeks from pity. When the doctor came, he said, “You have done it as well as I, Mrs. Lashley.” The words seemed to hurt her, they said. “I was able to be of use, once,” she replied, turning away, “long ago.”
It was late in October when the tragedy ended that that began years before. Perhaps the easiest and briefest manner for me to give it to you, would be to give such portions of the evidence as bears directly upon it. The trial took place at the county town some ten miles distant from the village. It was not known far beyond the precincts of the State. The murdered man and the woman accused were alike unknown, and were not identified as belonging to the Lashley family in Virginia until long afterward. Yet the population of that county were intensely excited; boorish Dutch farmers, whose lives had never known a sensation like this before. They made a holiday of it: quit their farm-work, crowded in with their wives and children in carts to hear the trial, listened patiently, during the three days it lasted, and would have listened as patiently if it had lasted a month. This strange, beautiful woman was of a different race from them; they did not know her; she was uncanny outside of their human sympathy. To be accused was with them to be guilty. Acquittal was only the success of legal juggling; when the woman turned from the prisoner’s box then released, but with her innocence far from proven, they drew back from her as one polluted; the coarse frauen drew their linsey petticoats, stiff with dirt and grease, away, that they might not touch her as she passed out from them. So my Esther was recovered back into the world. But let me show you how her guilt was proved. That was all that concerned me in those papers. There were many witnesses for the State. The woman Chandler, her two servants, and the hangers-on of the house, were called to testify at the inn, and their manner of living while there. I have spoken of this before. “They had two rooms,” The woman said, “apart from the other side of the house: one was the chamber where she mostly stayed with the baby; the other he used to read in, and kept his fishing tackle there. Never thought they lived happy together, but always suspicioned as ‘twas her fault, he was so mild and even spoken. She looked as if she were keeping herself down—down all the time, her face white as if she were bleeding inwardly to death. My Margot said always as he was a fair-faced devil and was a-killin’ of her, but that’s neither here nor there. The day of the murder, and for days before, Mrs. Lashley has been stiller and paler than usual. She used sometimes, when she was walking with the baby, to croon low songs to in and seem to forget her trouble, sometimes, even laugh to it. But three days she was quiet as death, just dumb, like an animal, clenching up the child close to her breast, and holding it there as if she thought the devils were coming to snatch it from her, going up and down all day hurried, unsteady-like. Mr. Lashley sat quite quiet in his room, fixing his gun and pistols, watching her now and then out of the corner of his eye. I felt sorry for him. I says to Margot, ‘She’s getting’ madder and madder;’ but Margot says, ‘That fiend’s gettin’ her under his foot, that’s it.’ Toward evening, that day, she put her baby to bed. Then she was sitting by it, when we heard him go and talk to her, for a long time, in a low voice. We couldn’t hear what he said, only he was taunting her like, or coaxing, we couldn’t tell which. Margot thought one, me, tother. She didn’t say a word, until at last something he said seemed to hurt her terrible, for she got up and came close to him. We could hear her walk across the room, and we hear her walk across the room, and we heard her say low and fierce-like, ‘As God lives, Clayton Lashley, this must end! Let me go, give me my baby, or else you or I die!” We heard every word distinct. He didn’t answer her, as we could hear. Presently he went out and sat one the bench by the door, playing old tunes on a flute. That seemed to madden her more than all. She held her hands to her head trying to shut out the sound. I thought the tunes meant more to her than all the words.”
(Did I know what these old airs were? Those I used to sing with her years ago?) “He put his flute away, and came up to her, where we all could see him, and kissed her, saying ‘Good-by, dear wife!’ When he passed us, he said, ‘Did you hear what she said? Don’t heed her! She is vexed to-night—wilder than usual!’ and so went down to the village. About ten o’clock he came back, and went into his room, locking the door on the inside. There was but one other door out of those rooms, and it was at the side opening into the garden. We go to bed early. By eleven the whole house was dead quiet. About three o’clock in the morning I heard a wild, gurgling sort of a cry—a man’s voice—smothering-like. I got up, and, while I was putting on my dress, heard it again, but farther off. Couldn’t say if it was a man’s or a woman’s. Went and pounded at Mr. Lashley’s door, but got no answer. Heard the child cry, but no one hush it, as she always did. We began to mistrust something was wrong. Margot got a candle, and I brought my key and opened the door. Nobody was in either room. The bed had not been slept in all night. Mr. Lashley’s shoes were lying near a lounge on which he used to sleep. There was a candle burning, with a long wick, as if it had a stood a long time.
“The door out into the garden was open, and the night wind was blowing in strong. It had rained, and the wind was wet. I remember our feet sank into the mud when we went out. Margot and I did go—I taking the lantern, and she hushing the child on her arms—down the garden path to the creek, thinking we heard a sound. We did find some one there. Mrs. Lashley it was. She was crouched down, on the bank, looking like a mad-woman, holding something in her hand, trying to clean it on the skirt of her frock. I saw it shine, and went up to her and tried to take it from her. It was a long, sharp knife, covered with blood. She gave it to me. ‘Don’t blame me!’ she said, crying like a child. ‘I was so tired living, I couldn’t help but do it.’ ‘Where is he?’ I said. She pointed down into the water, in the hole they call Hell’s Mouth, being so deep. ‘Did you kill him?’ Margot said. She began to cry again. There was no more sense in her brain then than in a baby’s. I just led her into the house and sent for a constable. That is all I can tell you. Everything left of Mr. Lashley just as he had laid them down. There was no money anywhere, but I got my pay by selling some of their things. His watch he had on that night.”
Her daughter, Margaret, testified to the same, only adding her evident conviction of the ill treatment given to the prisoner by the deceased, which she dwelt on out of pity, yet which only added to the proofs of her probable guilt.
Reuben Simms also appeared, and was sworn.
“Am a constable for M— county,” he said. “Was summoned by Mrs. Chandler on the night of the murder. Arrested prisoner pursuant to warrant of Judge Johns. Examined the garden path early the following morning, and found marks of footsteps of two persons in the soft clay. Some of the marks appeared to be made by man’s feet in woolen hose, the others were smaller, like a woman’s. The prisoner’s shoes exactly corresponded to them. The little wicket-gate opening out to the creek was half-wrenched from its hinges, as by a violent struggle. On the immediate bank of the creek, where the clay was soft and deep, there were traces of some violent struggle having taken place. The small bushes were torn up, the small marks of the two footsteps still continuing. I found, also, clots of blood in several places, a large pool of blood in another. The prisoner’s arm was cut obliquely, yet could hardly have bled so profusely as to have left those proofs. Prisoner, when taken, seemed perfectly passive; said she did not know if she had killed him or not; that she was trying to kill herself; had gone there to do it; and that he stopped her. Cried a little when we took her baby from her; then said it was all right.”
Floyd Bach was also sworn. His testimony was as follows: “Was fishing in the creek two days after the murder. My hook caught down in the brushwood. Was fishing in Hell’s Mouth, or just below it. Found a man’s jacket fastened to my line. Found the name of C. Lashley on some papers in the pocket. There was no watch in the pocket—no money—only a three-dollar bill in one corner. Found afterward a silk handkerchief in the same hole, floating on the water. Know it to be Mr. Lashley’s, as it was rather peculiar: white silk, with purple thistles worked on it. He was dainty about such things; kept himself perfumed; this handkerchief was perfumed.”
There was but little other evidence. The body of Clayton Lashley was never found, though the deep hollows were dragged with but little hope of success; for nothing once lost in them had ever returned. The body, even if it rose, might catch on some of the jagged rocks of the sides, and so be retained. Clayton’s horse was found at his stable in the village, where he had left him the day before. The presumption strong upon every mind was that the woman’s crime had long been contemplated; that, by some trick, she had lured him to the water’s edge, then struggled with him, and, nerved by madness to unnatural strength, thrust him in. Had her counsel been able to establish the plea of insanity, her full and free acquittal would have been secure; but unfortunately, after her first arrest, her demeanor was calm, self-possessed, and composed. She then persisted in denying her guilt, alleging that, in despair, she had attempted to kill herself, but had been stopped by her husband; that she had struggled with him; knew not what had become of him, if he had fallen in the pool or returned to the house. This incoherent tale had little effect upon the minds of any of the hearers. No one doubted her guilt. Yet the sober Pennsylvania farmers who composed the jury were averse to hanging a woman, especially from circumstantial evidence. She was acquitted; in Scotland the verdict would have been, “not proven;” here it was not guilty; but the woman went abroad with as black a curse as Cain’s clinging to her, whatever doubtful pity had been evoked by the tale of cruelty practiced upon her, destroyed by her cold, quiet composure.
