“The Barred Acres: The Doctor’s Story”
I do not know a single well-authenticated ghost story. Besides ghost-stories are the poorest prentice work in literature, if we tell the truth about them. They always fall stale and flat, no matter how we have worked ourselves up to a quake and shiver in the hearing. The ghost turns out to be some uninteresting dead ancestor, whose only claim to notice in the world was his manner of leaving it, and who stupidly persists in hanging about the place where he was unpleasantly put an end to; or else he turns out to be no ghost at all, but a mere matter-of-fact, or a bit of science of which the narrator was in haste to be delivered.
No; I have no ghost stories for you. Out west, however, where some of the old settlers yet linger, and the language and habits of thought retain much of the strong, racy flavor of the early pioneer days, there may yet be found remnants of strange traditions and superstitions, which have never found their way into books, but which in any other country would have been carefully guarded as folk-lore, out of which the germs of national creeds and customs might be defined. Many of these superstitions, in their relentless fatalism, betray their Indian origin.
One of the most inexplicable of these superstitions was brought to my notice in a curious manner some thirty years ago. In company with Wycherley, (Joseph B. Wycherley, of Wilmington,) I had been beating about Western Pennsylvania for one or two weeks. Joe and I had a little money to invest, and fancied something could be done in coal; we preferred, however, to examine the lay of the different veins ourselves, to trusting agencies, taking at the same time our summer vacation. At Pittsburgh we met Judge Prentice, with whom I had but a slight acquaintance, but who was an old friend of Wycherley. He was just returning from an unsuccessful hunt on the prairies, and as a month was yet to elapse before the fall term of court, joined us with little persuasion. I must confess that he did not add to the pleasure of our idle journey. He was growing old, and meeting old age apparently with a secret bitter cynicism and rage against life. Too well-bred to express it in words, it was yet plain that this secret discontent inspired an outward ill-temper; he had a perpetual pettish grudge against the weather, against his companions, against himself.
“Your friend, Prentice, is a constant surprise to me,” I said to Wycherley. “I met him eight or ten years ago, and he was then a rational, genial fellow.”
“He has had one or two rough turns—Prentice,” said Joe. “A more cool-headed, unfeeling man, perhaps, would have borne them with more philosophy. The judge was a domestic man, cared little for anything apart from his own fireside. His wife died first, then all his interest in life centered on his boy, and he disappointed him.”
“No; Tom wasn’t dissipated, unless you can call a man so, who is drunken with a thirst for adventure. His father had a place and business ready for him, when the young man shipped on a whaler; came back after a year or two, and married some mechanic’s daughter. That was the unforgiveable trespass. Crime the old man might overlook, but vulgarity—never! Though the girl, I’ve heard, was pretty and sensible, and bade fair to bring Tom out of the slough. But Prentice never would see either of them. They went to Texas or California, I believe; and the old man has been alone ever since. He grows more soured and discontented every year. If it wasn’t for his gunning and fishing, I don’t know what he’d do to make life endurable. By-the-way, he talks of buying some land hereabouts for summer shooting. We were looking at one of these islands in the river. There’s an advertisement of it here.”
We were in the cabin, which served as country store, post-office, and magistrate’s office at the same time, and Wycherley walked over to the wall, on which were tacked the dirty-written placards of Lost Saddles, Cows Strayed and Stolen, and Land for Sale. One of these last, so yellow and faded as hardly to be legible, he fixed upon, and read aloud.
“All that certain lot and parcel of ground—Umph! Seventy-five acres! Timber, oak, hickory, beech—Umph! Above highest watermark. Forty acres best pasturage in the county. Why the land is going for a song! Price is given—one-tenth what they ask for the poorest sheep pasturage about here. By all means, Prentice should secure it. Shooting-lodge for two or three years. Sell—double his money. ‘Arkens owner.’ What the deuce possesses Arkens to fling his land away in this way, Sprout?” turning to the dapper little storekeeper.
Sprout was deftly tying up a pound of brown sugar for a barefooted little girl from one of the hill-cabins. He finished it with a queer twinkle in his eye, before answering leisurely.
“Well, sir, Arkens was a stranger, like yourself, when he purchased that there lot of ground. That’s nigh five years ago; and I reckon he’s had about enough of it.”
