Chapter XIX - The Great Harkless Comes Home
The accommodation train wandered languidly through the early afternoon sunshine, stopping at every village and almost every country post-office on the line; the engine toot-tooting at the road crossings; and, now and again, at such junctures, a farmer, struggling with a team of prancing horses, would be seen, or, it might be, a group of school children, homeward bound from seats of learning. At each station, when the train came to a stand-still, some passenger, hanging head and elbows out of his window, like a quilt draped over a chair, would address a citizen on the platform:
"Hey, Sam, how's Miz Bushkirk?"
"Where's Milt, this afternoon?"
"Warshing the buggy." Then at the cry, "All 'board"--"See you Sunday over at Amo."
"You make Milt come. I'll be there, shore. So long."
There was an impatient passenger in the smoker, who found the stoppages at these wayside hamlets interminable, both in frequency and in the delay at each of them; and while the dawdling train remained inert, and the moments passed inactive, his eyes dilated and his hand clenched till the nails bit his palm; then, when the trucks groaned and the wheels crooned against the rails once more, he sank back in his seat with sighs of relief. Sometimes he would get up and pace the aisle until his companion reminded him that this was not certain to hasten the hour of their arrival at their destination.
"I know that," answered the other, "but I've got to beat McCune."
"By the way," observed Meredith, "you left your stick behind."
"You don't think I need a club to face----"
Tom choked. "Oh, no. I wasn't thinking of your giving H. Fisbee a thrashing. I meant to lean on."
"I don't want it. I've got to walk lame all my life, but I'm not going to hobble on a stick." Tom looked at him sadly; for it was true, and the Cross-Roaders might hug themselves in their cells over the thought. For the rest of his life John Harkless was to walk with just the limp they themselves would have had, if, as in former days, their sentence had been to the ball and chain.
The window was open beside the two young men, and the breeze swept in, fresh from the wide fields, There was a tang in the air; it soothed like a balm, but there was a spur to energy and heartiness in its crispness, the wholesome touch of fall. John looked out over the boundless aisles of corn that stood higher than a tall man could reach; long waves rippled across them. Here, where the cry of the brave had rung in forest glades, where the painted tribes had hastened, were marshalled the tasselled armies of peace. And beyond these, where the train ran between shadowy groves, delicate landscape vistas, framed in branches, opened, closed, and succeeded each other, and then the travellers were carried out into the level open again, and the intensely blue September skies ran down to the low horizon, meeting the tossing plumes of corn.
It takes a long time for the full beauty of the flat lands to reach a man's soul; once there, nor hills, nor sea, nor growing fan leaves of palm shall suffice him. It is like the beauty in the word "Indiana." It may be that there are people who do not consider "Indiana" a beautiful word; but once it rings true in your ears it has a richer sound than "Vallombrosa."
There was a newness in the atmosphere that day, a bright invigoration, that set the blood tingling. The hot months were done with, languor was routed. Autumn spoke to industry, told of the sowing of another harvest, of the tawny shock, of the purple grape, of the red apple, and called upon muscle and laughter; breathed gaiety into men's hearts. The little stations hummed with bustle and noise; big farm wagons rattled away and raced with cut-under or omnibus; people walked with quick steps; the baggage-masters called cheerily to the trainmen, and the brakemen laughed good-bys to rollicking girls.
As they left Gainesville three children, clad in calico, barefoot and bareheaded, came romping out of a log cabin on the outskirts of the town, and waved their hands to the passengers. They climbed on the sagging gate in front of their humble domain, and laughed for joy to see the monstrous caravan come clattering out of the unknown, bearing the faces by. The smallest child, a little cherubic tow-head, whose cheeks were smeared with clean earth and the tracks of forgotten tears, stood upright on a fencepost, and blew the most impudent of kisses to the strangers on a journey.
Beyond this they came into a great plain, acres and acres of green rag-weed where the wheat had grown, all so flat one thought of an enormous billiard table, and now, where the railroad crossed the country roads, they saw the staunch brown thistle, sometimes the sumach, and always the graceful iron-weed, slender, tall, proud, bowing a purple-turbaned head, or shaking in an agony of fright when it stood too close to the train. The fields, like great, flat emeralds set in new metal, were bordered with golden-rod, and at sight of this the heart leaped; for the golden-rod is a symbol of stored granaries, of ripe sheaves, of the kindness of the season generously given and abundantly received; more, it is the token of a land of promise and of bounteous fulfilment; and the plant stains its blossom with yellow so that when it falls it pays tribute to the ground which has nourished it.
From the plain they passed again into a thick wood, where ruddy arrows of the sun glinted among the boughs; and, here and there, one saw a courtly maple or royal oak wearing a gala mantle of crimson and pale brown, gallants of the forest preparing early for the October masquerade, when they should hold wanton carnival, before they stripped them of their finery for pious gray.