The coldness of utter despair. I understood it well. Not at the shame or agony that had fallen upon her; but that now, for her child’s sake, she must give up her child. Robert took it before the trial. “I offered her a home, protection,” he said; “but she refused both, would accept no aid, wishing, I think, to die. The child was with her in prison. I sent her a written agreement to take him, adopt him as my own, save him from the blot of her shame. I wrote kindly; I felt nothing but kindness toward her; if she sinned grievously, her temptation was grievous. I gave her three days to decide. When I came to the jail to know her resolve, she did not speak; gave me the child, her face as immovable, death-like as it had been since her arrest. She kissed the baby without a word, and gave it to me. Her look told me enough. I knew that God would deal with me and mine as I dealt with her boy. There was a stain of blood on the child’s cheek where the mother had kissed it.”
“And that is all, Robert?” I asked.
“That is all.”
He could not help me in my search; the time spent in coming to The Oaks had been lost. I was thoroughly balked. Where to begin the search for this woman, lost for forty years, whose name even was forgotten. I knew not.
“Do you think,” Robert suggested, “she would return to the house you built for her? It has been vacant for many years, has partially fallen into decay. Clayton kept her there at first.”
“She never returned to it,” I said. I knew the woman’s soul. “I will leave you, to-morrow, Robert. When I have found her, saved her, if that may be, I will return.”
I hardly heard his arguments or reproaches. She was not dead, as he said. She lived and needed me. I should find her. We were in the library that evening; Emmy’s little worktable was open; her sewing, her dainty little thimble and scissors lay upon it: the trifles had a curious interest for me; they were womanly, homelike; my poor, little Esther would have been thus womanly, gentle, if her fate had been different. Emmy was not there. I sat in the warm evening fire-light toying with the trifles with a reverent hand. My brother paced the room unquietly.
“John,” he said, pausing by my chair, “I have told Emmy this story. I told her to-day.”
I looked up inquiringly.
“Why did I pain her? Because I thought it right to justify myself; to explain why I came between her and her happiness. I wished her to see, to comprehend why Pressley was not a fit husband for her.”
“Did she comprehend?”
“Why no,” said the old man, fidgeting with his chain. “The truth is, John, women are unaccountable creatures. They’ve no common sense, when they love. I believe, in my soul, that girl cared twice as much for the boy when she heard his mother came so near being hanged. And I suppose, if he was going to be hung himself, she’d marry outright.”
I could not help but smile. “Robert, may I speak to Emmy of this?”
“Yes, surely. But what can she know?”
“Much. More than you or I. She is a woman, and a pure, loving woman. Her instinct will teach her the truth. She is coming. Look at her on the lawn yonder. Look, Robert, how the black children crowd around her, how simple and child-hearted she is! Worthy of happiness. Robert, brother—don’t deny it to her.”
His thin lips trembled. “God help us all, John! I cannot give her to the son of a woman with bloody hands.”
He left the room abruptly as Emmy entered. My face was turned from her. I did not look up; she came and seated herself behind me. After awhile, placing a screen between my face and the fire, then softly closing the door: trying in different ways to let me feel some one cared for me, loved me. How Esther would love this little girl!
“Emmy,” I said, turning to her, “you have heard that long-ago story?”
She tried to speak, but could not, took my hands in both of hers caressingly and sobbing outright, clasped my poor gray head in her arms. “oh, uncle John! What a sad, sad life! Nobody is so sorry for you as I!”
“Emmy,” I said, after a moment, “was she guilty, do you think?”
She lifted her head proudly, her indignant face on fire. “Do you doubt her? She was an innocent as a saint in heaven.”
“I do not doubt her, child. I only tried you. I must find her—Esther, prove her innocence. Not for your sake or mine, child, though that is much to hope for. But for her—Esther. My little Esther!”
She did not try to console me, only stroked my hand softly.
“I hoped to find some trace of her through Robert,” I said, at last; “thought she would linger about the old homestead, but I have been disappointed. If I knew where to go—“
“She could not be here now, you know,” she hesitated.
“What do you mean, child?”
“You will find her in one place,” she said, turning away her head, the crimson blood mounting to her face. “Wherever Pressley is. He is her son, you know.”
I sprang up. “I knew a woman’s instinct could not fail. Right, Emmy. Let me find Pressley, and I will not long be unsuccessful in my search for her. She could never leave him. Never.”
To find Pressley. That proved to be not the work of a day nor an hour. I left The Oaks the ensuing morning and returned to Pittsburg. As I passed through one of the ravines of the hills, some miles from the house, I was stopped by an old, red-shirted farmer, one of Robert’s tenants.
“You’re from The Oaks, sir?”
“Can you tell me if young Mr. Lashley—Pressley, I mean, is thereabout? Or where he’s to be found? My business is pressing with him.”
I answered the man carelessly in the negative and rode on, struck, however, as I turned away, by his eager, perplexed face.
I reached Pittsburg late one night. But I would not defer my business until morning. Too much time had already been lost. On the boat, Pressley had once mentioned the house in which he was employed. I found it on one of the wharves; but it was closed, and only a sleepy porter responded. Did not know Mr. Lashley. Mr. Coates could give me the information. He was head clerk, and knew the places of residence of all the clerks in the house.
I found Mr. Coates: an old bachelor, boarding at the Monongahela House, giving a dinner party to some rakish young me. “Know Mr. Lashley? Certainly. Clever young fellow. Rather glum. Wouldn’t I come in and join them? Have a capital song after awhile and some fine champagne. No? Lashley? Well, Lashley left the firm some time since, resigned his place, said he was going into another business, out of town. Did not say what. Very sorry he could give no other information. Mr. Hoyt, the book-keeper, might know. He had settled accounts with Lashley before leaving. Hoyt lived in No. — in the Diamond.”
I found Hoyt. It was a dark night, a dull, unquiet rain blowing in my face. My heart was falling back into its old weak despondency. Success seemed far off—all the old years of pain rose up to contradict my hope. I found this man, as I said—Hoyt, late at night. A quiet, meek, old man, with the down-trodden, submissive air of an old clerk. The sign is infallible. Brightening into a womanish smile as he led me into his little parlor with its shabby carpet and worn chairs. “The wife and children were in bed long ago: this was his time for a little reading. Always tried to keep up his classical tastes. Read a little Latin every night. It was pleasant, and then—he could help the boys on.” Viri Romae lay on the table.
“Young Lashley?” Indeed, yes, he knew him well. Mr. Lashley often took tea with them on Sundays evenings, seemed glad to come, as if he was homesick and liked quiet. But he was gone now. Left very suddenly two weeks before. Came to him to draw his salary, and say Good-by. He—Hoyt, asked him where he was going; but Lashley replied that he could not tell; did not know yet himself. You’re not well, Pressley, boy, I said. He was looking pale and haggard. ‘Oh! quite well. Very strong and hearty. Worth a dozen fellows that don’t play cricket yet,’ he said, with a forced laugh. It was forced, I saw. I have been troubled ever since. He had a harassed, worn look I never saw before, his eye wandering, as if his very life was uncertain before him, unsteady. I’ve never seen him since. I hope no harm has come to the boy.”
That was all. So I turned out into the night and the black cursed city, in which foulness and impurity have seemed to make a dwelling-place, as tired and hopeless a man as trod her streets that night.
Three weeks after that I visited Hoyt again. Three weeks of constant baffling and disappointment. I had not found Pressley. That he had left the city I proved in many ways, discovering also, that he had spoken to several persons of his absence as being, in all probability, one of years. Farther I found no clue. It may have been that a younger man would not have found in this balk omen of defeat, but I did. Until then I had not known with what vital energy I had thrown myself into this work; how Esther, the weary, deserted woman, filled my every thought, was dearer, more a part of my life’s blood, than Esther young and fair had ever been. The low, hopeless cry I had heard twice, as of one in mortal agony, haunted me. I walked the streets night after night like a madman, hoping, praying to hear that cry again; nearer; to see the living woman lost for half a life-time, if but for a moment. I never heard it. There were wretched forms enough among those that jostled me; hers never came.
Three weeks, that seemed like years, had passed. Utterly foiled, not knowing where to turn, I found myself one evening going, mechanically, down the narrow street in the Diamond leading to the clerk, Hoyt’s house. A faint hope that he might have heard or discovered something in that time, led me on, unreasonable as it was. I was disappointed. The old man took me again into his little parlor, was eager, anxious, troubled, but knew nothing. He had inquired, (for he was uneasy about the boy,) had inquired at car-depots and boat-landings, but could find no trace of him. “The poor young man was singularly destitute of friends,” he said, “did not associate much with the other clerks, being shy and grave, though they liked him; as generous a fellow as lives. Liked best to come here, as I said, on Sunday evenings, and chat with me or romp with the young ones.” He sat silent a long time, drumming with his fingers on the table, looking gravely in the fire. “Lashley had gathered about him more paupers than any young man ever I knew,” he said, at last; “he was credulous to a fault, if it is a fault to trust—I don’t know. But he had regular constituents that came to him once a week—the boys at the warehouse and the counting-room chaffed him well about it. I was thinking that among them we might catch a clue. They would be more apt to ferret out his movements than any one else.” I said nothing; the remark seeming to me trifling. If Pressley had gone, as I concluded he had, with his mysterious charge, to fulfill his duty to it, whatever that might be, he would leave no trace so easily found as this behind him. Hoyt, however, proceeded in his maundering talk, as if thinking aloud.
