Chapter IX - Night: It Is Bad Luck To Sing Before Breakfast
There was a lace of faint mists along the creek and beyond, when John and Helen reached their bench (of course they went back there), and broken roundelays were croaking from a bayou up the stream, where rakish frogs held carnival in resentment of the lonesomeness. The air was still and close. Hundreds of fire-flies coquetted with the darkness amongst the trees across the water, glinting from unexpected spots, shading their little lanterns for a second to glow again from other shadows. The sky was a wonderful olive green; a lazy cloud drifted in it and lapped itself athwart the moon.
"The dead painters design the skies for us each day and night, I think," Helen said, as she dropped a little scarf from her shoulders and leaned back on the bench. "It must be the only way to keep them happy and busy 'up there.' They let them take turns, and those not on duty, probably float around and criticise."
"They've given a good man his turn to-night," said John; "some quiet colorist, a poetic, friendly soul, no Turner--though I think I've seen a Turner sunset or two in Plattville."
"It was a sculptor's sunset this evening. Did you see it?--great massy clouds piled heap on heap, almost with violence. I'm sure it was Michelangelo. The judge didn't think it meant Michelangelo; he thought it meant rain."
"Michelangelo gets a chance rather often, doesn't he, considering the number of art people there must be over there? I believe I've seen a good many sunsets of his, and a few dawns, too; the dawns not for a long time-- I used to see them more frequently toward the close of senior year, when we sat up all night talking, knowing we'd lose one another soon, and trying to hold on as long as we could."
She turned to him with a little frown. "Why have you never let Tom Meredith know you were living so near him, less than a hundred miles, when he has always liked and admired you above all the rest of mankind? I know that he has tried time and again to hear of you, but the other men wrote that they knew nothing--that it was thought you had gone abroad. I had heard of you, and so must he have seen your name in the Rouen papers-- about the 'White-Caps,' and in politics--but he would never dream of connecting the Plattville Mr. Harkless with his Mr. Harkless, though I did, just a little, and rather vaguely. I knew, of course, when you came into the lecture. But why haven't you written to my cousin?"
"Rouen seems a long way from here," he answered quietly. "I've only been there once--half a day on business. Except that, I've never been further away than Amo or Gainesville, for a convention or to make a speech, since I came here."
"Wicked!" she exclaimed, "To shut yourself up like this! I said it was fine to drop out of the world; but why have you cut off your old friends from you? Why haven't you had a relapse, now and then, and come over to hear Ysaye play and Melba sing, or to see Mansfield or Henry Irving, when we have had them? And do you think you've been quite fair to Tom? What right had you to assume that he had forgotten you?"
"Oh, I didn't exactly mean forgotten," he said, pulling a blade of grass to and fro between his fingers, staring at it absently. "It's only that I have dropped out of the world, you know. I kept track of every one, saw most of my friends, or corresponded, now and then, for a year or so after I left college; but people don't miss you much after a while. They rather expected me to do a lot of things, in a way, you know, and I wasn't doing them. I was glad to get away. I always had an itch for newspaper work, and I went on a New York paper. Maybe it was the wrong paper; at least, I wasn't fit for it. There was something in the side of life I saw, too, not only on the paper, that made me heart-sick; and then the rush and fight and scramble to be first, to beat the other man. Probably I am too squeamish. I saw classmates and college friends diving into it, bound to come out ahead, dear old, honest, frank fellows, who had been so happy-golucky and kind and gay, growing too busy to meet and be good to any man who couldn't be good to them, asking (more delicately) the eternal question, 'What does it get me?' You might think I bad-met with unkindness; but it was not so; it was the other way more than I deserved. But the cruel competition, the thousands fighting for places, the multitude scrambling for each ginger-bread baton, the cold faces on the streets--perhaps it's all right and good; of course it has to be--but I wanted to get out of it, though I didn't want to come here. That was chance. A new man bought the paper I was working for, and its policy changed. Many of the same men still wrote for it, facing cheerfully about and advocating a tricky theory, vehement champions of a set of personal schemers and waxy images."
