Chapter IV - The Walrus And The Carpenter
The Briscoe buckboard rattled along the elastic country-road, the roans setting a sharp pace as they turned eastward on the pike toward home and supper.
"They'll make the eight miles in three-quarters of an hour," said the judge, proudly. He pointed ahead with his whip. "Just beyond that bend we pass through Six-Cross-Roads."
Miss Sherwood leaned forward eagerly. "Can we see 'Mr. Wimby's' house from here?"
"No, it's on the other side, nearer town; we pass it later. It's the only respectable-looking house in this township." They reached the turn of the road, and the judge touched up his colts to a sharper gait. "No need of dallying," he observed quietly. "It always makes me a little sick just to see the place. I'd hate to have a break-down here."
They came in sight of a squalid settlement, built raggedly about a blacksmith's shop and a saloon. Half-a-dozen shanties clustered near the forge, a few roofs scattered through the shiftlessly cultivated fields, four or five barns propped by fence-rails, some sheds with gaping apertures through which the light glanced from side to side, a squad of thin, "razor-back" hogs--now and then worried by gaunt hounds--and some abused-looking hens, groping about disconsolately in the mire, a brokentopped buggy with a twisted wheel settling into the mud of the middle of the road (there was always abundant mud, here, in the dryest summer), a lowering face sneering from a broken window--Six-Cross-Roads was forbidding and forlorn enough by day. The thought of what might issue from it by night was unpleasant, and the legends of the Cross-Roads, together with an unshapen threat, easily fancied in the atmosphere of the place, made Miss Sherwood shiver as though a cold draught had crossed her.
"It is so sinister!" she exclaimed. "And so unspeakably mean! This is where they live, the people who hate him, is it? The 'White-Caps'?"
"They are just a lot of rowdies," replied Briscoe. "You have your rough corners in big cities, and I expect there are mighty few parts of any country that don't have their tough neighborhoods, only Six-Cross-Roads happens to be worse than most. They choose to call themselves 'WhiteCaps,' but I guess it's just a name they like to give themselves. Usually White-Caps are a vigilance committee going after rascalities the law doesn't reach, or won't reach, but these fellows are not that kind. They got together to wipe out their grudges--and sometimes they didn't need any grudge and let loose their deviltries just for pure orneriness; setting haystacks afire and such like; or, where a farmer had offended them, they would put on their silly toggery and take him out at midnight and whip him and plunder his house and chase the horses and cattle into his corn, maybe. They say the women went with them on their raids."
"And he was the first to try to stop them?"
"Well, you see our folks are pretty long-suffering," Briscoe replied, apologetically. "We'd sort of got used to the meanness of the Cross-Roads. It took a stranger to stir things up--and he did. He sent eight of 'em to the penitentiary, some for twenty years."
As they passed the saloon a man stepped into the doorway and looked at them. He was coatless and clad in garments worn to the color of dust; his bare head was curiously malformed, higher on one side than on the other, and though the buckboard passed rapidly, and at a distance, this singular lopsidedness was plainly visible to the occupants, lending an ugly significance to his meagre, yellow face. He was tall, lean, hard, powerfully built. He eyed the strangers with affected languor, and then, when they had gone by, broke into sudden, loud laughter.
"That was Bob Skillett, the worst of the lot," said the judge. "Harkless sent his son and one brother to prison, and it nearly broke his heart that he couldn't swear to Bob."
When they were beyond the village and in the open road again. Miss Sherwood took a deep breath. "I think I breathe more freely," she said. "That was a hideous laugh he sent after us. I had heard of places like this before--and I don't think I care to see many of them. As I understand it, Six-Cross-Roads is entirely vicious, isn't it; and bears the same relation to the country that the slums do to a city?'"