“That poor soul now that he was so kind to last summer—no shamming in that suffering—some chance of finding out there. If anybody would know she would.”
“A woman, one of Pressley’s clients, as the boys called the people he was kind to. This one he found at an hospital; Dylke, the porter, said she sent for him. Was low with typhoid there, brought on by starvation I guess; after she got stronger, she kept a little apple stand in Penn street, used to take in washing when she was able. I remember, once a week, she would bring the boy’s collars, shining like paper, to him at his desk, done up in white paper. Never would take a cent for doing them, he told me.”
“Do you know her name?”
“Never heard it. She never told Pressley, and he wouldn’t ask. A born gentleman, that boy. Was queer about that woman. Lashley told me once her presence troubled him with an old, uncertain memory. He could not define or place it; but it impressed him in this way; that always this woman’s face had been near to him, followed him since he was a baby. Never saw such gratitude as hers, such hungry, eager look as she would have, standing by his desk when she brought the collars, waiting for him to look up and smile. When he did, going away contented. I saw her, one day, lingering about watching him, when he happened to throw an old quill-pen away. She snatched it up and carried it off, quick, with her. I saw her kiss it, as she went out, like a mad woman.”
I got up, feeling blind, giddy. “Take me to this woman. Can you?”
“Surely I can. It’s only a step,” looking at me wonderingly, and going for his hat.
I do not know how far it was. I think Hoyt was silent as we went, for I remember no sound, but a keen ringing in my ears.
The street where we found the house, was, in truth, but a narrow alley, foul, stifling with impure smells and smoke. Hoyt stopped before a shanty of one room. The window-blind of paper was closely drawn.
“Will you leave me?” I said, abruptly. “Forgive me; but I must see this woman alone.”
He shook hands with me kindly, and left me. I think now he thought another story than Pressley’s lay beneath.
I descended a step or two in the pavement going to the door. It was but a frame of unplaned boards; unlocked, giving way as I turned the latch. Dwellings like this have no need of bolts. I entered; the room was vacant. She, for I knew whom I was to meet, was not there.
A low, underground chamber, with but one square window opening on the brick pave outside. Clean: she could not be impure; but with the black damp oozing through wall and floor. The open fire-place held but a few burnt cinders, no fire had been lighted there for days. A pine table, a broken chair, a rough chest; that was all. So Esther lived. I sat down on the chair—where she had rested—tried to collect my thoughts. She had followed her son—Emmy was right; the mother instinct in her would keep her at his side, while he and she yet lived.
Then, in God’s name, where was he? What horrible secret was this which he hid? Could I be wrong? Could this woman only be a grateful pauper, as Hoyt thought, and not Esther? The chest was partly open. I did not feel that I did wrong, as I went to it, opening it, looking in for some trace of her I sought.
A faded, rusty dress of black, a patched flannel shawl, carefully folded; a worn Bible, without a name or mark on the leaves; some receipts for washing done, that was all. No. In one corner, a small package, wrapped in white, soft paper, a baby’s dress, yellow with age, the skirt tacked and embroidered; the dress complete, to the little gauze flannel shirt. I turned it over in my shaking fingers. Was this the dress the mother, tried for murder, had taken from her baby yonder in the prison? All that was left to her of her child? There fell out a tiny coral necklace, on the gold clasp the word “Pressley.” So, this was all. She had given up her child for her child’s sake. In these long years of groveling under men’s feet, of pain, starvation, she had held this holy relic of the child she might have had—the something that might have been. And as her mother’s breast shriveled away, untouched by her baby’s fingers, and her lips grew dry and hard, unkissed by loving lips, do we blame her if, sometimes, she had cried out bitterly, “Was this well done, oh! God?” I asked of myself, that day, holding those little yellow clothes in my hand, heavier in pathos, I thought, than any shroud, Was it well done? I opened the little Bible again: there were faint pencil lines along the margins in some places. By one of them I read, “Thou hast known my soul in adversities:” and again, “He hath brought me up out of the horrible pit; and He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God; many shall hear it, and fear, and trust in the Lord.” I laid the book down. There are moments in life when a sudden light flashes over all the past, all the future. It came now: a conviction, a recognition of the uses of all pain. “It has been sent,” I said, looking up to the sky, my eyes dry, perhaps, but my heart flooded with tears—“it is well borne, if it has brought her to Thy feet.” Let me be silent on this thought. There are some lessons life teaches us, too solemn to chatter over.
From that hour I never doubted that I would succeed at last; that I would find her at last, if it were only to hear her poor dying lips say, “I love you, John Lashley,” before they grew cold forever. Something better than fate managed the world. The good God held it; brought it, as well as Esther and me, through pain and hunger to cling to Him, like little children. If, in his wise purposes to bring us where He would, He had made use of unknown powers and voices—agencies for which I could not account—it did not trouble me. Such things had been since the beginning of the world.
I sat in the cellar-room until late that evening. It was holier to me than any church. Then I rose to leave it, shut down the chest-lid gently on the little clothes, fastened the window, and, closing the door, went out into the street. I would return to-morrow. In there, I had wakened to new, healthy life; my heart beat cheerfully and full. How the very gas-lamps glowed and shone in the night! I passed a fire kindled on the street for some purpose, a crowd of boys around it. How jolly and genial their laughter was! For twenty years my step had not been so light as now.
When I reached my hotel, I hurried up the stairs to my room, nearly stumbling over a dark figure crouching at the top.
“Lor bless you, Mars’ John, is dat you at lass?” and Scip scrambled into view. “I done waitin’ hyar dis five hour. Scraped ‘quaintance wid de cook, or my stomach ud hev bin in an awful ‘dition.”
“What brought you, uncle? What is wrong with my brother?”
“Nuffin worng wid de cunnel, sah. Him’s thrivin’ fuss-rate, same as allers. Him didn’t gib dis niggah leab, sah. Cum on private ‘ticklar business. On de sly, you know.”
“Well?” I said, having opened my chamber-door now and lit the gas, stirring the fire, while Scip disposed himself oratorically, fumbling his watch-chain more conspicuously into view.
“Mist’ Emmy ‘twas as sent me dis time. She’s got a will ob her own, dat chile. Says to me: ‘Dis has to be done. Can’t trust it to dem young ones; Uncle Scip, he go.’ Got sense, Mist’ Emmy. She um knows who to trust; not dem low-flung, peart young darkies—Mist’ Emmy, she.”
“What did she send with you?”
“Don’t be impatient, Mars’ John!” beginning to unroll a great wallet of rags, which he took out of his pocket. “Eber try dat plan, Mars’ John? Wrappin’yer pocket-book in rags when you trabbel? I allers does. On count o’ de robbers. Yi! yi! Uncle Scip’s come to years of discretion. Him knows a dodge or two! Hyar’s de pocket-book at lass. ‘N hyar’s”—unrolling it—“dat bit note ob Mist’ Emmy’s. Dough why um couldn’t hab confided de message ‘vocularly to Scip, um can’t—“
I tore open the note. It only held a few words, she knowing that Scip could read probably, and not trusting to his honor so implicitly as he could wish.
“My dear, dearest uncle!” the child wrote. “Come to The Oaks at once. God is taking care of you and me. I need help now, to save one from death whom it is your right to save.”
That night I left Pittsburgh for The Oaks.
The journey occupied, as I told you, several days. Late one snowy morning, I rode up to the door of the house. Robert was absent, I had learned from one of the tenant’s as I came up the road: had gone down to the nearest town two days before on business.
Half a dozen little black imps swarmed out seeing me come up the lane.
“Where is your young mistress?” demanded Scip and I together.
“Gone down de Cove road,” three voices replied in a breath. “Lef word as I should take Marster John dar if he come.”
“Come on then, show me the way.”
“Git back, you danged nigger, Mist’ Emmy said as I’d go wid.”
“You Jim! Pete!” and uncle Scip dismounted with aching joints and a scowling face and began to lay around him with his whip.. “Go long wid Mars’ John, you ‘Rlando! You’ve got some breeding, you have.”
I turned my horse back to the road, and, following the bare-footed urchin who ran like a deer, left the broad carriage way speedily behind me, and turned into a bridle-path leading through a cleft in the hills. It was the old Cove road. I had not put my foot on it since the day when I turned away from our Home, leaving my wife in the arms of Clayton Lashley. She was free now. Dying? Dead? No. “God is taking care of you and me.” They were brave words of little Emmy’s—true. God would not so cruelly mock me. She would not, could not die.
Standing by the road side, mending a broken halter on his horse, was the tenant who had accosted me as I left The Oaks, asking for Pressley. He recognized me now and beckoned to me to stop, catching my rein as he saw I was not going to heed him.
