Chapter II - The Strange Lady
IT was June. From the patent inner columns of the "Carlow County Herald" might be gleaned the information (enlivened by cuts of duchesses) that the London season had reached a high point of gaiety; and that, although the weather had grown inauspiciously warm, there was sufficient gossip for the thoughtful. To the rapt mind of Miss Selina Tibbs came a delicious moment of comparison: precisely the same conditions prevailed in Plattville.
Not unduly might Miss Selina lay this flattering unction to her soul, and well might the "Herald" declare that "Carlow events were crowding thick and fast." The congressional representative of the district was to deliver a lecture at the court-house; a circus was approaching the county-seat, and its glories would be exhibited "rain or shine"; the court had cleared up the docket by sitting to unseemly hours of the night, even until ten o'clock--one farmer witness had fallen asleep while deposing that he "had knowed this man Hender some eighteen year"--and, as excitements come indeed when they do come, and it seldom rains but it pours, the identical afternoon of the lecture a strange lady descended from the Rouen Accommodation and was greeted on the platform by the wealthiest citizen of the county. Judge Briscoe, and his daughter, Minnie, and (what stirred wonder to an itch almost beyond endurance) Mr. Fisbee! and they then drove through town on the way to the Briscoe mansion, all four, apparently, in a fluster of pleasure and exhilaration, the strange lady engaged in earnest conversation with Mr. Fisbee on the back seat.
Judd Bennett had had the best stare at her, but, as he immediately fell into a dreamy and absent state, little satisfaction could be got from him, merely an exasperating statement that the stranger seemed to have a kind of new look to her. However, by means of Miss Mildy Upton, a domestic of the Briscoe household, the community was given something a little more definite. The lady's name was Sherwood; she lived in Rouen; and she had known Miss Briscoe at the eastern school the latter had attended (to the feverish agitation of Plattville) three years before; but Mildy confessed her inadequacy in the matter of Mr. Fisbee. He had driven up in the buckboard with the others and evidently expected to stay for supper Mr. Tibbs, the postmaster (it was to the postoffice that Miss Upton brought her information) suggested, as a possible explanation, that the lady was so learned that the Briscoes had invited Fisbee on the ground of his being the only person in Plattville they esteemed wise enough to converse with her; but Miss Tibbs wrecked her brother's theory by mentioning the name of Fisbee's chief.
"You see, Solomon," she sagaciously observed, "if that were true, they would have invited him, instead of Mr. Fisbee, and I wish they had. He isn't troubled with malaria, and yet the longer he lives here the sallower-looking and sadder-looking he gets. I think the company of a lovely stranger might be of great cheer to his heart, and it will be interesting to witness the meeting between them. It may be," added the poetess, "that they have already met, on his travels before he settled here. It may be that they are old friends--or even more."
"Then what," returned her brother, "what is he doin' settin' up in his office all afternoon with ink on his forehead, while Fisbee goes out ridin' with her and stays for supper afterwerds?"
Although the problem of Fisbee's attendance remained a mere maze of hopeless speculation, Mildy had been present at the opening of Miss Sherwood's trunk, and here was matter for the keen consideration of the ladies, at least. Thoughtful conversations in regard to hats and linings took place across fences and on corners of the Square that afternoon; and many gentlemen wondered (in wise silence) why their spouses were absentminded and brooded during the evening meal.
At half-past seven, the Hon. Kedge Halloway of Amo delivered himself of his lecture; "The Past and Present. What we may Glean from Them, and Their Influence on the Future." At seven the court-room was crowded, and Miss Tibbs, seated on the platform (reserved for prominent citizens), viewed the expectant throng with rapture. It is possible that she would have confessed to witnessing a sea of faces, but it is more probable that she viewed the expectant throng. The thermometer stood at eighty-seven degrees and there was a rustle of incessantly moving palm-leaf fans as, row by row, their yellow sides twinkled in the light of eight oil lamps. The stouter ladies wielded their fans with vigor. There were some very pretty faces in Mr. Halloway's audience, but it is a peculiarity of Plattville that most of those females who do not incline to stoutness incline far in the opposite direction, and the lean ladies naturally suffered less from the temperature than their sisters. The shorn lamb is cared for, but often there seems the intention to impart a moral in the refusal of Providence to temper warm weather to the full-bodied.