He spoke with feeling; but now, as though a trifle ashamed of too much seriousness, and justifiably afraid of talking like one of his own editorials, he took a lighter tone. "I had been taken on the paper through a friend and not through merit, and by the same undeserved, kindly influence, after a month or so I was set to writing short political editorials, and was at it nearly two years. When the paper changed hands the new proprietor indicated that he would be willing to have me stay and write the other way. I refused; and it became somewhat plain to me that I was beginning to be a failure.
"A cousin of mine, the only relative I had, died in Chicago, and I went to his funeral. I happened to hear of the Carlow 'Herald' through an agent there, the most eloquent gentleman I ever met. I was younger, and even more thoughtless than now, and I had a little money and I handed it over for the 'Herald.' I wanted to run a paper myself, and to build up a power! And then, though I only lived here the first few years of my life and all the rest of it had been spent in the East, I was born in Indiana, and, in a way, the thought of coming back to a life-work in my native State appealed to me. I always had a dim sort of feeling that the people out in these parts knew more--had more sense and were less artificial, I mean-- and were kinder, and tried less to be somebody else, than almost any other people anywhere. And I believe it's so. It's dull, here in Carlow, of course--that is, it used to be. The agent explained that I could make the paper a daily at once, with an enormous circulation in the country. I was very, very young. Then I came here and saw what I had got. Possibly it is because I am sensitive that I never let Tom know. They expected me to amount to something; but I don't believe his welcome would be less hearty to a failure--he is a good heart."
"Failure!" she cried, and clapped her hands and laughed.
"I'm really not very tragic about it, though I must seem consumed with self-pity," he returned, smiling. "It is only that I have dropped out of the world while Tom is still in it."
"Dropped out of the world!'" she echoed, impatiently. "Can't you see you've dropped into it? That you----"
"Last night I was honored by your praise of my graceful mode of quitting it!"
"And so you wish me to be consistent!" she retorted scornfully. "What becomes of your gallantry when we abide by reason?"
"True enough; equality is a denial of privilege."
"And privilege is a denial of equality. I don't like that at all." She turned a serious, suddenly illuminated face upon him and spoke earnestly. "It's my hobby, I should tell you, and I'm very tired of that nonsense about 'women always sounding the personal note.' It should be sounded as we would sound it. And I think we could bear the loss of 'privilege'--"
He laughed and raised a protesting hand. "But we couldn't."
"No, you couldn't; it's the ribbon of superiority in your buttonhole. I know several women who manage to live without men to open doors for them, and I think I could bear to let a man pass before me now and then, or wear his hat in an office where I happened to be; and I could get my own ice at a dance, I think, possibly with even less fuss and scramble than I've sometimes observed in the young men who have done it for me. But you know you would never let us do things for ourselves, no matter what legal equality might be declared, even when we get representation for our taxation. You will never be able to deny yourselves giving us our 'privilege.' I hate being waited on. I'd rather do things for myself."
She was so earnest in her satire, so full of scorn and so serious in her meaning, and there was such a contrast between what she said and her person; she looked so preeminently the pretty marquise, all silks and softness, the little exquisite, so essentially to be waited on and helped, to have cloaks thrown over the dampness for her to tread upon, to be run about for--he could see half a dozen youths rushing about for her ices, for her carriage, for her chaperone, for her wrap, at dances--that to save his life he could not repress a chuckle. He managed to make it inaudible, however; and it was as well that he did.
"I understand your love of newspaper work," she went on, less vehemently, but not less earnestly. "I have always wanted to do it myself, wanted to immensely. I can't think of any more fascinating way of earning one's living. And I know I could do it. Why don't you make the 'Herald' a daily?"
To hear her speak of "earning one's living" was too much for him. She gave the impression of riches, not only for the fine texture and fashioning of her garments, but one felt that luxuries had wrapped her from her birth. He had not had much time to wonder what she did in Plattville; it had occurred to him that it was a little odd that she could plan to spend any extent of time there, even if she had liked Minnie Briscoe at school. He felt that she must have been sheltered and petted and waited on all her life; one could not help yearning to wait on her.