“Did you find young Mr. Lashley?” he said. “They told me you were going in search of him. That poor lady at my house will die if she does not see him soon.”
I stopped now willingly. “When did she come there? At your house? Now?”
“’Bout a month ago she comed. Walked from Pittsburg. Thought she was a beggar like at first, but she’s got the heart and ways of the lady, sir. I soon found out who she was a seekin’, sir. Young Lashley. He’d left Pittsburgh, and she thought he mout be here. She used to watch The Oaks all day. Then she got sick at last, and I sent for Miss Emmy. She’s always ready an’ willin’ where there’s kindness to be shown, an’ my old woman, partly bed-rid herself. An’ this lady, pore as she is, is one of Miss Emmy’s own sort. She’s there now. There’s my house, that log un, with the brick front, yonner in the corner of the hill.”
I galloped on. A low, snug, mountain farmhouse, with the usual yard in front, shut in by a worm-fence, a few chickens and a dog picking their lazy way through the snow. I dismounted, tied my horse to the fence, then stood motionless.
I had waited for this moment for half my life; now I could not go forward one step.
The house door opened and a figure came out softly, as though not to disturb some sleeper within. Emmy; she came toward me, her little chubby face glowing, her brown eyes on fire, held up her lips to be kissed.
“You have not found him, uncle John? No?” with a sudden paleness. “But I have found her. So tired and worn she is in these many years, but oh! how pure and true! God help us all. Are you ill?” looking at me for the first time. “I forgot. Forgive me; will you see her now?”
“I cannot, Emmy.”
The young girl took my old hand in hers and patted it softly, not looking again at me, talking in a low, even voice, as if hoping to turn my thoughts into her own cheerful fancy.
“She knows who I am, uncle John,” she said. “She loves me so already. Not knowing at all of—of Pressley’s caring for me. I could not tell her that, you know. And last night, being very low, and I praying with her, she put her arms about my neck, and told me all her story, who she was: all that horrible tale, only—that she did not by word or look complain—did not hint at all the savage pain she had borne since—was cheerful and grateful, and oh! so loving to God! She listened so hungrily when I spoke of my father, and of The Oaks. ‘It was my home once,’ she said, ‘you know, and then I haven’t had any place to call home since, exactly. And Pressley lived there too—my boy.’ She would draw my hair through her fingers and look steadily into my eyes. ‘It’s fine and black, the hair; and the eyes are clear steel gray, true, and tender, and reserved—the Lashley blood, Emmy,’ she said. ‘You’re like the Lashleys, like one. Not your father.’ And after awhile she drew me down and held me close, straining me to her breast. But I did not speak of you, uncle John. I was afraid. Only to say my father had a brother, who went to California when they were boys. I said no more. Her face was turned toward the wall, she did not look round nor ask any questions, lay quite quiet for a long time. I know that she thinks I look like you.”
Loosing her hand gently I turned to go to the house. She held me.
“Not yet. She was asleep in her chair when I came away. Uncle, she has forgiven all those who made her suffer so; she thinks it was only natural they should think her guilty. Let her think so still. Do not put bitterness in her heart.”
“I will not, child. God has sent her to me. I will never make less His than now.”
Emmy left me. I went slowly to the house.
Does the sharp pain that chilled my blood that moment move your laughter? I was an old man; she a feeble, worn woman; but love is stronger than years or death. I had loved this woman. In all the sixty years she was all my life had known of good: for some wise purpose of His we had been driven apart. But my soul clave to her still, heart of my heart, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! My wife in the sight of heaven! For forty years I had not seen her face. Looking now at the door of the room where she lay, the fierce, hungry hope for happiness of my youth sprang anew into every drop of my blood. If it were late, should not we, who had so suffered, soothe each other the last? Was this implacable evil fate always to hold our lives? Were there to be no summer days?
It was very still. The late winter evening was pale and gray. I remember, as I laid my hand upon the latch, a flock of black-birds swooped low and lazily across the dim, waiting sky. They paused in their flight. “If they pass into the dark cloud yonder,” I said, “I shall think God does not mean to give us this great rest—in this life.” They wavered, beating the air with their wings; then, with a clear, steady poise, floated into the one spot in the heavens, where the sun broke through with deep latent light—the soft rose tint closed behind them. I opened the door and went in.
I see, as distinctly as if it were photographed before me, the room as it was then; the dull fire, charred low in the grate; gleaming red on the shining brown planks of the floor; on the low, white pallet; on the figure leaning back in the chair near it—with its face turned from mine—covered by a shawl. I crossed the floor: stood before it. Worn, tired, nearly gone from the sharp, coarse world that had hurt her so. The poor nervous hands folded and at rest; the flush faded from the face: the black hair chilled into gray; the very lips wan and cold, with deep furrows that pain had cut in the white forehead. Still—my Esther.
Her eyes were closed. No despair in the face: a hopeless, loving quiet, like one that has watched through all the years for something—something that never came.
Should I call her? Did her soul yet call fiercely and passionately for me? It might shock her feeble strength to death if I woke her thus. Should I go then? Never look upon her face again until we met yonder? Was that best?
I bent forward, took the nerveless, sleeping hand in mine. “Esther!” I called. “Esther!”
She wakened; the dark eyes were on mine, Years had not touched them. “You called me. John Lashley. I have come.”
Years had not touched her soul—nor mine. They met face to face as in that day we parted. There was no fright in her eyes as they stayed their intent gaze on mine. Waking from her sleep, it may be that these troubled years seemed to her as a dream. I know not. She had waited for me, loved me, watched for her through all. I was here.
“You are tired, my poor Esther!” I said.
She held her hands to her forehead, pressing it until the fingers grew white. “It is long,” she said. “You were dead, John. Am I dead now? Are we both dead—“
I stooped down to her, took the hands in mine, stroked them softly, choking down the savage throb in my heart. She was weak, trembling on the verge of death, I must lead her very gently back to life.
“Sister, Esther,” I said, “a long time ago we loved each other like two children; after that, coming nearer, year by year, as those do whom God has joined before their birth, we were one, loving, truly, purely, passionately. We were one. Do you remember? With only one purpose in life, one memory, one thought between us. Oh! Esther, do you remember?”
She grew paler, shivered. “I remember.”
“Then God put us apart, for a long time. Do not shudder, nor close your eyes, it was God did it. He knows why. That we might curb our hearts maybe, grow more loving to Him.”
I had touched the right chord. The lips trembled; slow, childish tears stole from under the closed eyelids. “I do love Him now,” she murmured.
“I know. And how He has brought us together again; says—Go back to find the rest and childish happiness you never had. Yet a little hour of joy I give you before nightfall. Then come home to me.”
Her head bent on her breast, her tired eyes were fixed on mine, drinking in strength and comfort. “Will you come, Esther? I have waited for this hour all my long, lonely life—will we go and find it? Or have the pain and sorrow made the love in your heart faint and die? Do you love me? Are you my wife now?”
“I have been your wife always, John Lashley, in God’s eyes. I love you.” She leaned her head back. “It is so long, I’m very tired. Even my boy’s gone now.”
Was she asleep? I tried in vain to gain word or sound from her; she lay in a sort of stupor.
“You cannot waken her,” said Emmy, who had entered. “The physician says it is excessive exhaustion; that nature may revive in these sleeps, or that she may quietly pass away. She gains strength every day. We will hope,” and so the imperious little nurse turned me away.
I saw her every day after that; but for a few moments only. At first, she moaned and cried in her weakness for my coming, at her awakening, thinking she had dreamed only. Then, gaining strength, she knew that I had come into her real life, would not be thrust out. She spoke to me but in monosyllables, as though she feared to waken the dear past. It was alive, awake. It had written its record in her bent figure, her face, her eyes. I read there the torture of her married life, the trial the years of starvation of body and soul that followed. I thought it best to bring her from this stupor of thought into which she had fallen. Any shock would rouse her brain to healthier action. I spoke to her of him—Clayton. I think it was well to do it, though it stabbed her very soul.
“Did he die in the water that night?” Again the pitiful motion, clasping her hands to her head.
“I do not remember. He fell. I saw him fall as he left me. In Hell’s Mouth. John! John!” with a wild cry. “you do not think me guilty?”
I never spoke of it again. Yet the shock had been given. After that, her brain seemed to shake of its torpor, keenly enjoy, keenly suffer as in the days when I clasped her to my heart as full of life, love, vitality, as anything fresh from God’s hands.