“Why? I’ve seen the island,” cried Wycherley, who prided himself on being a thorough farmer. “There’s no such soil on this bottom. You could run your cane up to the handle in it, doctor. Black!”
“That’s on account of never bein’ worn out,” said Sprout, sententiously. “Fallow’s ground’s mostly black, if you’ll observe. That sile’s not been tilled nigh onto this hundred years.”
“But why not? The top of the hill—it’s a cone, doctor—rises like a sugar-loaf out of the water; the top is free from undergrowth, ready for planting. Why did not Arkens raise corn, at least, on it?”
“Why, that’s The Barred Acres, Mr. Wycherley.”
Wycherley hesitated, puzzled. “Oh! that’s the name, is it? Well, it’s cheap land. I’ll make the judge clinch the bargain at once.”
Sprout muttered it wouldn’t be cheap at any price; and began ciphering zealously at his ledger with the uneasy air of a man who is about to be forced on to ground of which he is afraid.
“Why, isn’t it cheap?” persisted Wycherley. “What’s the matter with the ground?”
“There’s nothing the matter with the ground,” said Sprout, desperately. “It’s The Barred Acres, that’s all. Anybody can tell you the luck of them that owns it. I’ve got nothin’ more to say about it.”
Wycherley laughed, and we strolled out on the rutted wagon-road leading up to the hills. No other house than Sprout’s cabin was in sight. The hills thickly wooded to the top, the lazy, grass-grown road, the broad, glancing river at our feet, lay strangely still and silent in the low, red, evening light.
“The solitude here is always oppressive me,” said Wycherley. “It is like the primeval forest. There! that is Prentice’s land, I think,” pointing to a hill rising in the middle of the yellow river, its base fringed with gray-trunked beech-trees and rank undergrowth to the water’s edge; the summit a clean, smooth plateau, covered with a short, velvet turf. “Why, there’s a cabin on it now. Hello, Jim!” to a boy cooling his feet in the horse-trough. “Who lives on that island? One to the left?”
Jim laughed; but I noticed with the same half-scared, uneasy air as Sprout. “That’s a shed Arkens put up for his cows. He warn’t such a darn fool as to live in it himself, stranger as he was. Why, that’s The Barred Acres.”
“Well, what of them?”
But Jim’s face grew suddenly vacant. “I dunno, I’m sure,” he said, stolidly. “But come on to supper, gen’men…. We’ll ask Mrs. Houston.”
For although we had been but a week in her cabin, we had fallen into the habit of referring and deferring on all points to Mrs. Houston, as, indeed, did all the neighborhood. She was but a young girl, but her bright, quick wit settled all the disputed questions for the country side.
“There’s no tavern,” had been Sprout’s greeting, when the steamboat landed us on the lonely bank, late one night. “Houston’s is the big house. Houston’s away rafting, but she kin take you in. She’s a capable woman.” We found her to be so, and something more.
Prentice was sitting by the fire when we came in, watching, with little Bob, the griddle-cakes which Mrs. Houston was rolling out on the table.
“Don’t let them burn, Bob,” she said.
“Give me the fork, madam,” said the judge.</>
“Thank you,” handing him the fork.
Wycherley and I went up to the loft where we slept, to brush the mud off before supper.
“That woman would say ‘Thank you,’ without surprise, if King Alfred himself came back to turn the cakes. The judge is his old best self with her, do you see?”
“Prentice always had keen tact with women,” said Joe. “When a man gets at odds with the world in that way, there’s nothing brings him right so quickly as a thorough-bred woman.”
After we had left the point, it occurred to me that Joe and I had never wondered at finding this thorough-bred woman, as we pronounced her, in poor Dolly Houston’s miserable house and flannel dress. One is apt to accept whatever is genuine in the world without surprise or inquiry. It is your stage royalty, your merit, with the gilt and tinsel trappings, that wins the clamor of applause and curiosity.
When we were seated at supper, Prentice, himself, first broached the mysterious topic. “I have seen Arkens, and settled the bargain, doctor. The deed was made out this afternoon, with remarkable celerity for country business. The island’s mine.”
Our little hostess’ bright blue eyes turned quickly from one to the other.
“What’s a miss with ‘The Barred Acres,’ Mrs. Houston?”
“Is that the island you have bought?” she asked of Prentice.
“Yes. Can you tell me how I got it so cheaply?”