He answered inarticulately, "Oh, some day," in reply to her question, and then burst into outright laughter.
"I might have known you wouldn't take me seriously," she said with no indignation, only a sad wistfulness. "I am well used to it. I think it is because I am not tall; people take big girls with more gravity. Big people are nearly always listened to."
"Listened to?" he said, and felt that he must throw himself on his knees before her. "You oughtn't to mind being Titania. She was listened to, you----"
She sprang to her feet and her eyes flashed. "Do you think personal comment is ever in good taste?" she cried fiercely, and in his surprise he almost fell off the bench. "If there is one thing I cannot bear, it is to be told that I am 'small' I am not! Every one who isn't a giantess isn't 'small'. I hate personalities! I am a great deal over five feet, a great deal more than that. I----"
"Please, please," he said, "I didn't----"
"Don't say you are sorry," she interrupted, and in spite of his contrition he found her angry voice delicious, it was still so sweet, hot with indignation, but ringing, not harsh. "Don't say you didn't mean it; because you did! You can't unsay it, you cannot alter it! Ah!" She drew in her breath with a sharp sigh, and covering her face with her hands, sank back upon the bench. "I will not cry," she said, not so firmly as she thought she did.
"My blessed child!" he cried, in great distress and perturbation, "What have I done? I--I----"
"Call me 'small' all you like!" she answered. "I don't care. It isn't that. You mustn't think me such an imbecile." She dropped her hands from her face and shook the tears from her eyes with a mournful laugh. He saw that her hands were clenched tightly and her lip trembled. "I will not cry!" she said in a low voice.
"Somebody ought to murder me; I ought to have thought--personalities are hideous----"
"Don't! It wasn't that."
"I ought to be shot----"
"Ah, please don't say that," she said, shuddering; "please don't, not even as a joke--after last night."
"But I ought to be for hurting you, indeed----"
She laughed sadly, again. "It wasn't that. I don't care what you call me. I am small. You'll try to forgive me for being such a baby? I didn't mean anything I said. I haven't acted so badly since I was a child."
"It's my fault, all of it. I've tired you out. And I let you get into that crush at the circus--" he was going on, remorsefully.
"That!" she interrupted. "I don't think I would have missed the circus." He had a thrilling hope that she meant the tent-pole; she looked as if she meant that, but he dared not let himself believe it.
"No," he continued; "I have been so madly happy in being with you that I've fairly worn out your patience. I've haunted you all day, and I have----"
"All that has nothing to do with it," she said, slowly. "Just after you left, this afternoon, I found that I could not stay here. My people are going abroad, to Dresden, at once, and I must go with them. That's what almost made me cry. I leave to-morrow morning."
He felt something strike at his heart. In the sudden sense of dearth he had no astonishment that she should betray such agitation over her departure from a place she had known so little, and friends who certainly were not part of her life. He rose to his feet, and, resting his arm against a sycamore, stood staring away from her at nothing.
She did not move. There was a long silence.
He had wakened suddenly; the skies had been sapphire, the sward emerald, Plattville a Camelot of romance; to be there, enchantment--and now, like a meteor burned out in a breath, the necromancy fell away and he gazed into desolate years. The thought of the Square, his dusty office, the bleak length of Main Street, as they should appear to-morrow, gave him a faint physical sickness. To-day it had all been touched to beauty; he had felt fit to live and work there a thousand years--a fool's dream, and the waking was to emptiness. He should die now of hunger and thirst in that Sahara; he hoped the Fates would let it be soon--but he knew they would not; knew that this was hysteria, that in his endurance he should plod on, plod, plod dustily on, through dingy, lonely years.