Old Tom Martin expressed a strong consciousness of such intention when he observed to the shocked Miss Selina, as Mr. Bill Snoddy, the stoutest citizen of the county, waddled abnormally up the aisle: "The Almighty must be gittin" a heap of fun out of Bill Snoddy to-night."
"Oh, Mr. Martin!" exclaimed Miss Tibbs, fluttering at his irreverence.
"Why, you would yourself. Miss Seliny," returned old Tom. Mr. Martin always spoke in one key, never altering the pitch of his high, dry, unctuous drawl, though, when his purpose was more than ordinarily humorous, his voice assumed a shade of melancholy. Now and then he meditatively passed his fingers through his gray beard, which followed the line of his jaw, leaving his upper lip and most of his chin smooth-shaven. "Did you ever reason out why folks laugh so much at fat people?" he continued. "No, ma'am. Neither'd anybody else."
"Why is it, Mr. Martin?" asked Miss Selina.
"It's like the Creator's sayin', 'Let there be light.' He says, 'Let ladies be lovely--'" (Miss Tibbs bowed)--"and 'Let men-folks be honest-- sometimes;' and, 'Let fat people be held up to ridicule till they fall off.' You can't tell why it is; it was jest ordained that-a-way."
The room was so crowded that the juvenile portion of the assemblage was ensconced in the windows. Strange to say, the youth of Plattville were not present under protest, as their fellows of a metropolis would have been, lectures being well understood by the young of great cities to have instructive tendencies. The boys came to-night because they insisted upon coming. It was an event. Some of them had made sacrifices to come, enduring even the agony (next to hair-cutting in suffering) of having their ears washed. Conscious of parental eyes, they fronted the public with boyhood's professional expressionlessness, though they communicated with each other aside in a cipher-language of their own, and each group was a hot-bed of furtive gossip and sarcastic comment. Seated in the windows, they kept out what small breath of air might otherwise have stolen in to comfort the audience.
Their elders sat patiently dripping with perspiration, most of the gentlemen undergoing the unusual garniture of stiffly-starched collars, those who had not cultivated chin beards to obviate such arduous necessities of pomp and state, hardly bearing up under the added anxiety of cravats. However, they sat outwardly meek under the yoke; nearly all of them seeking a quiet solace of tobacco--not that they smoked; Heaven and the gallantry of Carlow County forbid--nor were there anywhere visible tokens of the comforting ministrations of nicotine to violate the eye of etiquette. It is an art of Plattville.
Suddenly there was a hum and a stir and a buzz of whispering in the room. Two gray old men and two pretty young women passed up the aisle to the platform. One old man was stalwart and ruddy, with a cordial eye and a handsome, smooth-shaven, big face. The other was bent and trembled slightly; his face was very white; he had a fine high brow, deeply lined, the brow of a scholar, and a grandly flowing white beard that covered his chest, the beard of a patriarch. One of the young women was tall and had the rosy cheeks and pleasant eyes of her father, who preceded her. The other was the strange lady.
A universal perturbation followed her progress up the aisle, if she had known it. She was small and fair, very daintily and beautifully made; a pretty Marquise whose head Greuze. should have painted Mrs. Columbus Landis, wife of the proprietor of the Palace Hotel, conferring with a lady in the next seat, applied an over-burdened adjective: "It ain't so much she's han'some, though she is, that--but don't you notice she's got a kind of smart look to her? Her bein' so teeny, kind of makes it more so, somehow, too." What stunned the gossips of the windows to awed admiration, however, was the unconcerned and stoical fashion in which she wore a long bodkin straight through her head. It seemed a large sacrifice merely to make sure one's hat remained in place.
The party took seats a little to the left and rear of the lecturer's table, and faced the audience. The strange lady chatted gaily with the other three, apparently as unconscious of the multitude of eyes fixed upon her as the gazers were innocent of rude intent. There were pretty young women in Plattville; Minnie Briscoe was the prettiest, and, as the local glass of fashion reflected, "the stylishest"; but this girl was different, somehow, in a way the critics were puzzled to discover--different, from the sparkle of her eyes and the crown of her trim sailor hat, to the edge of her snowy duck skirt.