"That's about it. They make their own whiskey. I presume; and they have their own fights amongst themselves, but they settle 'em themselves, too, and keep their own counsel and hush it up. Lige Willetts, Minnie's friend --I guess she's told you about Lige?--well, Lige Willetts will go anywhere when he's following a covey, though mostly the boys leave this part of the country alone when they're hunting; but Lige got into a thicket back of the forge one morning, and he came on a crowd of buzzards quarrelling over a heap on the ground, and he got out in a hurry. He said he was sure it was a dog; but he ran almost all the way to Plattville."
"Father!" exclaimed his daughter, leaning from the back seat. "Don't tell such stories to Helen; she'll think we're horrible, and you'll frighten her, too."
"Well, it isn't exactly a lady's story," said the judge. He glanced at his guest's face and chuckled. "I guess we won't frighten her much," he went on. "Young lady, I don't believe you'd be afraid of many things, would you? You don't look like it. Besides, the Cross-Roads isn't Plattville, and the White-Caps have been too scared to do anything much, except try to get even with the 'Herald,' for the last two years; ever since it went for them. They're laying for Harkless partly for revenge and partly because they daren't do anything until he's out of the way."
The girl gave a low cry with a sharp intake of breath. "Ah! One grows tired of this everlasting American patience! Why don't the Plattville people do something before they----"
"It's just as I say," Briscoe answered; "our folks are sort of used to them. I expect we do about all we can; the boys look after him nights, and the main trouble is that we can't make him understand he ought to be more afraid of them. If he'd lived here all his life he would be. You know there's an old-time feud between the Cross-Roads and our folks; goes way back into pioneer history and mighty few know anything of it. Old William Platt and the forefathers of the Bardlocks and Tibbses and Briscoes and Schofields moved up here from North Carolina a good deal just to get away from some bad neighbors, mostly Skilletts and Johnsons--one of the Skilletts had killed old William Platt's two sons. But the Skilletts and Johnsons followed all the way to Indiana to join in making the new settlement, and they shot Platt at his cabin door one night, right where the court-house stands to-day. Then the other settlers drove them out for good, and they went seven miles west and set up a still. A band of Indians, on the way to join the Shawnee Prophet at Tippecanoe, came down on the Cross-Roads, and the Cross-Roaders bought them off with bad whiskey and sent them over to Plattville. Nearly all the Plattville men were away, fighting under Harrison, and when they came back there were only a few half-crazy women and children left. They'd hid in the woods.
"The men stopped just long enough to hear how it was, and started for the Cross-Roads; but the Cross-Roads people caught them in an ambush and not many of our folks got back.
"We really never did get even with them, though all the early settlers lived and died still expecting to see the day when Plattville would go over and pay off the score. It's the same now as it was then, good stock with us, bad stock over here; and all the country riff-raff in creation come and live with 'em when other places get too hot to hold them. Only one or two of us old folks know what the original trouble was about; but you ask a Plattville man, to-day, what he thinks of the Cross-Roads and he'll be mighty apt to say, 'I guess we'll all have to go over there some time and wipe those hoodlums out.' It's been coming to that a long time. The work the 'Herald' did has come nearer bringing us even with Six-CrossRoads than anything else ever has. Queer, too--a man that's only lived in Plattville a few years to be settling such an old score for us. They'll do their best to get him, and if they do there'll be trouble of an illegal nature. I think our people would go over there again, but I expect there wouldn't be any ambush this time; and the pioneers, might rest easier in--" He broke off suddenly and nodded to a little old man in a buckboard, who was turning off from the road into a farm lane which led up to a trim cottage with a honeysuckle vine by the door. "That's Mrs. Wimby's husband," said the judge in an undertone.
Miss Sherwood observed that "Mrs. Wimby's husband" was remarkable for the exceeding plaintiveness of his expression. He was a weazened, blank, paleeyed little man, with a thin, white mist of neck whisker; his coat was so large for him that the sleeves were rolled up from his wrists with several turns, and, as he climbed painfully to the ground to open the gate of the lane, it needed no perspicuous eye to perceive that his trousers had been made for a much larger man, for, as his uncertain foot left the step of his vehicle, one baggy leg of the garment fell down over his foot, completely concealing his boot and hanging some inches beneath. A faintly vexed expression crossed his face as he endeavored to arrange the disorder, but he looked up and returned Briscoe's bow, sadly, with an air of explaining that he was accustomed to trouble, and that the trousers had behaved no worse than he expected.