She hesitated. “There’s a superstition, a queer old story, which ‘bars’ the acres against all purchasers here. I’m sorry you bought it.”
Of course, we clamored for the story, and when we had risen from the table and gathered about the fire, she told it to us. She told it half as jest, but in spite of herself there was an undercurrent of nervous force, and a half-conviction, that surprised us more than we chose to acknowledge, for there was not one of us who did not give her credit for as keen with and sound sense as we claimed ourselves.
“The story goes that the island was occupied by an old chief named Gray Wolf, long after white settlers had taken possession of the mainland. The chief had drawn, it was said, some magic circle about the island which insured it to him and his heirs forever. A family named Cresap, coveted it, however, and one night Gray Wolf, his squaw, and sons, were found murdered in their wigwams, and the next day the Cresaps proceeded to make a tomahawk claim on it, joking boastfully that it would hard for Gray Wolf to establish the heirship between his dead sons.
“I foresee the story, then,” said Joe, as she stopped to take Bob up on her lap. “The ghosts of the Gray robbers still walk the shore?”
“No; they have never been seen,” gravely. “But the fate of the Cresaps was peculiar. A month or two after they had built their house, the two young men, while crossing the river in a canoe, at midday, suddenly disappeared, as though the boat had been dragged under by an unseen hand. The sky was clear, the water smooth as glass. Presently the boat came up, bottom upward, but the bodies of the men were never found. Old Cresap and his wife still occupied the land. One night a man went over on business and found the cabin empty, the cow freshly milked, a fire still smouldering on the hearth; but the murderers of the old chief were gone—they had vanished utterly from off the face of the earth.”
“A very characteristic story of Indian vengeance; and not at all improbably,” said Prentice. “The Red-skin deals a death-blow with as stealthy and swift stroke as a thief.”
“The island was uninhabited for years,” said Mrs. Houston. “Then a man named Israel Warrendon moved on to it from the Ohio shore, repaired the cabin, and settled his family comfortably for the winter. One day, in going through the street of the village which lies a few miles down the bank, on this side, he was missed—disappeared in broad daylight in passing from one house to another. I’ve heard he was a stout, shrewd, wide-awake man, well able to defend himself. He never was seen or heard of again. His family moved back to the main-land, and were left unmolested. Afterward, a company of coal miners examined the island, and one, a gentleman from Baltimore, I think they called him Thellusson, undertook to open a mine. He set his men to work; on the fifth day, when they were outside, preparing to quit for the night, he went in curiously to the opening they had made in the hill. The ground above gave way without a sound, and buried him.”
“Not an infrequent occurrence in your coal-mining region even now, Mrs. Houston.”
“No; but the curious part of the story is that he, too, was lost. Dig as deep as they might, they never found a trace of his body, though he was scarcely out of sight when he disappeared.”
The fire had burned low, and the sunset faded out in the little window that overlooked the river. The darkness may have accounted for the awkward silence which fell on us all. Out of the window, in the dim twilight, we could see the island rise, a dark, truncated cone, out of the broad, steel-gray river. We each gave a stealthy glance at it. Prentice begged leave to light a segar. I stirred the fire cheerfully.
“Well,” said Wycherley, in a tone unnecessarily loud, “does the old chief still drag down his victims silently underground? These are old-time affairs, after all. Perhaps the race of Gray Wolves have betaken themselves to rest now?”
“It is only about twenty years since Thellusson began to dig for coal. Land is plenty and cheap, and the people can afford to humor their superstitions. Since then there has been but one attempt to occupy the island. An old fur-trader, who was in the neighborhood in ’32, when the cholera was raging in the towns along the shore, swore that he could go make a bargain with Gray Wolf, and lease his land, as the only place of safety. He put off for the island one morning, actually carrying with him, out of bravado, beads, a gun, and tobacco. At night some of his friends went after him.”
“Well? He had vanished?”
“No; they found him in front of the ruined cabin, dead, with his feet and hands composed and straightened by careful hands.”
“Cholera,” suggested Wycherley.
“No; there was no apparent cause for death. The tobacco and beads were heaped in order upon his breast, and the gun placed ready in his hands, Indian fashion.”
“The island has been unoccupied since then?”