There was a rumble of thunder far out on the western prairie. A cold breath stole through the hot stillness, and an arm of vapor reached out between the moon and the quiet earth. Darkness fell. The man and the girl kept silence between them. They might have been two sad guardians of the black little stream that splashed unseen at their feet. Now and then an echo of far away lightning faintly illumined them with a green light. Thunder rolled nearer, ominously; the gods were driving their chariots over the bridge. The chill breath passed, leaving the air again to its hot inertia.
"I did not want to go," she said, at last, with tears just below the surface of her voice. "I wanted to stay here, but he--they wouldn't--I can't."
"Wanted to stay here?" he said, huskily, not turning. "Here?"
"In Rouen, you mean?"
"In Plattville?" He turned now, astounded.
"Yes; wouldn't you have taken me on the 'Herald'?" She rose and came toward him. "I could have supported myself here if you would--and I've studied how newspapers are made; I know I could have earned a wage. We could have made it a daily." He searched in vain for a trace of raillery in her voice; there was none; she seemed to intend her words to be taken literally.
"I don't understand," he said. "I don't know what you mean."
"I mean that I want to stay here; that I ought to stay here; that my conscience tells me I should--but I can't and it makes me very unhappy. That was why I acted so badly."
"Your conscience!" he cried.
"Oh, I know what a jumble and puzzle it must seem to you."
"I only know one thing; that you are going away to-morrow morning, and that I shall never see you again."
The darkness had grown heavy. They could not see each other; but a wan glimmer gave him a fleeting, misty view of her; she stood half-turned away from him, her hand to her cheek in the uncertain fashion of his great moment of the afternoon; her eyes-he saw in the flying picture that he caught--were adorably troubled and her hand trembled. She had been irresistible in her gaiety; but now that a mysterious distress assailed her, the reason for which he had no guess, she was so divinely pathetic; and seemed such a rich and lovely and sad and happy thing to have come into his life only to go out of it; and he was so full of the prophetic sense of loss of her--it seemed so much like losing everything--that he found too much to say to be able to say anything.
He tried to speak, and choked a little. A big drop of rain fell on his bare head. Neither of them noticed the weather or cared for it. They stood with the renewed blackness hanging like a thick drapery between them.
"Can--can you--tell me why you think you ought not to go?" he whispered, finally, with a great effort.
"No; not now. But I know you would think I am right in wanting to stay," she cried, impulsively. "I know you would, if you knew about it--but I can't, I can't. I must go in the morning."
"I should always think you right," he answered in an unsteady tone, "Always!" He went over to the bench, fumbled about for his hat, and picked it up.
"Come," he said, gently, "I am going now."
She stood quite motionless for a full minute or longer; then, without a word, she moved toward the house. He went to her with hands extended to find her, and his fingers touched her sleeve. Then together and silently they found the garden-path; and followed its dim length. In the orchard he touched her sleeve again and led the way.
As they came out behind the house she detained him. Stopping short, she shook his hand from her arm. She spoke in a single breath, as if it were all one word:
"Will you tell me why you go? It is not late. Why do you wish to leave me, when I shall not see you again?"
"The Lord be good to me!" he broke out, all his long-pent passion of dreams rushing to his lips, now that the barrier fell. "Don't you see it is because I can't bear to let you go? I hoped to get away without saying it. I want to be alone. I want to be with myself and try to realize. I didn't want to make a babbling idiot of myself--but I am! It is because I don't want another second of your sweetness to leave an added pain when you've gone. It is because I don't want to hear your voice again, to have it haunt me in the loneliness you will leave--but it's useless, useless! I shall hear it always, just as I shall always see your face, just as I have heard your voice and seen your face these seven years--ever since I first saw you, a child at Winter Harbor. I forgot for a while; I thought it was a girl I had made up out of my own heart, but it was you--you always! The impression I thought nothing of at the time, just the merest touch on my heart, light as it was, grew and grew deeper until it was there forever. You've known me twenty-four hours, and I understand what you think of me for speaking to you like this. If I had known you for years and had waited and had the right to speak and keep your respect, what have I to offer you? I, couldn't even take care of you if you went mad as I and listened. I've no excuse for this raving. Yes, I have!"