Robert had not yet returned. Emmy was unceasing in her care. I had not accomplished my errand to the North. I had found Esther, but I had not saved her. I had a silly plan, worthy only an old hungry man’s fancy—hungry for some glimpse of happiness and rest before he died. I was rich: money can command anything, build an Aladdin’s palace if it will, I determined it should build me a home. I sent workmen (I could not go myself) to remove every vestige of the old log-house where we had planned our Home in that early time, gave them the plot of a new house. I meant we should live there, Esther and I, and be content. If they could build it as swift and sure as Aladdin’s palace, I was ready to supply the means. They worked well. When every trace of the first house had been removed, I went over every day and watched their work. The strength and passion of a young man had gone into that first building; the hope and life of an old one went into this. Stone by stone I saw it go up; in these early spring days counted, like a dotard, the months until it should be completed, and Esther and I should rest. Pressley would return: whatever this foul shadow might be that haunted him it would vanish; Robert could not persist in believing this woman guilty, looking in her face, hearing her words. Then Emmy and our boy would be content, their lives would not be cursed as ours had been. So I planned out the future.
As mad and vain a dream as that of forty years before, when I toiled with my own hands at the Home I meant to build. The fate that held its hand in the lives of the Lashleys, compelling their years in its own good pleasure for good or evil, was not yet banished; held us still.
A clear April morning. Fresh, healthful airs stirred the bare boughs of the forest, the sunlight, yet chilly with winter’s memory, but bright and flashing, filled the deep vault above, the creeks and streams gathered a darker blue as they curdled and gurgled down the hill ravines; on their shores the pale spring flowers thrust out their lilac leaves from under the brown debris of the snow, the willow shimmered a cloudy green. A new life was coming to the world. A second life, I thought, looking out into the tranquil quiet of the early morning. A second life? Could it bloom for human hearts also? A childish love and beauty on the confines of the grave? What was it the old German said?
“Des Leben’s Mai blueht ein Mal und nicht wieder.” Yet after May and November came the Indian summer. So I cheated myself that day. I was in the library. The windows were open, the fire burning low on the hearth. Far off in the hills I could see the pale wreath of smoke from the farmer’s cottage; she was there; growing into her first fresh strength, and feeling, day by day, the quick, full breath stealing again to her lips, the color to her cheek, the light to her eyes. Yonder in the east, between those peaks, lay the cozy valley where our Home stood. In a little while it would be ready, fair and warm for us. Rest and Home.
“Dar’s Mars’ Robert,” volunteered Scip, who had bustled in to replenish the fire and make a remark. “Hims gone done, been down to Heft’s, whar dat um sick lady is as Mist’ Emmy’s so took to. Old Scip’s feet’s mos’ sore wid carryin’ jellies an’ sich down dur. Um don’t complain ‘cos Mist’ Emmy hasn’t no one else to place um’s confidence in, dat’s plain. Dem cussed niggers not worf dere salt! Gib Pete or ‘Rlando jelly to carry. Lor! Dey’d throw themselves outside o’ dem jellies ‘fore dey got to de bottom ob de lane. Ki! Scip knows!”
Robert came in, a heavy cloud on his face. I did not speak. For weeks I had waited to know the result that this interview might bring between Esther and him. On her his opinion of her guilt or innocence could have no effect. She was mine; soon would be my wife; no harm could touch her more. But for Pressley’s sake, Emmy’s? Their lives, happiness depended on his judgment of her. He sat down silent, took up the poker and began to stir the wood on the hearth, sending up clouds of impatient sparks.
“Um was jes’ observin’ to Mars’ John, Mars’ Robert, dat dem darned Pete and oder darkies ob aunt Hetty’s gitten more worfless an’ onbearable ebery day. Ef I was you, sah, I’d send ‘em down de riber, an’—“
Scip started, and so did I.
After a moment’s pause, Robert looked up, kindly, at the old servant. “There, uncle, I didn’t mean to be cross. Don’t worry me indoors. There’s enough outside.”
Scip took up his chips and departed with dignity, to give with interest the scolding he had received to those next below him. It is a fashion of some blacks—white people, of course, never indulge in it.
I did not question Robert. Presently I knew he would tell me what troubled him, so I let him beat the logs with the poker, keeping time to an uneasy tune he hummed, that sounded very much as if his old throat was choking.
He rose at last, coming toward me. “John, I have seen Esther.”
I looked at him silently.
“I went to her believing her to be the murderer of my brother!”
“You speak of my future wife, remember, Robert.”
“I do. You face the world’s censure when you do this thing, John. But she is worthy that you should do it. I believer her innocent; pure as little Emmy.”
He paced the floor with hasty strides.
“No. I cannot. It may seem unjust, cruel. But though Emmy’s heart breaks, I cannot consent. She never shall marry the son of a woman whom the world calls murderer, though she be pure as God’s angels! I am resolved. When Esther Lashley proves her innocence my child shall be her son’s wife. Never before.”
“Robert, look at me. Not at the gray hairs, or the bent form. Time would do that. There are lines on my face time would not make. Hard, covetous, selfish lines. They come on every face that has gone through life unloving and unloved. Spare these children this trial. I am an old man, brother, I beg it of you in memory of the boyish days. Spare them. Let their fate be like yours, not mine. It will hurt your pride. Give up your pride. For their souls’ sake, for God’s sake, I ask you. Give it up!”
He stood by the window, looking out into the clear morning a long time. When he looked around his eyes were dim.
“I will not yield, John,” he answered, low and resolute. “I am right. Esther trusts in her lover, trusts in his mother. But she is sensitive to a fault. The scorn of the world would hurt her more than she knows. Here, she is coming.”
She was coming, through the long corridor, and more, she had heard our last words. The color was gone from her face, only the lips were crimson, and the eyes burned still and clear.
“You were speaking of me, father?”
“Of you, Emmy. You overheard me as you came. I am glad of that. Was I correct in my judgment?”
“I know this, child; that your own blood is clean, that you are proud that no drop of it is stained by a mean or a foul taint. I say this that it were easier for you to part from Pressley Lashley now, though it tore your heartstrings, than to bear the slow torture of the world’s pointed finger, its scorn of the murderer’s child!”
She laughed, her face lighting into a clear radiance of love and hope. “Why, father! God rules. There is such a thing as truth in the world. I mean to do right. I mean to obey you, you have the right to command. But you have no right to control my feeling. Father,” looking into his eyes with the steady, humble look of one who knows God is close to her. “As my soul lives, I will be true to Pressley Lashley. When the day comes that I may be his wife, I shall be as thankful as in the hour when I enter the eternal gates, I think, though the whole world stood by to mock me. For He will have blessed me above women.”
Robert pushed back the hair from the broad, low forehead, his hand trembling as he did it. “You have the Lashley will, child.”
“More, father. The Lashleys never forsake those they love.”
“Nor ever take back their word.”
So they stood a moment, looking in each other’s eyes. Two strong spirits meeting, firm in their own sense of right, honorable, deeply loving.
He stooped and kissed her. “You are resolved, I see, my child. And so am I. Until Esther Lashley’s innocence is proved, you never shall be her son’s wife.”
She put her hand to her head. “God is good!” she said, faintly, and went out of the room.
“For you, brother,” he said, turning to me, “I honor you. You are braver than I.”
“I make no sacrifice,” I said, coldly. “I seek my own content—happiness.”
Robert deeply grieved me. He was noble, affectionate, generous; yet he suffered the one spot of pride to canker his whole nature, make his act of to day a lie against himself.
From that time the subject was dead in the household. In every other way, the father and daughter tried to show their deep affection for one another, more than ever before—on this point they were silent as the grave.
Late in the evening of the same day I was preparing to mount my horse for a ride to the new building, when Scip approached, with mystery stamped on every feature. “Git out o’ de way, you Jim. Got some ‘tickler private business wid Mars’ John. Get away, I say. Clar to de stables.”
“What is it, uncle?” I said, gently, remembering his morning’s discomfiture.
“Why um, dis, sah,” bending close over the pommel. “Hab a werry ‘ortant communication. Was in charge to keep it secret. Jes dis, sah!” with many furtive glances to the house, and producing a note very black on the outside, having been carried all day in his pocket with a pipe, tobacco, and a half-eaten apple. “Was requested to gib that um to yer honorable self, sah. Not mentionin’ no name.”
I tore off the envelope. It was in Pressley’s writing, asking me to meet him on the Cove road at sunset that evening.
Pressley! My hand fairly shook, as I thrust it in my pocket, throwing Scip the money which he was waiting for. Found at last! And in the glow of pleasure at that, I augured a sure content in the future from the good omen.
I put spurs to my horse. Sunset was already past, and the place appointed for meeting was miles distant. Fan, my mare, had sturdy legs and English pluck, and we found ourselves in less than an hour going down the hill leading to the Cove. I saw a dark, waiting figure in full relief against the evening sky. Dismounting, I tied the mare to a tree and proceeded on foot. He heard me and came to me, walking less eagerly than I. Pressley, yet Pressley without his soul—if such a thing could be—inanimate, weary, utterly worn out, his face haggard, as by years of old age, his eye indifferent, lifeless. He came slowly, as I said, to me, held out his hand.
“Why, Pressley, boy! You are not so glad to see the old man, as the old man is to see you!”
“I am selfish. Forgive me. I’m a little sick, I think.”