No more inoffensive or harmless figure than this feeble little old man could be imagined; yet his was the distinction of having received a terrible visit from his neighbors of the Cross-Roads. Mrs. Wimby was a widow, who owned a comfortable farm, and she had refused every offer of the neighboring ill-eligible bachelors to share it. However, a vagabonding tinker won her heart, and after their marriage she continued to be known as "Mrs. Wimby"; for so complete was the bridegroom's insignificance that it extended to his name, which proved quite unrememberable, and he was usually called "Widder-Woman Wimby's Husband," or, more simply, "Mr. Wimby." The bride supplied the needs of his wardrobe with the garments of her former husband, and, alleging this proceeding as the cause of their anger, the Cross-Roads raiders, clad as "White-Caps," broke into the farmhouse one night, looted it, tore the old man from his bed, and compelling his wife, who was tenderly devoted to him, to watch, they lashed him with sapling shoots till he was near to death. A little yellow cur, that had followed his master on his wanderings, was found licking the old man's wounds, and they deluged the dog with kerosene and then threw the poor animal upon a bonfire they had made, and danced around it in heartiest enjoyment.
The man recovered, but that was no palliation of the offense to the mind of a hot-eyed young man from the East, who was besieging the county authorities for redress and writing brimstone and saltpetre for his paper. The powers of the county proving either lackadaisical or timorous, he appealed to those of the State, and he went every night to sleep at a farmhouse, the owner of which had received a warning from the "WhiteCaps." And one night it befell that he was rewarded, for the raiders attempted an entrance. He and the farmer and the former's sons beat off the marauders and did a satisfactory amount of damage in return. Two of the "White-Caps" they captured and bound, and others they recognized. Then the State authorities hearkened to the voice of the "Herald" and its owner; there were arrests, and in the course of time there was a trial. Every prisoner proved an alibi, could have proved a dozen; but the editor of the "Herald," after virtually conducting the prosecution, went upon the stand and swore to man after man. Eight men went to the penitentiary on his evidence, five of them for twenty years. The Plattville Brass Band serenaded the editor of the "Herald" again.
There were no more raids, and the Six-Cross-Roads men who were left kept to their hovels, appalled and shaken, but, as time went by and left them unmolested, they recovered a measure of their hardiness and began to think on what they should do to the man who had brought misfortune and terror upon them. For a long time he had been publishing their threatening letters and warnings in a column which he headed: "Humor of the Day."
"Harkless don't understand the Cross-Roads," Briscoe said to Miss Sherwood as they left the Wimby farm behind; "and then he's like most of us; hardly any of us realizes that harm's ever going to come to us. Harkless was anxious enough about other people, but----"
The young lady interrupted him, touching his arm. "Look!" she said, "Didn't you see a child, a little girl, ahead of us on the road?"
"I noticed one a minute ago, but she's not there now," answered Briscoe.
"There was a child walking along the road just ahead, but she turned and saw us coming, and she disappeared in the most curious way; she seemed to melt into the weeds at the roadside, across from the elder-bush yonder."
The judge pulled in the horses by the elder-bush. "No child here, now," he said, "but you're right; there certainly was one, just before you spoke." The young corn was low in the fields, and there was no hiding-place in sight.
"I'm very superstitious; I am sure it was an imp," Miss Sherwood said. "An imp or a very large chameleon; she was exactly the color of the road."
"A Cross-Roads imp," said the judge, lifting the reins, "and in that case we might as well give up. I never set up to be a match for those people, and the children are as mean as their fathers, and smarter."