He saw her in another second of lightning, a sudden, bright one. Her back was turned to him; she had taken a few startled steps from him.
"Ah," he cried, "you are glad enough, now, to see me go! I knew it. I wanted to spare myself that. I tried not to be a hysterical fool in your eyes." He turned aside and his head fell on his breast. "God help me," he said, "what will this place be to me now?"
The breeze had risen; it gathered force; it was a chill wind, and there rose a wailing on the prairie. Drops of rain began to fall.
"You will not think a question implied in this," he said more composedly, and with an unhappy laugh at himself. "I believe you will not think me capable of asking you if you care----"
"No," she answered; "I--I do not love you."
"Ah! Was it a question, after all? I--you read me better than I do, perhaps--but if I asked, I knew the answer."
She made as if to speak again, but words refused her.
After a moment, "Good-by," he said, very steadily. "I thank you for the charity that has given me this little time with you--it will always be-- precious to me--I shall always be your servant." His steadiness did not carry him to the end of his sentence. "Good-by."
She started toward him and stopped, without his seeing her. She answered nothing; but stretched out her hand to him and then let it fall quickly.
"Good-by," he said again. "I shall go out the orchard gate. Please tell them good-night for me. Won't you speak to me? Good-by."
He stood waiting while the rising wind blew their garments about them. She leaned against the wall of the house. "Won't you say good-by and tell me you can forget my----"
She did not speak.
"No!" he cried, wildly. "Since you don't forget it! I have spoiled what might have been a pleasant memory for you, and I know it. You were already troubled, and I have added, and you won't forget it, nor shall I--nor shall I! Don't say good-by--I can say it for both of us. God bless you-- and good-by, good-by, good-by!"
He crushed his hat down over his eyes and ran toward the orchard gate. For a moment lightning flashed repeatedly; she saw him go out the gate and disappear into sudden darkness. He ran through the field and came out on the road. Heaven and earth were revealed again for a dazzling white second. From horizon to horizon rolled clouds contorted like an illimitable field of inverted haystacks, and beneath them enormous volumes of pale vapor were tumbling in the west, advancing eastward with sinister swiftness. She ran to a little knoll at the corner of the house and saw him set his face to the storm. She cried aloud to him with all her strength and would have followed, but the wind took the words out of her mouth and drove her back cowering to the shelter of the house.
Out on the road the dust came lashing and stinging him like a thousand nettles; it smothered him, and beat upon him so that he covered his face with his sleeve and fought into the storm shoulder foremost, dimly glad of its rage, scarcely conscious of it, keeping westward on his way to nowhere. West or east, south or north--it was all one to him. The few heavy drops that fell boiling into the dust ceased to come; the rain withheld while the wind-kings rode on earth. On he went in spite of them. On and on, running blindly when he could run at all. At least, the windkings were company. He had been so long alone. He could remember no home that had ever been his since he was a little child, neither father nor mother, no one who belonged to him or to whom he belonged, except one cousin, an old man who was dead. For a day his dreams had found in a girl's eyes the precious thing that is called home--oh, the wild fancy! He laughed aloud.
There was a startling answer; a lance of living fire hurled from the sky, riving the fields before his eyes, while crash on crash of artillery numbed his ears. With that his common-sense awoke and he looked about him. He was almost two miles from town; the nearest house was the Briscoes' far down the road. He knew the rain would come now. There was a big oak near him at the roadside. He stepped under its sheltering branches and leaned against the great trunk, wiping the perspiration and dust from his face. A moment of stunned quiet had succeeded the peal of thunder. It was followed by several moments of incessant lightning that played along the road and danced in the fields. From that intolerable brightness he turned his head and saw, standing against the fence, five feet away, a man, leaning over the top rail and looking at him.
The same flash staggered brilliantly before Helen's eyes as she crouched against the back steps of the brick house. It scarred a picture like a marine of big waves: the tossing tops of the orchard trees; for in the same second the full fury of the storm was loosed, wind and rain and hail. It drove her against the kitchen door with cruel force; the latch lifted, the door blew open violently, and she struggled to close it in vain. The house seemed to rock. A lamp flickered toward her from the inner doorway and was blown out.