“Sick? Why, you looked as if some vampire-bat had been sucking your blood and soul out night after night. What ails you? Where have you hid yourself?”
“A vampire!” He laughed. What a desolate mocking laugh! It made me shudder. I remembered my boy’s cheery, ringing voice—how it used to echo over the boat when first I knew him! “You choose your similitudes well. I think I belong to a vampire, fresh from glutting itself in graves. But that may be a dream, you know. Never mind me. My fate is fixed.”
He waited a few moments. Meantime I studied his face, the sunken, watchful eye, like one who guards a wild beast; the listless, unutterably tired mouth, the sharp, aged lines. What evil thing had clutched the boy, drawing his life from him? He passed his hand wearily over his forehead.
“I forgot. I sent for you. It was foolish, but I cannot help it. I must hear of her. God knows how silly it is torturing myself. She is nothing to me now. But I am hungry to my very soul to hear her name even.”
What did I do? A doting old man? It may be. Yet, if the boy was hungry, I gave him food; told him of Emmy, of the vow she had made that day, of her truth, her fierce, passionate love for him. He listened, his head bent down in his hands. Looking up, his face very wet, not caring to hide his tears. “I thank you, uncle John. I’ll take back what you have told me, to keep me alive.”
“What shall I tell her from you?”
“Nothing but that, while I live, I am true to her.”
“Come with me, boy. See her. See her father. Plead your own cause. I dare not tell you the reason for which he keeps you asunder. He will. Emmy knows it now.”
“It matters not. There is another more real than any fancy of his. A skeleton, a death in life, standing between me and her, between me and all Christian men.” Again he shuddered, then held out his hands with a feeble attempt at a smile. “I must go to it. To my duty, you know. Thank God, I’m strong enough to stand by it, though Emmy and all heaven were on the other side. I cannot stay longer.”
“Pressley, promise me only this. Let me see you again. To-morrow, at noon, here. It cannot violate your duty to meet me. Promise me, I have a reason for asking. I ask it, almost as a right, my son.”
“I will come,” he said. “Heaven knows what good your cheery, genial voice even does me. I’m almost tired out, you see, uncle John.” And so, again trying to smile cheerfully, he left me.
At noon the next day, Fan was carrying me quicker than before over the hills to the Cove. I had laid a plot, very deep and cunning for old John Lashley, I thought. The boy must meet Emmy and her father: that only would break this spell, whatever it might be, under which he lay bound. So, cogitating on the ways and means all night, I devised the scheme of asking them to meet me at my new Home, down in the niche of the Cove hills. “I want you, Robert, to give me advice,” I said. “The house is nearly completed—but finishing and furnishing it is a new for me. You must counsel me. And then Emmy and you must see the old mans’ Rest.”
“I’ll be there, old fellow,” said Robert, cheerfully. “Thank God, you’re going to have a rest at last. I’ll ride over at mid-day.”
“And I am going out now in the pony carriage,” said Emmy. “I mean to drive a friend of mine through the hills. May I take her there, uncle John? She has gone there with you before, I know—the pain of old remembrances is over. May I bring her there?”
I hesitated. Yet what better place for Pressley first to meet and know his mother?
“Yes, child,” said her father, “it’s a good, kindly thought in you. We will all be there, John.”
More than they thought, I laughed to myself, were bidden to the meeting. Ah! I little knew the unbidden guest that would come.
As I told you, I went at noon to the place of my appointment with Pressley. I fancied even our short meeting yesterday had done him good, cheered him, made his thought healthier. He came to meet me with an outstretched hand and a cordial greeting, though the old pain was on his face still. He was mounted to-day, and we rode on together, side by side. I asked no questions, gave no hint of the terrible secret that troubled him. The day was fresh, cheery; the early spring birds were calling to each other from the trees on either side; even the talk of an old man must perforce catch some of the healthful glow. I found myself telling him of the daily life at The Oaks, of Emmy; no trifle on that theme was too trivial to interest him. He listened, his head partly turned from me, but his eyes glowing, the muscles of the lips trembling now and then, yet saying no word. Doubting, I knew if this was best for him to hear, but unable to dash the sweet poison aside. Passing through the abrupt gorges of the hills, he pointed suddenly to a small brick house up a ravine, a place easily guarded.
“There, uncle John, is my home.”
“Old mother Farley’s, is it not, Pressley?”
“Yes. A quiet, deaf, secret old body. I live alone there with her—and it. I told you that you might never try to find me. I must be alone.”
“Come then and see my home. I have a long story to tell you, boy.”
We were near the Cove. Putting spurs to my horse I led the way, and in a few moments we turned a sudden bend of the road and reached our journey’s end.
The house stood on a low plateau, girded by noble oaks, such as only find root amid these eternal mountains. Behind it rose a broad ledge of hills, wooded and mossed to the topmost peaks. At the base ran Cold Creek, a shining, frothing, blue gush of limpid water. The house, nearly completed, so eagerly had I hurried on the work, stood heartsome, quiet, content. “The old man’s rest I call it, boy,” I said, pointing to it.
“God bless it and you, uncle John,” he answered, earnestly.
We rode up the door and dismounted. The workmen were absent, it was their noonday resting hour. Behind the house yet remained the old garden: the very orchard I had planted for Esther and me. The trees were old and gnarled now, but they bore fruit still. We would pluck it together, late as it was. Lilac bushes and great masses of mountain laurel fenced it in.
We entered the square little plat where the sunshine had brought its deepest warmth and light, sat down under a tree upon a heap of mossy roots. My boy was with his back to the house, could not see, therefore, the little carriage that had brought Emmy and—his mother to the place. I saw it, saw too Emmy’s light figure move across the windows inside. Her weak charge was resting doubtless. Then the shadow left the windows, and the young girl came down the unfinished steps leaning on her father’s shoulder, the footing being uncertain, and laughing as he jumped her like a child over the rocks.
Pressley heard the sound—he started up. “Emmy!” he cried.
She saw him now. Well, what mattered it if Robert and I were there? He held her in his arms, pressed his lips to hers. It was right—his heart was her home.
“John! Was this well done?” said Robert, facing me.
“It was well done. Whom God has joined together no man can keep asunder. Besides, I brought this boy here to see his mother, and to hear her story.”
“Who will tell it to him?”
“Never. His lifelong it has been guarded from him. I never will sting him thus.”
“He must be told. It is just. He must know why you refuse your child to him.”
The boy overheard the last words. He unclasped Emmy’s arms from his neck, and, keeping his arm around her, turned to his uncle.
“It is just. Tell me all. I demand it as a right; if there be disgrace, let me know it. It cannot be fouler than the secret I have which keeps me from her.”
Robert took the boy’s hand. “Perhaps you are right, though your uncle John has no more judgment than you, boy.”
“Come, Emmy,” I said, “We will go in to her, who lies waiting for us yonder; and when Pressley knows all he shall come to us and—to her.”
We left them. Going into the house where, in the only room yet completed, the boy’s mother sat, ignorant that her son was so near. A cheery fire burned on the hearth. Emmy had brought a chair, shawls, cushions; and Esther, pale, faded, but with a deepening contented light in her sunken eye, sat there, looking dreamily in the fire. Its red flush colored the pale gray walls and windows, outside of which, like a sleeping picture, lay the bright spring morning.
“My little girl has made me very cozy and warm here,” she said, putting her hand on Emmy’s but looking at me. When I was in the room those sad eyes, true to me for so many years, never failed to turn to me for comfort and help. “Why, child,” she said, “how cold your hand is—and trembling! And your eyes full of tears?” She raised the soft baby hand and pressed it to her withered cheek. “Emmy must bring all her little pain to me to bear. I am used to it.”
Emmy softly stroked the silvery hair. How beautiful age had made her, my pale, pure, saintly Esther!
“The pain of others is all you shall have to bear,” I said. “We have charmed all other from your life. And so, our Home, my Esther, shall be so full of love and content that those who suffer shall come to it to be cured.”
She smiled; but it was a sad smile. “I am afraid,” she said. “Forgive me, John. I cannot help it. Life has been so hard and cruel. I cannot believe it true that I am to lied down, and be a happy, petted child until heaven comes.”
“Yet it is true, unbeliever,” I said, cheerily.
I looked from the window. I saw Pressley’s face, as it was turned toward me, where he stood listening to the story of his mother. It was paler than usual, with a new pain on it, as if the shadow of her years of suffering fell on him; but with a strange, latent glow of hope and triumph. Leaning out in the open air, I caught Robert’s last words. “I have told you all now. Do you hold her guilty?”
The boy started forward. “Where did you say she was? My mother—“
The next moment his quick, firm step fell on the passage way without. Esther heard it. She flung Emmy’s arm aside that would have held her, crying, “It’s my son! Pressley!”