Judd Bennett sighed a sigh that was heard in every corner of the room. As everybody immediately turned to look at him, he got up and went out.
It had long been a jocose fiction of Mr. Martin, who was a widower of thirty years' standing, that he and the gifted authoress by his side were in a state of courtship. Now he bent his rugged head toward her to whisper: "I never thought to see the day you'd have a rival in my affections. Miss Seliny, but yonder looks like it. I reckon I'll have to go up to Ben Tinkle's and buy that fancy vest he's had in stock this last twelve year or more. Will you take me back when she's left the city again; Miss Seliny?" he drawled. "I expect, maybe, Miss Sherwood is one of these here summer girls. I've heard of 'em but I never see one before. You better take warning and watch me--Fisbee won't have no clear field from now on."
The stranger leaned across to speak to Miss Briscoe and her sleeve touched the left shoulder of the old man with the patriarchal white beard. A moment later he put his right hand to that shoulder and gently moved it up and down with a caressing motion over the shabby black broadcloth her garment had touched.
"Look at that old Fisbee!" exclaimed Mr. Martin, affecting indignation. "Never be 'n half as spruced up and wide awake in all his life. He's prob'ly got her to listen to him on the decorations of Nineveh--it's my belief he was there when it was destroyed. Well, if I can't cut him out we'll get our respected young friend of the 'Herald' to do it."
"Sh!" returned Miss Tibbs. "Here he is."
The seats upon the platform were all occupied, except the two foremost ones in the centre (one on each side of a little table with a lamp, a pitcher of ice-water, and a glass) reserved for the lecturer and the gentleman who was to introduce him. Steps were audible in the hall, and every one turned to watch the door, where the distinguished pair now made their appearance in a hush of expectation over which the beating of the fans alone prevailed. The Hon. Kedge Halloway was one of the gleaners of the flesh-pots, himself, and he marched into the room unostentatiously mopping his shining expanse of brow with a figured handkerchief. He was a person of solemn appearance; a fat gold watch-chain which curved across his ponderous front, adding mysteriously to his gravity. At his side strolled a very tall, thin, rather stooping--though broad-shouldered-- rather shabby young man with a sallow, melancholy face and deep-set eyes that looked tired. When they were seated, the orator looked over his audience slowly and with an incomparable calm; then, as is always done, he and the melancholy young man exchanged whispers for a few moments. After this there was a pause, at the end of which the latter rose and announced that it was his pleasure and his privilege to introduce, that evening, a gentleman who needed no introduction to that assemblage. What citizen of Carlow needed an introduction, asked the speaker, to the orator they had applauded in the campaigns of the last twenty years, the statesman author of the Halloway Bill, the most honored citizen of the neighboring and flourishing county and city of Amo? And, the speaker would say, that if there were one thing the citizens of Carlow could be held to envy the citizens of Amo, it was the Honorable Kedge Halloway, the thinker, to whose widely-known paper they were about to have the pleasure and improvement of listening.
The introduction was so vehemently applauded that, had there been present a person connected with the theatrical profession, he might have been nervous for fear the introducer had prepared no encore. "Kedge is too smart to take it all to himself," commented Mr. Martin. "He knows it's half account of the man that said it."
He was not mistaken. Mr. Halloway had learned a certain perceptiveness on the stump. Resting one hand upon his unfolded notes upon the table, he turned toward the melancholy young man (who had subsided into the small of his back in his chair) and, after clearing his throat, observed with sudden vehemence that he must thank his gifted friend for his flattering remarks, but that when he said that Carlow envied Amo a Halloway, it must be replied that Amo grudged no glory to her sister county of Carlow, but, if Amo could find envy in her heart it would be because Carlow possessed a paper so sterling, so upright, so brilliant, so enterprising as the "Carlow County Herald," and a journalist so talented, so gifted, so energetic, so fearless, as its editor.
The gentleman referred to showed very faint appreciation of these ringing compliments. There was a lamp on the table beside him, against which, to the view of Miss Sherwood of Rouen, his face was silhouetted, and very rarely had it been her lot to see a man look less enthusiastic under public and favorable comment of himself. She wondered if he, also, remembered the Muggleton cricket match and the subsequent dinner oratory.