When the buckboard had rattled on a hundred yards or so, a little figure clad in a tattered cotton gown rose up from the weeds, not ten feet from where the judge had drawn rein, and continued its march down the road toward Plattville, capering in the dust and pursuing the buckboard with malignant gestures till the clatter of the horses was out of hearing, the vehicle out of sight.
Something over two hours later, as Mr. Martin was putting things to rights in his domain, the Dry-Goods Emporium, previous to his departure for the evening's gossip and checkers at the drug-store, he stumbled over something soft, lying on the floor behind a counter. The thing rose, and would have evaded him, but he put out his hands and pinioned it and dragged it to the show-window where the light of the fading day defined his capture. The capture shrieked and squirmed and fought earnestly. Grasped by the shoulder he held a lean, fierce-eyed, undersized girl of fourteen, clad in one ragged cotton garment, unless the coat of dust she wore over all may be esteemed another. Her cheeks were sallow, and her brow was already shrewdly lined, and her eyes were as hypocritical as they were savage. She was very thin and little, but old Tom's brown face grew a shade nearer white when the light fell upon her.
"You're no Plattville girl," he said sharply.
"You lie!" cried the child. "You lie! I am! You leave me go, will you? I'm lookin' fer pap and you're a liar!"
"You crawled in here to sleep, after your seven-mile walk, didn't you?" Martin went on.
"You're a liar," she screamed again.
"Look here," said Martin, slowly, "you go back to Six-Cross-Roads and tell your folks that if anything happens to a hair of Mr. Harkless's head every shanty in your town will burn, and your grandfather and your father and your uncles and your brothers and your cousins and your second-cousins and your third-cousins will never have the good luck to see the penitentiary. Reckon you can remember that message? But before I let you go to carry it, I guess you might as well hand out the paper they sent you over here with."
His prisoner fell into a paroxysm of rage, and struck at him.
"I'll git pap to kill ye," she shrieked. "I don' know nothin' 'bout yer Six-Cross-Roads, ner no papers, ner yer dam Mister Harkels neither, ner you, ye razor-backed ole devil! Pap'll kill ye; leave me go--leave me go!--Pap'll kill ye; I'll git him to kill ye!" Suddenly her struggles ceased; her eyes closed; her tense little muscles relaxed and she drooped toward the floor; the old man shifted his grip to support her, and in an instant she twisted out of his hands and sprang out of reach, her eyes shining with triumph and venom.
"Ya-hay, Mister Razor-back!" she shrilled. "How's that fer hi? Pap'll kill ye, Sunday. You'll be screechin' in hell in a week, an' we 'ull set up an' drink our apple-jack an' laff!" Martin pursued her lumberingly, but she was agile as a monkey, and ran dodging up and down the counters and mocked him, singing "Gran' mammy Tipsy-Toe," till at last she tired of the game and darted out of the door, flinging back a hoarse laugh at him as she went. He followed; but when he reached the street she was a mere shadow flitting under the courthouse trees. He looked after her forebodingly, then turned his eyes toward the Palace Hotel. The editor of the "Herald" was seated under the awning, with his chair tilted back against a post, gazing dreamily at the murky red afterglow in the west.
"What's the use of tryin' to bother him with it?" old Tom asked himself. "He'd only laugh." He noted that young William Todd sat near the editor, whittling absently. Martin chuckled. "William's turn to-night," he muttered. "Well, the boys take mighty good care of him." He locked the doors of the Emporium, tried them, and dropped the keys in his pocket.
As he crossed the Square to the drug-store, where his cronies awaited him, he turned again to look at the figure of the musing journalist. "I hope he'll go out to the judge's," he said, and shook his head, sadly. "I don't reckon Plattville's any too spry for that young man. Five years he's be'n here. Well, it's a good thing for us folks, but I guess it ain't exactly high-life for him." He kicked a stick out of his way impatiently. "Now, where'd that imp run to?" he grumbled.