“Yes,” she laughed, but uneasily. “The old chief has kept his land, in peace. There have been one or two attempts made to use it as a pasturage, but the cattle, which feed on the grass, after a day or two, are attacked with a strange sickness; and even the drovers, who go to take or fetch them, find that once drinking the water induces a low fever. Another curious fact about the island is—and Bob and I have proved ourselves—that there are only such living creatures on it as belonged to the country before the coming of the whites: snakes and corbies; lynxes, too, in the thick woods; but not a singing-bird, nor a squirrel.”
“Then I shall have game I did not count on,” said Prentice.
Mrs. Houston did not answer.
“Now, judge,” said Wycherley, after a thoughtful puff on his pipe, “I wouldn’t persist in this matter, if I were you. The prejudices of the people are against it; and there’s no use in running counter to the prejudices of a people without a rational cause. Even Mrs. Houston here is a half-believer.”
“I only gave the facts; I don’t pretend to explain them.”
“At least,” I said, “one thing you are assured of, Prentice, that there is miasma in the soil, and the water is bad. It looks like fool-hardiness to me to persist in your plan, under the circumstances."
Prentice was lighting his bed-room candle. “I will certainly carry it out, doctor, and that at once, instead of next summer. It would be worth while to fight down the prejudices of an ignorant community, if only in order to bring back such valuable land into use. Besides—” he stopped abruptly, looking for a minute down at the island which, now that the moon had risen, loomed gray and ghostly in the glittering river, and then turning off with a laugh, “One would not dislike a tug with the old dead Indian. It would have, at least, the zest of novelty.”
He nodded good-night, and went up the ladder to the loft. We smoked in silence while Mrs. Houston made ready for bed, and taking the sleeping boy in her arms, bade us good-night, and went to her own room.
“If Prentice did not half believe that story,” said Wycherley, knocking out his pipe, “he would not be so obstinate. It is curious what veins of superstition lie deep in the clearest and most logical brains. He would be ashamed to acknowledge it to himself; but he is so jaded and tired of life, that the vague idea of a grapple with some invisible power roused him as a trumpet would a horse to the battle.”
I replied that I did not think Prentice a fool. One is in duty bound to affect that tone about supernatural matters.
When we came down next morning, we saw the judge standing in the gate, talking to Mrs. Houston, who had just come in from milking.
Wycherley laughed. “Odd! Now I’ve seen that old fellow wither, with his stinging sarcasms, some of the reigning women of New York society, and there he stands, cap in hand, before a girl who is about to do her own washing.”
“His instincts are keener than I thought,” I answered, and went down to join them.
Mrs. Houston was speaking as I came near.
“My husband will be at home in a day or two. At least do not go to the island until you have seen him. There is something which he can tell you. I am sure you would not go when you had heard it.”
She broke off abruptly. I was surprised to notice that her eyes were full of tears, and that her whole manner betrayed extreme agitation.
The judge looked up and down, perplexed and annoyed.
“My dear madam, don’t you see that I cannot draw back? I have this moment given orders to Sprout to send a carpenter over to put the cabin in habitable order, as I would sleep there to-night. If I draw back, I would only do my part to confirm the people in their absurd fears. And I cannot be called a coward.”
“No, you cannot be called a coward,” she replied, thoughtfully, and after a moment’s pause, took up her pails and went into the house.
The old man looked after her. It was evident her anxiety touched and pleased him.
“Now that woman is a more curious study to me, doctor, than any old legends of this uncivilized country,” he said. “Now and then, in society, I have felt that peculiar power, like a magnetic atmosphere, about a woman, with the repose of manner which only comes from a fine nature finely poised; but very rarely. You have to go back to generations of ease and culture to account for such a human product. But here, side by side with those strapping, loud, country wenches, is the wife of a raftsman, fighting poverty and vulgarity with an arch debonair gayety—it’s a puzzle such as I never solved before.”
“You are determined to meet the Wolf on his own ground?” said Wycherley, too anxious to leave the main point long.
“Yes—to-night. Sprout’s man will knock me up a shed out of the old one, and a fire and hammock will make me all right. I’m an old campaigner.”
To be brief with the story, the judge persisted. He met with more remonstrance than he had looked for. One of the frequent freshets in the upper creeks had caused a rise in the Ohio, and most of the farmers from the back hills found their way down to the bottom during the day to judge of its extent. They are a reticent, slow class of people, but they all contrived to drop a word of warning to Prentice.