He held her close. His arms had not pressed the woman he loved in so firm a clasp as this, his mother, who had borne a life of cruelest pain for him. “Mother! mother!” he cried, unceasingly. All a man’s tender pity, helpfulness was in the words—all the years lost of child’s petting, of boyish love, of man’s protection was in his trembling touch, as he wiped the tears from her cheeks, fondled her, caressed her. “My mother—mine. I have found her at last.”
She lifted her head, looking him in the eyes. “My son, do you believe me guilty?” The blood had left her face: she waited for his answer.
“Listen, mother. I believe you are so foully wronged as any martyr that suffered at the stake. More, mother. I know it to be true. Some day the world shall know it also. Not now. My uncle tells me that until that is proved I shall never call Emmy wife. Let it be so. We are young and patient. We can wait. Not now. Some day they shall humble themselves before your feet, who have been unjust to you.”
She turned her terrified eyes on Robert. “Is is true? Have you said this thing? Have I blighted my son’s life?”
“Be calm, mother. It will make your son’s life content to hold yours, to make you forget the pain. You are mine now.”
“No, boy,” I said, quietly. “Esther, Paul comes back to the first and truest heart that ever loved her. I take her life all the years to come in my keeping.”
The boy stood erect as if struck a sudden blow. “You mean—your wife?”
“I do. It is just—right.”
“Merciful God! no.” He held his hand before his face a moment, as if called to decide in that brief instant some question of life and death; then looking at me, spoke low and hurriedly, “It cannot be. Never. Give this up without asking for a reason. If you love my mother—yield to me.”
Something of Esther’s old calm strength shone out of her eyes then. “It is for me to speak,” she said. “Years ago, in our fresh youth, my son, this man and I were husband and wife in God’s eyes. The devil put us asunder. When he finds me poor, old, worn-out now, and says to me, ‘Come home, Esther,’ I have no right to stay away, and I am glad to go.”
She put her hand in mine, as she spoke.
Pressley’s eyes filled with tears.
“I have found my mother then only to make her life wretched. God knows I meant to save her. I meant to give even Emmy up to save her.”
“What do you mean, boy?” demanded his uncle.
There was a sudden sound of struggling in the yard. A strange brutish growl, then a sharp cry like the whine of a horse.
“My charge has followed me,” he said, changing color. “It is as well. It will explain all. Come with me.”
We followed him, through the corridors until we reached an ante-room darkened by scaffolding. The strange sounds, lower and more angry, now came from thence. Pressley pushed the door open and we entered. Crouching under a heap of carpenter’s benches was something, a bent, apeish form, the head and bare clutching arms covered with coarse, light hair. I saw the flat, retreating head, the hog-like lips. Not an ape, but worse, a groveling, sensual idiot. It muttered and jabbered at us, the froth oozing form its mouth, until catching sight of Esther, it stopped, as if fired by some human escaping thought, and, coming close to her, tried to clutch at her hands. Then came words—I heard them—God help me—“My wife,” and pushing the hair from his face, we saw the brutal wreck of Clayton Lashley.
That night we were gathered together in Robert’s library. A clear, starlit night without; inside, the cool air made the fire roar and sparkle, fling dancing lights over the walls, the homelike furniture, the faces seen in half-shadow about it. Some of them joyous, cheery enough. Emmy’s, with her brown, soul-lit eyes, that stole wistfully now and then to my boy’s. I did not blame him that he was content, that he could not repress the proud triumph in it. For Emmy was his now. That day Robert had said to him, “You’ve been patient long enough, boy. All I asked is fulfilled. Her innocence is proved. Emmy shall be yours, and God knows never father was fonder of son than I of you.”
So Pressley, that evening, (I know not what the employment of the day had been,) had seated himself beside her on the low lounge, with the quiet look, content in possession. And Emmy, perverse as a woman is born, got up with a dewy crimson on her cheeks and sauntered away, seating herself, however, on a low settle by his mother’s knee. Trying to gravely regard the fire and the Newfoundland dog asleep before it; but glancing in site of herself shyly across the hearth beyond them.
They were young. Rest, love, happiness belonged to youth. It was their right. If I and the faded, haggard woman in the shadow yonder had missed our chance of it in our early days, why dared we demand it now? Let us take up the few years left, work through them doggedly, patiently, lie down each alone in the narrow house below—and then—what? To meet again? As God pleased.
I could not find the fire cheerful, the air clear; loving Pressley and Emmy, I found their new happiness weary me; the world was full of pain, of thwarted lives, needless suffering. I knew, cared nothing, that night, saw nothing of the good God over all. Yet do me justice. It was not of myself I thought; of the woman yonder, who had found again that day the dead body that had hung for years about her living limbs. I had not spoken to her that day. I dared not. Only now when her eyes were closed as if to shut out life itself I could watch her. With a hungry madness to control her fate, force it into happiness.
There was silence for a long time—it was no time for surface talk. “Pressley,” Robert said at last, “you have not yet explained this matter. Where did you find—my brother?”
In all my life I never had heard Robert call Clayton Lashley by that name. It was a kindly, delicate thought to do it now to his son.
“It is a long story,” said Pressley, speaking low and hurriedly. “I cannot go over it all. In Pittsburg I received a letter from the keeper of a poor-house in Missouri, stating that an imbecile, for some years in his care, had been discovered by means of some paper in his possession to be my father. I went to him at once. Believing the story from the first, for I remembered the strange mystery that always had hung about my father’s fate: how persistently you had evaded my questions as to how and where he died. I went to him. I found him what you see. I heard too,” (gulping down a sudden choking in his throat,” “the story of his later life, how he came there clandestinely to escape creditors in the North. Uncle, don’t ask me to speak of this. He is my father. You know—his life has made him what he is—you may guess how fearful and brutish it was.”
How white and still she lay there! Would she not look at me? But once. Were death and hell to come between us forever?
Pressley went. “I brought him home. For your sake and Emmy’s, uncle Robert, I determined to keep his life secret—guarded him on the boat—that Emmy might not know. And when I reached Pittsburg, finding that his frantic cries and convulsions attracted notice, I brought him here to the hills. I thought he was safer from discovery there than in the city. I had saved enough of my salary too to live there, but nowhere else. I had saved it for another purpose,” with a pleading look at little Emmy, who rose uncertainly and went to the window, rapping on it with her unsteady fingers. “When I heard my mother’s story to-day,” he took her hand in his as he spoke, “when I heard it, I determined she should bear the pain of his life no longer, that I would take it all upon myself, give up Emmy, and save her.” He did not look at Emmy now, but with the unutterable tenderness at the faded face before him.
But Emmy was true. She came now, all childish coyness put aside, and leaned over his chair, touching his hair softly as if she blessed him. “It was nobly done, Pressley. I am glad you put me aside for her. I am glad.” Her voice choked with tears. Proud, happy tears.
“I would have saved you, mother, if I could.”
“She is saved, my son,” Robert said, coming near her so tenderly and firm.
I dared not speak to her again. “She is saved. She has borne enough. So long as she lives this house is her home, where you, and Emmy, and I, will watch and care for her. She never shall see the face of the man who has so wrecked her life again.”
“You are wrong,” she said, lifting her head, and looking at him with the two eyes of one who had asked quietness of God, and heard His reply. “I will go to him, Robert, take care of him to the end. Hush! Do not oppose me. I am right, my children. God has given me this task to do, to try my love for Him maybe. He knows best. I will do it.”
She did do it; went back, not to the old loathsome servitude, that never could be again, but watched, tended, nursed this man. It had been easier for her to have cared for the lowest beast that grovels in the mire.
Let those months go. Of all my life these were the barest, most bitter. For I was powerless to aid her. Her will was strong to do right. No word of mine could come between her and this duty, or make her share it with another. She would not even remove Clayton to The Oaks, because, I think, she was unwilling Emmy’s pure life should be tainted by his presence. She kept him at the house to which Pressley had first taken him, living there herself. Her life there we made cheerful and bright as loving hands could will; but what was that? Pressley was with her through the day; but in the long evenings he went to Emmy, and she was alone. I dared not help her. It roused the maniac to fury to see my face: that seeming to be the only trace of reason or recollection left to him. So, through the long creeping, lonesome evenings, I walked to and fro on the solitary hilltop, watching the light burning in the farm house window, where Esther was caged with her foul charge; and, as I walked, I thought, may God forgive me! of how strong he was, with stouter frame, more massive lungs than either she or I, and how he would outlive us, swallow all our lives into his, as he had those dead years gone. God will forgive me if it was a sinful thought: it was a very natural one.
So the spring crept by, and summer came on. My Home was finished now. I went into it—alone. I would have the loving fancy that she might come some day. That, bitter and poor consolation as it was, would be better than going back to California. So I called back all my wealth. I made it a home worthy—not of her, nothing could be pure and warm enough for that, but of my tender care for her. Some day—was this a crime?—she might come; then it should be ready, waiting for her. There were gardens—she loved flowers; there were stables, outhouses for every domestic animal, remembering how her simple heart fraternized with all of God’s creatures; there were wide, warm rooms, where, if she chose, she could gather her friends around her to make them happier; there were hidden, quiet cozeries, where she could be alone—rest her tired life, perhaps, suffer me, with her, to grow stronger and purer in that rest. So the summer dragged away.