The imp was lying under the court-house steps. When the sound of Martin's footsteps had passed away, she crept cautiously from her hiding-place and stole through the ungroomed grass to the fence opposite the hotel. Here she stretched herself flat in the weeds and took from underneath the tangled masses of her hair, where it was tied with a string, a rolled-up, crumpled slip of greasy paper. With this in her fingers, she lay peering under the fence, her fierce eyes fixed unwinkingly on Harkless and the youth sitting near him.
The street ran flat and gray in the slowly gathering dusk, straight to the western horizon where the sunset embers were strewn in long, dark-red streaks; the maple trees were clean-cut silhouettes against the pale rose and pearl tints of the sky above, and a tenderness seemed to tremble in the air. Harkless often vowed to himself he would watch no more sunsets in Plattville; he realized that their loveliness lent a too unhappy tone to the imaginings and introspections upon which he was thrown by the loneliness of the environment, and he considered that he had too much time in which to think about himself. For five years his introspections had monotonously hurled one word at him: "Failure; Failure! Failure!" He thought the sunsets were making him morbid. Could he have shared them, that would have been different.
His long, melancholy face grew longer and more melancholy in the twilight, while William Todd patiently whittled near by. Plattville had often discussed the editor's habit of silence, and Mr. Martin had suggested that possibly the reason Mr. Harkless was such a quiet man was that there was nobody for him to talk to. His hearers did not agree, for the population of Carlow County was a thing of pride, being greater than that of several bordering counties. They did agree, however, that Harkless's quiet was not unkind, whatever its cause, and that when it was broken it was usually broken to conspicuous effect. Perhaps it was because he wrote so much that he hated to talk.
A bent figure came slowly down the street, and William hailed it cheerfully: "Evening, Mr. Fisbee."
"A good evening, Mr. Todd," answered the old man, pausing. "Ah, Mr. Harkless, I was looking for you." He had not seemed to be looking for anything beyond the boundaries of his own dreams, but he approached Harkless, tugging nervously at some papers in his pocket. "I have completed my notes for our Saturday edition. It was quite easy; there is much doing."
"Thank you, Mr. Fisbee," said Harkless, as he took the manuscript. "Have you finished your paper on the earlier Christian symbolism? I hope the 'Herald' may have the honor of printing it." This was the form they used.
"I shall be the recipient of honor, sir," returned Fisbee. "Your kind offer will speed my work; but I fear, Mr. Harkless, I very much fear, that your kindness alone prompts it, for, deeply as I desire it, I cannot truthfully say that my essays appear to increase our circulation." He made an odd, troubled gesture as he went on: "They do not seem to read them here, Mr. Harkless, although Mr. Martin assures me that he carefully peruses my article on Chaldean decoration whenever he rearranges his exhibition windows, and I bear in mind the clipping from a Rouen paper you showed me, commenting generously upon the scholarship of the 'Herald.' But for fifteen years I have tried to improve the art feeling in Plattville, and I may say that I have worked in the face of no small discouragement. In fact," (there was a slight quaver in Fisbee's voice), "I cannot remember that I ever received the slightest word or token of encouragement till you came, Mr. Harkless. Since then I have labored with refreshed energy; still, I cannot claim that our architecture shows a change for the better, and I fear the engravings upon the walls of our people exhibit no great progress in selection. And--I--I wish also to say, Mr. Harkless, if you find it necessary to make some alterations in the form of my reportorial items for Saturday's issue, I shall perfectly understand, remembering your explanation that journalism demands it. Good-evening, Mr. Harkless. Good-evening, Mr. Todd." He plodded on a few paces, then turned, irresolutely.
"What is it, Fisbee?" asked Harkless.