“The patch of ground had a bad name, from one cause or another,” said one. “It was likely to be anguish—if no worse,” said another. “’Twant no use stirrin’ up foul water,” put in a third. To all of which arguments the judge listened, amused.
Wycherley and I, of course, remonstrated no further. Mrs. Houston went about her work with a grave face.
Just before dark I found Prentice on the river bank, stowing into a skiff his hammock, an axe, and materials for breakfast.
“Wycherley and I are going with you,” I said. “We will be more than a match for the Gray Wolf and his sons.”
“I beg that you will not,” he replied, curtly. “My freak is a foolish one, probably. I don’t wish to draw any one else into the annoyances of it.”
He manner was such that I did not renew my offer. It was a melancholy, unnaturally calm evening; the leaden sky hung low and lowering, the swollen river rushed by yellow, and laden with drifting timber.
“But it’s falling,” said Sprout, who stood by with his foot-measure. “It’ll be down by morning.”
“The judge will be in no danger?”
“From the freshet? No. This roost is ten feet above the highest flood mark. It’s not from the water his trouble ’ll come,” with a shrug and gloomy nod.
One by one the few loiterers went up the miry road to find shelter. The night, coming on rapidly, bade fair to be stormy. The death-like stillness was ominous; a raw, foreboding wind blew sharply down the gorge, making me shiver inside of my heavy overcoat. I walked up and down at some distance from Prentice, who busied himself unnecessarily with his cockshell of a boat on the edge of the water. The superstition was absurd, and I had only contempt for his insane freak; and yet I could not bring myself to bid him good-night, and come away.
Standing there, at the edge of the dark sheet of water, with the island in view, the legend we had heard about it had an unaccountable power over us all. I believed at the time, and I am half tempted to believe now, that some subtle influence was at work that night in the air, and in the very ground, to give it its force. After all, what do we know of the strength of the hands of the dead?
Even Wycherley had some vague idea of this. His fat, pale face was unnaturally sobered as he trotted uneasily up and down, pretending to gauge the water.
“There’s some devil abroad to-night. The idea of a respectable old fellow, a judge of the Superior Court, camping in a cow-shed to show that he’s not afraid of ghosts! He’ll have the gout in the stomach, that’ll be the end of it, mark my words. ’Pon my soul, there’s something like the work of an evil spirit in a sudden insanity of that sort. It’s against nature.”
We loitered for a few minutes, and then went, with a sudden impatience, back to the house.
Judge Prentice, when he had packed his skiff, came to say good-by.
I tried to assume a jocular tone. “It does not occur to you that you are doing an utterly irrational and useless thing.”
“Of course I am. But there are some dare-devil drops of the boy’s blood stay in us until the last moment, I suppose.”
Mrs. Houston had come up unseen, by either of us, and stood beside us, her water-proof cloak about her shoulders, and her fine head bare.
“Ah, madam! you come to give me your consent?” holding out his withered and gallantly.
To my astonishment she affected not to see it. “Is there nothing that will induce you to wait until to-morrow?” she said, hurriedly. “Only until to-morrow?”
The inexplicable agitation, which she tried in vain to conceal, touched him as with an electric spark. His real cynical, bitter nature came to the surface.
“What does it matter if I were actually going into danger? My accounts with life are counted up and closed. A man’s day work is done at sixty, well or ill. He only lays about on sufferance after that.”
“You laugh at the danger; so did I when I first came here. But I know now it is real.” She looked over at the island with a countenance that was, for the moment, curiously scared and childish. “You have no way to throw away your life. You have friends—your children——”
“I have none, madam. I will come back, of course, safely; but if that island were to be my grave, as you think, there is not a living creature to shed a tear for me. Give me some matches, doctor,” with a sudden change of tone, ashamed of his emotion. “I’ll be over by noon to-morrow, Mrs. Houston, hungry as a bear. Good-night!”
She stood looking after him, as he jumped into the skiff, and pushed out from the shore.
“What shall I do?” she said to herself. “What shall I do?”
I answered her, but she neither saw nor heard me. I touched her arm at last. “You are not answerable for his obstinate folly, Mrs. Houston. Besides, what is this man to you?”
“This much,” quietly. “It would be better for me that Bob were lying dead in my house to-morrow, than that old gray-headed man.”