The lecture proceeded. The orator winged away to soary heights with gestures so vigorous as to cause admiration for his pluck in making use of them on such a night; the perspiration streamed down his face, his neck grew purple, and he dared the very face of apoplexy, binding his auditors with a double spell. It is true that long before the peroration the windows were empty and the boys were eating stolen, unripe fruit in the orchards of the listeners. The thieves were sure of an alibi.
The Hon. Mr. Halloway reached a logical conclusion which convinced even the combative and unwilling that the present depends largely upon the past, while the future will be determined, for the most part, by the conditions of the present. "The future," he cried, leaning forward with an expression of solemn warning, "The future is in our own hands, ladies and gentlemen of the city of Plattville. Is it not so? We will find it so. Turn it over in your minds." He leaned backward and folded his hands benevolently on his stomach and said in a searching whisper; "Ponder it." He waited for them to ponder it, and little Mr. Swanter, the druggist and bookseller, who prided himself on his politeness and who was seated directly in front, scratched his head and knit his brows to show that he was pondering it. The stillness was intense; the fans ceased to beat; Mr. Snoddy could be heard breathing dangerously. Mr. Swanter was considering the advisability of drawing a pencil from his pocket and figuring on it upon his cuff, when suddenly, with the energy of a whirlwind, the lecturer threw out his arms to their fullest extent and roared: "It is a fact! It is carven on stone in the gloomy caverns of TIME. It is writ in FIRE on the imperishable walls of Fate!"
After the outburst, his voice sank with startling rapidity to a tone of honeyed confidence, and he wagged an inviting forefinger at Mr. Snoddy, who opened his mouth. "Shall we take an example? Not from the marvellous, my friends; let us seek an illustration from the ordinary. Is that not better? One familiar to the humblest of us. One we can all comprehend. One from our every-day life. One which will interest even the young. Yes. The common house-fly. On a window-sill we place a bit of fly-paper, and contiguous to it, a flower upon which the happy insect likes to feed and rest. The little fly approaches. See, he hovers between the two. One is a fatal trap, an ambuscade, and the other a safe harbor and an innocuous haven. But mystery allures him. He poises, undecided. That is the present. That, my friends, is the Present! What will he do? WHAT will he do? What will he DO? Memories of the past are whispering to him: 'Choose the flower. Light on the posy.' Here we clearly see the influence of the past upon the present. But, to employ a figure of speech, the fly-paper beckons to the insect toothsomely, and, thinks he; 'Shall I give it a try? Shall I? Shall I give it a try?' The future is in his own hands to make or unmake. The past, the voice of Providence, has counselled him: 'Leave it alone, leave it alone, little fly. Go away from there.' Does he heed the warning? Does he heed it, ladies and gentlemen? Does he? Ah, no! He springs into the air, decides between the two attractions, one of them, so deadly to his interests and--drops upon the fly-paper to perish miserably! The future is in his hands no longer. We must lie upon the bed that we have made, nor can Providence change its unalterable decrees."
After the tragedy, the orator took a swallow of water, mopped his brow with the figured handkerchief and announced that a new point herewith presented itself for consideration. The audience sank back with a gasp of release from the strain of attention. Minnie Briscoe, leaning back, breathless like the others, became conscious that a tremor agitated her visitor. Miss Sherwood had bent her head behind the shelter of the judge's broad shoulders; was shaking slightly and had covered her face with her hands.
"What is it, Helen?" whispered Miss Briscoe, anxiously. "What is it? Is something the matter?"
"Nothing. Nothing, dear." She dropped her hands from her face. Her cheeks were deep crimson, and she bit her lip with determination.
"Oh, but there is! Why, you've tears in your eyes. Are you faint? What is it?"
"It is only--only----" Miss Sherwood choked, then cast a swift glance at the profile of the melancholy young man. The perfectly dismal decorum of this gentleman seemed to inspire her to maintain her own gravity. "It is only that it seemed such a pity about that fly," she explained. From where they sat the journalistic silhouette was plainly visible, and both Fisbee and Miss Sherwood looked toward it often, the former with the wistful, apologetic fidelity one sees in the eyes of an old setter watching his master.
When the lecture was over many of the audience pressed forward to shake the Hon. Mr. Halloway's hand. Tom Martin hooked his arm in that of the sallow gentleman and passed out with him.