Fisbee stood for a moment, as though about to speak, then he smiled faintly, shook his head, and went his way. Harkless stared after him, surprised. It suddenly struck him, with a feeling of irritation, that if Fisbee had spoken it would have been to advise him to call at Judge Briscoe's. He laughed impatiently at the notion, and, drawing his pencil and a pad from his pocket, proceeded to injure his eyes in the waning twilight by the editorial perusal of the items his staff had just left in his hands. When published, the manuscript came under a flaring heading, bequeathed by Harkless's predecessor in the chair of the "Herald," and the alteration of which he felt Plattville would refuse to sanction: "Happenings of Our City." Below, was printed in smaller type: "Improvements in the World of Business," and, beneath that, came the rubric: "Also, the Cradle, the Altar, and the Tomb."
The first of Fisbee's items was thus recorded: "It may be noted that the new sign-board of Mr. H. Miller has been put in place. We cannot but regret that Mr. Miller did not instruct the painter to confine himself to a simpler method of lettering."
"Ah, Fisbee," murmured the editor, reproachfully, "that new sign-board is almost the only improvement in the World of Business Plattville has seen this year. I wonder how many times we have used it from the first, 'It is rumored in business circles that Herve Miller contemplates'--to the exciting, 'Under Way,' and, 'Finishing Touches.' My poor White Knight, are five years of training wasted on you? Sometimes you make me fear it. Here is Plattville panting for our story of the hanging of the sign, and you throw away the climax like that!" He began to write rapidly, bending low over the pad in the half darkness. His narrative was an amplification of the interesting information (already possessed by every inhabitant) that Herve Miller had put up a new sign. After a paragraph of handsome description, "Herve is always enterprising," wrote the editor. "This is a move in the right direction. Herve, keep it up."
He glanced over the other items meditatively, making alterations here and there. The last two Fisbee had written as follows:
"There is noticeable in the new (and somewhat incongruous) portico erected by Solomon Tibbs at the residence of Mr. Henry Tibbs Willetts, an attempt at rococo decoration which cannot fail to sadden the passer-by."
"Miss Sherwood of Rouen, whom Miss Briscoe knew at the Misses Jennings' finishing-school in New York, is a guest of Judge Briscoe's household."
Fisbee's items were written in ink; and there was a blank space beneath the last. At the bottom of the page something had been scribbled in pencil. Harkless tried vainly to decipher it, but the twilight had fallen too deep, and the writing was too faint, so he struck a match and held it close to the paper. The action betokened only a languid interest, but when he caught sight of the first of the four subscribed lines he sat up straight in his chair with an ejaculation. At the bottom of Fisbee's page was written in a dainty, feminine hand, of a type he had not seen for years:
He put the paper in his pocket, and set off rapidly down the village street.
At his departure William Todd looked up quickly; then he got upon his feet and quietly followed the editor. In the dusk a tattered little figure rose up from the weeds across the way, and stole noiselessly after William. He was in his shirt-sleeves, his waistcoat unbuttoned and loose. On the nearest corner Mr. Todd encountered a fellow-townsman, who had been pacing up and down in front of a cottage, crooning to a protestive baby held in his arms. He had paused in his vigil to stare after Harkless.
"Whereas he bound for, William?" inquired the man with the baby.
"Briscoes'," answered William, pursuing his way.
"I reckoned he would be," commented the other, turning to his wife, who sat on the doorstep, "I reckoned so when I see that lady at the lecture last night."
The woman rose to her feet. "Hi, Bill Todd!" she said. "What you got onto the back of your vest?" William paused, put his hand behind him and encountered a paper pinned to the dangling strap of his waistcoat. The woman ran to him and unpinned the paper. It bore a writing. They took it to where the yellow lamp-light shone through the open door, and read: "der Sir "FoLer harkls aL yo ples an gaRd him yoR best venagesn is closteR, harkls not Got 3 das to liv "We come in Wite."
"What ye think, William?" asked the man with the baby, anxiously. But the woman gave the youth a sharp push with her hand. "They never dast to do it!" she cried. "Never in the world! You hurry, Bill Todd. Don't you leave him out of your sight one second."
"'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
And cabbages--and kings--'"