"Helen! Helen!" came Minnie's voice, anxiously. "Is that you? We were coming to look for you. Did you get wet?"
Mr. Willetts threw his weight against the door and managed to close it. Then Minnie found her friend's hand and led her through the dark hall to the parlor where the judge sat, placidly reading by a student-lamp.
Lige chuckled as they left the kitchen. "I guess you didn't try too hard to shut that door, Harkless," he said, and then, when they came into the lighted room, "Why, where is Harkless?" he asked. "Didn't he come with us from the kitchen?"
"No," answered Helen, faintly; "he's gone." She sank upon the sofa and drew her hand across her eyes as if to shade them from too sudden light.
"Gone!" The judge dropped his book and stared across the table at the girl. "Gone! When?"
"Ten minutes--five--half an hour--I don't know. Before the storm commenced."
"Oh!" The old gentleman appeared to be reassured. "Probably he had work to do and wanted to get in before the rain."
But Lige Willetts was turning pale. He swallowed several times with difficulty. "Which way did he go? He didn't come around the house; we were out there till the storm broke."
"He went by the orchard gate. When he got to the road he turned that way." She pointed to the west.
"He must have been crazy!" exclaimed the judge. "What possessed the fellow?"
"I couldn't stop him. I didn't know how." She looked at her three companions, slowly and with growing terror, from one face to another. Minnie's eyes were wide and she had unconsciously grasped Lige's arm; the young man was looking straight before him; the judge got up and walked nervously back and forth. Helen rose to her feet swiftly and went toward the old man, her hands pressed to her bosom.
"Ah!" she cried out, sharply, "I had forgotten that! You don't think they--you don't think----"
"I know what I think," Lige broke in; "I think I'd ought to be hanged for letting him out of my sight. Maybe it's all right; maybe he turned and started right back for town--and got there. But I had no business to leave him, and if I can I'll catch up with him yet." He went to the front door, and, opening it, let in a tornado of wind and flood of water that beat him back; sheets of rain blew in horizontally, in spite of the porch beyond.
Briscoe followed him. "Don't be a fool, Lige," he said. "You hardly expect to go out in that." Lige shook his head; it needed them both to get the door closed. The young man leaned against it and passed his sleeve across his wet brow. "I hadn't ought to have left him."
"Don't scare the girls," whispered the other; then in a louder tone: "All I'm afraid of is that he'll get blown to pieces or catch his death of cold. That's all there is to worry about. Those scalawags wouldn't try it again so soon after last night. I'm not bothering about that; not at all. That needn't worry anybody."
"But this morning----"
"Pshaw! He's likely home and dry by this time--all foolishness; don't be an old woman." The two men reentered the room and found Helen clinging to Minnie's hand on the sofa. She looked up at them quickly.
"Do you think--do you--what do you--" Her voice shook so that she could not go on.
The judge pinched her cheek and patted it. "I think he's home and dry, but I think he got wet first; that's what I think. Never you fear, he's a good hand at taking care of himself. Sit down, Lige. You can't go for a while." Nor could he. It was long before he could venture out; the storm raged and roared without abatement; it was Carlow's worst since 'Fifty-one, the old gentleman said. They heard the great limbs crack and break outside, while the thunder boomed and the wind ripped at the eaves till it seemed the roof must go. Meanwhile the judge, after some apology, lit his pipe and told long stories of the storms of early days and of odd freaks of the wind. He talked on calmly, the picture of repose, and blew rings above his head, but Helen saw that one of his big slippers beat an unceasing little tattoo on the carpet. She sat with fixed eyes, in silence, holding Minnie's hand tightly; and her face was colorless, and grew whiter as the slow hours dragged by.