"Mighty humanizin' view Kedge took of that there insect," remarked Mr. Martin. "I don't recollect I ever heard of no mournfuller error than that'n. I noticed you spoke of Halloway as a 'thinker,' without mentioning what kind. I didn't know, before, that you were as cautious a man as that."
"Does your satire find nothing sacred, Martin?" returned the other, "not even the Honorable Kedge Halloway?"
"I wouldn't presume," replied old Tom, "to make light of the catastrophe that overtook the heedless fly. When Halloway went on to other subjects I was so busy picturin' the last moments of that closin' life, stuck there in the fly-paper, I couldn't listen to him. But there's no use dwellin' on a sorrow we can't help. Look at the moon; it's full enough to cheer us up." They had emerged from the court-house and paused on the street as the stream of townsfolk divided and passed by them to take different routes leading from the Square. Not far away, some people were getting into a buckboard. Fisbee and Miss Sherwood were already on the rear seat.
"Who's with him, to-night, Mr. Fisbee?" asked Judge Briscoe in a low voice.
"No one. He is going directly to the office. To-morrow is Thursday, one of our days of publication."
"Oh, then it's all right. Climb in, Minnie, we're waiting for you." The judge offered his hand to his daughter.
"In a moment, father," she answered. "I'm going to ask him to call," she said to the other girl.
"But won't he--"
Miss Briscoe laughed. "He never comes to see me!" She walked over to where Martin and the young man were looking up at the moon, and addressed the journalist.
"I've been trying to get a chance to speak to you for a week," she said, offering him her hand; "I wanted to tell you I had a friend coming to visit me Won't you come to see us? She's here."
The young man bowed. "Thank you," he answered. "Thank you, very much. I shall be very glad." His tone had the meaningless quality of perfunctory courtesy; Miss Briscoe detected only the courtesy; but the strange lady marked the lack of intention in his words.
"Don't you include me, Minnie?" inquired Mr Martin, plaintively. "I'll try not to be too fascinatin', so as to give our young friend a show. It was love at first sight with me. I give Miss Seliny warning soon as your folks come in and I got a good look at the lady."
As the buckboard drove away, Miss Sherwood, who had been gazing steadfastly at the two figures still standing in the street, the tall ungainly old one, and the taller, loosely-held young one (he had not turned to look at her) withdrew her eyes from them, bent them seriously upon Fisbee, and asked: "What did you mean when you said no one was with him to-night?"
"That no one was watching him," he answered.
"Watching him? I don't understand."
"Yes; he has been shot at from the woods at night and----"
The girl shivered. "But who watches him?"
"The young men of the town. He has a habit of taking long walks after dark, and he is heedless of all remonstrance. He laughs at the idea of curtailing the limit of his strolls or keeping within the town when night has fallen; so the young men have organized a guard for him, and every evening one of them follows him until he goes to the office to work for the night. It is a different young man every evening, and the watcher follows at a distance so that he does not suspect."
"But how many people know of this arrangement?"
"Nearly every one in the county except the Cross-Roads people, though it is not improbable that they have discovered it."
"And has no one told him"
"No; it would annoy him; he would not allow it to continue. He will not even arm himself."
"They follow and watch him night after night, and every one knows and no one tells him? Oh, I must say," cried the girl, "I think these are good people."
The stalwart old man on the front seat shook out the reins and whined the whip over his roans' backs. "They are the people of your State and mine. Miss Sherwood," he said in his hearty voice, "the best people in God's world--and I'm not running for Congress, either!"
"But how about the Six-Cross-Roads people, father?" asked Minnie.
"We'll wipe them clean out some day," answered her father--"possibly judicially, possibly----"
"Surely judiciously?" suggested Miss Sherwood.
"If you care to see what a bad settlement looks like, we'll drive through there to-morrow--by daylight," said Briscoe. "Even the doctor doesn't insist on being in that neighborhood after dark. They are trying their best to get Harkless, and if they do----"
"If they do!" repeated Miss Sherwood. She clasped Fisbee's hand gently. His eyes shone and he touched her fingers with a strange, shy reverence.
"You will meet him to-morrow," he said.
She laughed and pressed his hand. "I'm afraid not. He wasn't even interested enough to look at me."