“Yet you would not take his hand just now.”
A flash of indignant repugnance crossed her face. I saw it, although she controlled it instantly. “You are fanciful. It grows chilly, we will go to the house.”
Night closed in early, but the storm still delayed. Wycherley and I watched the island until we saw a red light on the top of the dark heap.
“He has his fire going, at least,” said Joe. “Gray Wolf has not yet entered an appearance.”
There was no story-telling that night, nor even romps with Bob. Joke as we would, we were secretly uneasy and uncomfortable. Mrs. Houston went about her work, pale and silent. We left her by the kitchen-fire when we went to bed.
“It is likely that my husband will be home to-night,” she said. “I will wait for him.” But I heard her open the window after we had gone, from which the dull-red spark on the island could be seen.
It must have been but an hour or two before day when I was awakened by a strange noise, a low, grinding sound, that shook the wooden house to its foundations. I started out of bed, and supposing it to be thunder, threw open the window. The moon lighted up the steep mountains so clearly, that the trees stood out against the sky in fine black limning. Not a cloud was in the sky. As I turned back, Wycherley, in the other room, gave a shout of dismay and terror. “Good God! the river is gone!” he cried.
I hurried to the other window, and stood stunned for a moment. Where, last night, the broad Ohio had rolled, muddy and yellow, was solid ground. Not a gleam of water was to be seen.
“I understand it now,” said Wycherley, when he was fairly awake. “The river has risen in the night, and the creek, rushing out below, has backed the drift wood and debris up. There’s an immense accumulation of mud and timber there. But it will only last an hour or two before it breaks up.”
We stood looking at it curiously for a moment, when the same thought flashed upon us both, and we looked at each other appalled. I was the first to speak.
“Sprout said his cabin was ten feet above the highest mark.”
“But this rise, I judge, is unprecedented,” said Wycherley.
We pulled on our clothes, and hurried down to the bank, without a word. As we passed through the kitchen, I noticed that the fire had been lately replenished, and a candle, with a long wick, blazed on the table. Mrs. Houston’s watch had apparently lasted all night.
The moon lit up the work of death with a clearness which seemed unnatural and spectral. When we reached the point from which the island was visible, we stood silent, not daring to look at each other.
The water had risen to a level with the cabin.
There was about it not the sign of life. If the judge was there, he still slept, unconscious of his danger.
The most terrible feature in that terrible night, I remember, was the intense and awful stillness. The mountains ranged dark and watchful behind us; the vast, solid mass above the flood heaving up, and up, to its deed of death without a sound; the silent, unnatural brightness, that bathed earth and sky; the whole world seemed waiting, hungry and expectant, to see a murder done.
When Wycherley spoke, it was in a husky whisper.
“The old man will waken in his grave,” he said.
“Can we do nothing?”
“What can we do? This mass will break any minute. It is breaking now—yonder,” pointing to a spot, three furlongs above the island, where a foot or two of water glittered through the massed mud and logs.
But it was not in human nature to do nothing. We ventured over the drift, and dragged each other back, drenched and bruised; for the mass, apparently so solid, was uneven in depth, and in some places mere traps of clogged lumber turning under the feet.
“It’s useless,” groaned Joe. “The man sleeps like the dead. Eh? What do you see?”
“What shadow is that yonder! Near the island—to the left?”
Wycherley’s eyes were keener than mine. “It is a woman. Merciful God! It is she! She is going to save him!”
There was no need to name her. She was one of those women who always seem to be the only one in the world when you are near her.
She was of light weight, and besides, both nimble and cool. She had a long stick in her hands, by which she aided herself to spring from one point, which seemed most solid, to another. Her eye, apparently, was as watchful as a cat’s, and her movements as agile. I think the most intolerable pain at that hour, to me, as I watched her, was the galled sense of my own age; the rheumatic lumbering body, that forced me to stand like a log and see a woman thus dare death. As for Wycherley, he sat down and clasped his hands about his knees, now and then wiping the sweat from his. I think he was praying for Mrs. Houston, though he relieved himself once or twice by a savage oath at Prentice and his obstinacy.
She fell once—twice, but regained her footing, and went on, wet to the skin, and with a weaker step, I fancied.
“She has touched solid ground! She is at the cabin!” cried Wycherley.