Every moment Mr. Willetts became more restless, though assuring the ladies he had no anxiety regarding Mr. Harkless; it was only his own dereliction of duty that he regretted; the boys would have the laugh on him, he said. But he visibly chafed more and more under the judge's stories; and constantly rose to peer out of the window into the wrack and turmoil, or uneasily shifted in his chair. Once or twice he struck his hands together with muttered ejaculations. At last there was a lull in the fury without, and, as soon as it was perceptible, he declared his intention of making his way into town; he had ought to have went before, he declared, apprehensively; and then, with immediate amendment, of course he would find the editor at work in the "Herald" office; there wasn't the slightest doubt of that; he agreed with the judge, but he better see about it. He would return early in the morning to bid Miss Sherwood good-by; hoped she'd come back, some day; hoped it wasn't her last visit to Plattville. They gave him an umbrella and he plunged out into the night, and as they stood watching him for a moment from the door, the old man calling after him cheery good-nights and laughing messages to Harkless, they could hear his feet slosh into the puddles and see him fight with his umbrella when he got out into the road.
Helen's room was over the porch, the windows facing north, looking out upon the pike and across the fields beyond. "Please don't light the lamp, Minnie," she said, when they had gone upstairs. "I don't need a light." Miss Briscoe was flitting about the room, hunting for matches. In the darkness she came to her friend, and laid a kind, large hand on Helen's eyes, and the hand became wet. She drew Helen's head down on her shoulder and sat beside her on the bed.
"Sweetheart, you mustn't fret," she soothed, in motherly fashion. "Don't you worry, dear. He's all right. It isn't your fault, dear. They wouldn't come on a night like this."
But Helen drew away and went to the window, flattening her arm against the pane, her forehead pressed against her arm. She had let him go; she had let him go alone. She had forgotten the danger that always beset him. She had been so crazy, she had seen nothing, thought of nothing. She had let him go into that, and into the storm, alone. Who knew better than she how cruel they were? She had seen the fire leap from the white blossom and heard the ball whistle, the ball they had meant for his heart, that good, great heart. She had run to him the night before--why had she let him go into the unknown and the storm to-night? But how could she have stopped him? How could she have kept him, after what he had said? She peered into the night through distorting tears.
The wind had gone down a little, but only a little, and the electrical flashes danced all around the horizon in magnificent display, sometimes far away, sometimes dazingly near, the darkness trebly deep between the intervals when the long sweep of flat lands lay in dazzling clearness, clean-cut in the washed air to the finest detail of stricken field and heaving woodland. A staggering flame clove earth and sky; sheets of light came following it, and a frightful uproar shook the house and rattled the casements, but over the crash of thunder Minnie heard her friend's loud scream and saw her spring back from the window with both hands, palm outward, pressed to her face. She leaped to her and threw her arms about her.
"What is it?"
"Look!" Helen dragged her to the window. "At the next flash--the fence beyond the meadow----"
"What was it? What was it like?" The lightning flashed incessantly. Helen tried to point; her hand only jerked from side to side.
"Look!" she cried.
"I see nothing but the lightning," Minnie answered, breathlessly.
"Oh, the fence! The fence--and in the field!"
"Helen! What was it like?"
"Ah-ah!" she panted, "a long line of white--horrible white----"
"What like?" Minnie turned from the window and caught the other's wrist in a fluttering clasp.
"Minnie, Minnie! Like long white gowns and cowls crossing the fence." Helen released her wrist, and put both hands on Minnie's cheeks, forcing her around to face the pane. "You must look--you must look," she cried.
"They wouldn't do it, they wouldn't--it isn't!" Minnie cried. "They couldn't come in the storm. They wouldn't do it in the pouring rain!"
"Yes! Such things would mind the rain!" She burst into hysterical laughter, and Minnie, almost as unnerved, caught her about the waist. "They would mind the rain. They would fear a storm! Ha, ha, ha! Yes--yes! And I let him go--I let him go!"
Pressing close together, shuddering, clasping each other's waists, the two girls peered out at the flickering landscape.
Up from the distant fence that bordered the northern side of Jones's field, a pale, pelted, flapping thing reared itself, poised, and seemed, just as the blackness came again, to drop to the ground.