Late one evening in September, I passed close to the farm house. Lying prostrate on the ground, caressing a loathsome, yellow dog he had chosen to fondle, was Clayton Lashley: the brute had more reason, more purity then he. Watching him, careful, kindly as though he had been one worthy of all reverence was—my Esther. I looked at them unseen over the gate. She could not bear this long, her face was gray, rigid. So many months—I counted them off almost coolly—would suffice to kill her. This creature would have done its work. What did Pressley call it? A vampire—
I walked on. What that night was to me only He knows. Toward morning, I heard a violent knocking at the door, and Pressley’s voice, “For God’s sake! Uncle John—come quick! My mother—“
I heard no more. In another moment I was following him breathlessly down the road.
To the farm house. The doors, windows were open, lighted, crowds of people hurrying in and out, cries and shrieks. I went in. What was this that had come to her?
The old woman who kept the house caught me by the arm, her face white with terror. “Dawn’t blame me, master! God alone knows when he got the knife. It wor Mr. Pressley’s watch when we got out, the poor boy wor asleep—small blame till him, thinkin’ th’ other were secure. Then he did it.”
“Did what? Pressley—what is this?”
“He tried to kill my mother.”
“She is safe: but look here.”
He pushed open a door of the farm house kitchen. Lying on a wooden settle, surrounded by the terrified farm people, lay Clayton Lashley, dead. By his own hand:—how it needs not to tell. Let me shut that sight out from my eyes forever.
Two days after, I stood with Robert and Esther in the chamber where she had so faithfully watched him. Her watch was over now. God had released her. The house was deathly still. The farm servants stood without, decently attired and silent, to follow this poor body to the grave with us. One or two of them, old and gray-headed, had known this man. They were silent. Even remembering his boyish days, they had no good word to speak.
And we whom he had so bitterly wronged, the brothers, the son, the woman, whose lives he had cursed, were dumb also, now that God had called him home.
At last she spoke, laying her hand on the something covered with a white sheet there before us. “Let us forgive as God will forgive us,” she said, in a low, hushed voice. “Let us believe that this, our brother, lived for a good purpose, being made by God. If for no other, He has brought us to Him.”
I looked out into the great, calm light of the solemn day, listening to her words; knowing then that the infinite spirit of Good, that held that world and day, all worlds and days, held her and me also, and that—the something lying there never to be named again.
A Christmas day. Before the trail of blood crept over the land. But they will come again, please God! It was long since I had known a Christmas. Since my boyhood this was my first Christmas. Shall I tell you how we kept it?
The year was generous to us; crowned the hills with heaviest snow; frosted the snow with glittering ice; blew its strongest, wintriest, cherriest blast through the great depths. The oldest mountaineer remembered no such winter. About us, the mountains rose white and still, the long months through, flashing back a thousand defiant rays to the sun, as if to say, “We have no need of your light; here we hide love and happiness enough to warm and brighten the world.” The lonely roads leading through the hill-passes echoed only to the ring of merry sleigh-bells, of the tread of some horse carrying the farmer boys to a country frolic. For in this region, the winter was given up to home gatherings, with the country people, to sleighing parties, apple-pairings, quiltings. What Western farmer does not know the names?
The nights were clear, cold starlit: the poorest hovel window burned red on the hills with the cheery fire within. In the Oaks, and at another dwelling dearer to me than the old homestead even, the Christmas peace and joy glowed with more silent, intenser heat. Down in the lower regions, it is true, where Scip and aunt Jolliffe reigned triumphant, never Christmas approached so noisily. “Folks,” said Scip, authoritatively, “talked of Christmases. But the Lashleys knowed the real thing. ‘N as for brides, please de Lord, de prettiest ‘n bestest bride as eber gived herself way, ’n the gemmin de mos’ fust rate, ‘cordin’ to Scip’s notions, ‘id come from dis house on dis Christmas day. ‘Twasn’t of’en as Scip hed condescended to black enny man’s boots; but ef Mars’ Pressley’s didn’t shine that day ‘twouldn’t be de fault ob dis old chap.” Yet only to aunt Joliffe, as being of equal age and dignity with himself, did he deign to express these opinions; to the rest of the “peart young fry,” who anticipated endless finery and feasting at the common wedding, he preached unceasing sermons on the vanity of such trifling follies. “Two demortal bein’s amakin’ demselves inter one was no subjec’ for gaffing ‘n chaffing.” But it was a subject for unlimited eating and drinking, if the savory, spicy steams from Aunt Jolliffe’s pantries might be relied on.
Up stairs, little Emmy’s face grew paler, her eyes softer, as the day drew near. More shy, more loving, clinging to her father, to Esther, to me; petting even the old house dog with a gentler touch: the one object of tender interest from every one in the household. I thought too that Robert’s care for Pressley grew warmer, more helpful, as though he repented of the trial he had forced upon him.
So the wedding day came. Can you picture for yourselves how it passed? Is there no soft clinging memory or hope in our hearts of a day you have known or dreamed of, that will tell you what this Christmas time was for my boy and little Emmy? A day when all life, and earth, and heaven held but one form, one face? When the full throb of joy in your heart tinged every other common voice, and so filled the world with a happy music? If you have such a memory, or such a hope, you better know what that wedding-day was than I. For me it was a far-off pageant only. A cold, bright winter’s day, full of sunshine, laughter, loving faces, the crowded country church, roses, perfume, tears, music—little Emmy’s hand for the first time resting without a tremor in my boy’s; Robert’s cheery voice choking now and then, the old homestead glowing with love and outspoken joy. Never to be sad again!
I tell you that the day was like a dream to me; a hopeful, prophetic dream; these two human souls were strong, God-fearing; life could hold no day for them which their faith could not convert into a worthy, beautiful offering to man and God.
So it passed to me, this day; the evening brought an hour more real, sharper in its vital touch, that all the years had given. When I had given my blessing to my boy and girl, and, turning from them, went to my own solitary Home. Joy and laughter was not for me or mine. Something deeper, holier from God’s hand He gave me that day; the rest waited and hungered for through all these forty years. For, passing through the lonely paths at my side was a woman, more weary, footsore with her pilgrimage than I: to whom the years had been slow torture, pressing, urging her, closer, closer to her God. A woman, dearer to me now in her age and poverty, than on that day of long ago, when her proud, new life thrilled mine with passion. Very tired, very tender to those who suffered as we had done, with hearts that had been true to each other for half a lifetime, with dimmed eyes that looked ever upward to find their Lord, my wife and I trod once more those lonely hill paths together. The evening shadow closed around us, dreary, colder; overhead, the stars came out with their prophecy of eternal content; but on earth God yet gave us a Home in which to rest our earned strength, to be loving, hopeful, helpful. It was before us now. Its cheery glow shone out into the night, and, and entering with bowed heads and reverent hearts, Esther Lashley and I began “OUR SECOND LIFE.”
 A lawyer who deals with petty cases or employs dubious practices.↩
 James J. Buchanan, Jr. (April 23, 1791-June 1, 1868) was the 15th President of the United States, serving from 1857-1861.↩
 Sir Walter Scott (August 15, 1771-September 21, 1832) was a Scottish writer of historical novels, plays, and poems.↩
 Lewis Wetzel (February 24, 1752-1808) and Daniel Boone (November 2, 1734-September 26, 1820) were frontiersmen famous for exploring and settling western Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.↩
 A linsey dress is a dress made from a coarse twill or plain-woven fabric made from a combination of linen and wool.↩
 A capstan is a rotating machine used on sailing ships to apply additional force to ropes and cables. ↩
 Insolent or insulting language or treatment.↩
 A boisterous, carefree girl; a tomboy↩
 A person with physical disabilities; a cripple↩
 In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ithuriel is an angel sent from heaven to find Satan. He finds Satan squatting like a toad near Eve, touches him on the ear with his spear, and Satan is forced to resume his original form.↩
 Horses with deep reddish-brown coats.↩
 In the Biblical book of Genesis, Cain murdered his younger brother Abel, lied to God about it, and was subsequently cursed and marked for life.↩
 Having poor vision; nearly or partly blind.↩
 In the Biblical book of Genesis, Joseph is the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons and is sold into slavery by his brothers. When they are reunited years later in Egypt, Joseph weeps.↩
 A steep-sided, narrow gorge or passage.↩
 Metal supports that hold burning wood in a fireplace.↩
 The Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania flows from the Pocono Mountains to Philadelphia.↩
 Term in German-speaking regions for an adult woman.↩
 A text written by the eighteenth-century French priest and educator Charles Francois Lhomond to help students learn Latin.↩
 Psalm 31:7↩
 Psalm 40:2-3↩
 “Of life in May blooms once and not again.” From Resignation by 18th century German writer Friedrich Schiller.↩