“What does that matter? They never can come back. Look! it is breaking—there—and there!”
She disappeared for a moment. Then they came out together, she holding the judge by the hand, pointing across to where we stood, explaining and urging. Then she brought an oar, showing him how to use it, as she had done the staff.
Judge Prentice was a heavily built man. At the best of times he moved stiffly. The passage was fully half a mile in length before them. Now, too, the loosening of the drift below became more evident. The whole vast mass began to heave with a swell almost imperceptible as yet, but like the smothered breathing of a monster, which may the next instant break into devouring fury. Wycherley brought ropes from the house, and brandy; put oars into a skiff, and then leaned against a tree, his arms folded in desperate inaction.
“It is all that we can do.”
How long we watched them I do not know. I remember that the day began to break when they were but half way across. Prentice moved as if still stunned or dazed by sleep, or the sudden terror. He was loggish, timid, irresolute. The woman, on the contrary, had become an incarnate spirit of energy—every limb alert, light, swift; her thoughts guided them with the quickness of intuition. This was the more remarkable, as she was a languid, slow woman, naturally, in her ideas and movements. I wondered if it was not the thought of her husband that gave wings to both her soul and body to cross that gulf of death.
They came nearer—nearer. The danger grew more imminent. The slow heaving had increased to a heavy, regular throb; the crash of timbers above came like sullen thunder. The whole mass swayed at times until they staggered and fell.
“If she once fall under the timber, she is lost.”
Wycherley and I shouted encouragement incessantly. “Five minutes more, and you are safe!” Yet neither of us believed that they could ever reach the shore. If the great flowing once gave way, there was no possible chance of saving them from beneath it. She did not dare to glance toward us, but her cheek reddened, and she laughed gayly as she heard us.
The next moment she did look toward the shore, and, as if touched with palsey, all her strength and courage left her in an instant. She staggered, and gave a sudden nervous, womanish laugh. After that her steps were uncertain and trembling. She had caught sight of a man who came running rapidly up the shore. He stopped beside us—a sturdy, broad-built young fellow, with an oddly familiar face.
“In God’s name, what is this? Is that my wife?”
There was a sudden, sharp report like thunder, a frightful crash and swirl, and the whole mass of timber and drift-wood broke a few yards from where they were. The judge stood firm, and tried to hold her, but, as if she had lost all reason and strength at once, poor Dolly held out her hands to her husband, and threw herself toward him in the water. A heavy beam struck her, and she fell.
For the next few moments we were all struggling in the flood together. The judge was taken out stunned, though not seriously hurt, and carried to the house. Houston brought his wife to shore, whether dead or alive, we could not tell. The few women of the neighborhood had collected, but he carried her up in his arms as though she were a baby, and would let no one touch her but himself. For an hour Wycherley and I kept guard outside the door. Prentice joined us in dry clothes, and refreshed by a medicinal drink. But the color and little remaining youth seemed washed out of the man. His very hair and beard had grown white and limp.
“If she dies!” he muttered. “If she dies—”
We did not answer him.
The door opened at last, and she stood in it, alive—her eyes glowing, her hand out.
“Will you take my hand now, Judge Prentice?” She hesitated, choked for words, the bright color coming and going in her cheeks. “I—I— You did not know who I was, but— Oh, Tom, come! It is your father!”
Of course, you all know how my story ends. There is no pleasanter home in New York than that of Tom Prentice, nor no more steady, domestic fellow than Tom himself. The judge lives with them, and is even more careful and jealous of mistress Dolly than of her husband. Wycherley and I spend our holidays with them, and do our best with the others to spoil master Bob.
But there is an odd reluctance among us to talk of The Barred Acres. The island remains unsold and unoccupied.
I have no faith in legends or superstitions. But it is a fact that, in the midst of an oil-digging and trading community, the Gray Wolf still keeps his land undisturbed.
1. King Alfred the Great (849-899), one of only two English monarchs to be given the title of ‘the Great,’ in his case because of his successful defense of the country against the Vikings. Learned and progressive, he is considered one of the most ‘perfect’ kings of all time.↩
2. Early settlers typically recognized a “tomahawk claim”—the marking of a tree with initials and/or other markings—though it did not constitute a legal claim.↩
3. Ravens or crows.↩
4. Floods from heavy rains.↩
5. An obsession.↩