"Did you see?"
But Minnie had thrown herself into a chair with a laugh of wild relief. "My darling girl!" she cried. "Not a line of white things--just one--Mr. Jones's old scarecrow! And we saw it blown down!"
"No, no, no! I saw the others; they were in the field beyond. I saw them! When I looked the first time they were nearly all on the fence. This time we saw the last man crossing. Ah! I let him go alone!"
Minnie sprang up and enfolded her. "No; you dear, imagining child, you're upset and nervous--that's all the matter in the world. Don't worry; don't, child, it's all right. Mr. Harkless is home and safe in bed long ago. I know that old scarecrow on the fence like a book; you're so unstrung you fancied the rest. He's all right; don't you bother, dear."
The big, motherly girl took her companion in her arms and rocked her back and forth soothingly, and petted and reassured her, and then cried a little with her, as a good-hearted girl always will with a friend. Then she left her for the night with many a cheering word and tender caress. "Get to sleep, dear," she called through the door when she had closed it behind her. "You must, if you have to go in the morning--it just breaks my heart. I don't know how we'll bear it without you. Father will miss you almost as much as I will. Good-night. Don't bother about that old white scarecrow. That's all it was. Good-night, dear, good-night."
"Good-night, dear," answered a plaintive little voice. Helen's hot cheek pressed the pillow and tossed from side to side. By and by she turned the pillow over; it had grown wet. The wind blew about the eaves and blew itself out; she hardly heard it. Sleep would not come. She got up and laved her burning eyes. Then she sat by the window. The storm's strength was spent at last; the rain grew lighter and lighter, until there was but the sound of running water and the drip, drip on the tin roof of the porch. Only the thunder rumbling in the distance marked the storm's course; the chariots of the gods rolling further and further away, till they finally ceased to be heard altogether. The clouds parted majestically, and then, between great curtains of mist, the day-star was seen shining in the east.
The night was hushed, and the peace that falls before dawn was upon the wet, flat lands. Somewhere in the sodden grass a swamped cricket chirped. From an outlying flange of the village a dog's howl rose mournfully; was answered by another, far away, and by another and another. The sonorous chorus rose above the village, died away, and quiet fell again.
Helen sat by the window, no comfort touching her heart. Tears coursed her cheeks no longer, but her eyes were wide and staring, and her lips parted, for the hush was broken by the far clamor of the court-house bell ringing in the night. It rang, and rang, and rang, and rang. She could not breathe. She threw open the window. The bell stopped. All was quiet once more. The east was growing gray.
Suddenly out of the stillness there came the sound of a horse galloping over a wet road. He was coming like mad. Some one for a doctor? No; the horse-hoofs grew louder, coming out from the town, coming this way, coming faster and faster, coming here. There was a splashing and trampling in front of the house and a sharp "Whoa!" In the dim gray of first dawn she made out a man on a foam-flecked horse. He drew up at the gate.
A window to the right of hers went screeching up. She heard the judge clear his throat before he spoke.
"What is it? That's you, isn't it, Wiley? What is it?" He took a good deal of time and coughed between the sentences. His voice was more than ordinarily quiet, and it sounded husky. "What is it, Wiley?"
"Judge, what time did Mr. Harkless leave here last night and which way did he go?"
There was a silence. The judge turned away from the window. Minnie was standing just outside his door. "It must have been about half-past nine, wasn't it, father?" she called in a shaking voice. "And, you know, Helen thought he went west."
"Wiley!" The old man leaned from the sill again.
"Yes!" answered the man on horseback.
"Wiley, he left about half-past nine--just before the storm. They think he went west."
"Much obliged. Willetts is so upset he isn't sure of anything."
"Wiley!" The old man's voice shook; Minnie began to cry aloud. The horseman wheeled about and turned his animal's head toward town. "Wiley!"
"Wiley, they haven't--you don't think they've got him?"
"By God, judge," said the man on horseback, "I'm afraid they have!"