And when the coughing engine drew them to the borders of this wood, they rolled out into another rich plain of green and rust-colored corn; and far to the south John Harkless marked a winding procession of sycamores, which, he knew, followed the course of a slender stream; and the waters of the stream flowed by a bank where wild thyme might have grown, and where, beyond an orchard and a rose-garden, a rustic bench was placed in the shade of the trees; and the name of the stream was Hibbard's Creek. Here the land lay flatter than elsewhere; the sky came closer, with a gentler benediction; the breeze blew in, laden with keener spices; there was the flavor of apples and the smell of the walnut and a hint of coming frost; the immeasurable earth lay more patiently to await the husbandman; and the whole world seemed to extend flat in line with the eye--for this was Carlow County.
All at once the anger ran out of John Harkless; he was a hard man for anger to tarry with. And in place of it a strong sense of home-coming began to take possession of him. He was going home. "Back to Plattville, where I belong," he had said; and he said it again without bitterness, for it was the truth. "Every man cometh to his own place in the end."
Yes, as one leaves a gay acquaintance of the playhouse lobby for some hard-handed, tried old friend, so he would wave the outer world God-speed and come back to the old ways of Carlow. What though the years were dusty, he had his friends and his memories and his old black brier pipe. He had a girl's picture that he should carry in his heart till his last day; and if his life was sadder, it was infinitely richer for it. His winter fireside should be not so lonely for her sake; and losing her, he lost not everything, for he had the rare blessing of having known her. And what man could wish to be healed of such a hurt? Far better to have had it than to trot a smug pace unscathed.
He had been a dullard; he had lain prostrate in the wretchedness of his loss. "A girl you could put in your hat--and there you have a strong man prone." He had been a sluggard, weary of himself, unfit to fight, a failure in life and a failure in love. That was ended; he was tired of failing, and it was time to succeed for a while. To accept the worst that Fate can deal, and to wring courage from it instead of despair, that is success; and it was the success that he would have. He would take Fate by the neck. But had it done him unkindness? He looked out over the beautiful, "monotonous" landscape, and he answered heartily, "No!" There was ignorance in man, but no unkindness; were man utterly wise he were utterly kind. The Cross-Roaders had not known better; that was all.
The unfolding aisles of corn swam pleasantly before John's eyes. The earth hearkened to man's wants and answered; the clement sun and summer rains hastened the fruition. Yonder stood the brown haystack, garnered to feed the industrious horse who had earned his meed; there was the strawthatched shelter for the cattle. How the orchard boughs bent with their burdens! The big red barns stood stored with the harvested wheat; and, beyond the pasture-lands, tall trees rose against the benign sky to feed the glance of a dreamer; the fertile soil lay lavender and glossy in the furrow. The farmhouses were warmly built and hale and strong; no winter blast should rage so bitterly as to shake them, or scatter the hospitable embers on the hearth. For this was Carlow County, and he was coming home.
They crossed a by-road. An old man with a streaky gray chin-beard was sitting on a sack of oats in a seatless wagon, waiting for the train to pass. Harkless seized his companion excitedly by the elbow.
"Tommy!" he cried. "It's Kim Fentriss--look! Did you see that old fellow?"
"I saw a particularly uninterested and uninteresting gentleman sitting on a bag," replied his friend.
"Why, that's old Kimball Fentriss. He's going to town; he lives on the edge of the county."
"Can this be true?" said Meredith gravely.
"I wonder," said Harkless thoughtfully, a few moments later, "I wonder why he had them changed around."
"Who changed around?"
"The team. He always used to drive the bay on the near side, and the sorrel on the off."
"And at present," rejoined Meredith, "I am to understand that he is driving the sorrel on the near side, and bay on the off?"
"That's it," returned the other. "He must have worked them like that for some time, because they didn't look uneasy. They're all right about the train, those two. I've seen them stand with their heads almost against a fast freight. See there!" He pointed to a white frame farmhouse with green blinds. "That's Win Hibbard's. We're just outside of Beaver."
"Beaver? Elucidate Beaver, boy!"
"Beaver? Meredith, your information ends at home. What do you know of your own State if you are ignorant of Beaver. Beaver is that city of Carlow County next in importance and population to Plattville."
Tom put his head out of the window. "I fancy you are right," he said. "I already see five people there."
Meredith had observed the change in his companion's mood. He had watched him closely all day, looking for a return of his malady; but he came to the conclusion that in truth a miracle had been wrought, for the lethargy was gone, and vigor seemed to increase in Harkless with every turn of the wheels that brought them nearer Plattville; and the nearer they drew to Plattville the higher the spirits of both the young men rose. Meredith knew what was happening there, and he began to be a little excited. As he had said, there were five people visible at Beaver; and he wondered where they lived, as the only building in sight was the station, and to satisfy his curiosity he walked out to the vestibule. The little station stood in deep woods, and brown leaves whirled along the platform. One of the five people was an old lady, and she entered a rear car. The other four were men. One of them handed the conductor a telegram.
Meredith heard the official say, "All right. Decorate ahead. I'll hold it five minutes."
The man sprang up the steps of the smoker and looked in. He turned to Meredith: "Do you know if that gentleman in the gray coat is Mr. Harkless? He's got his back this way, and I don't want to go inside. The--the air in a smoker always gives me a spell."
"Yes, that's Mr. Harkless."
The man jumped to the platform. "All right, boys," he said. "Rip her out."
The doors of the freight-room were thrown open, and a big bundle of colored stuffs was dragged out and hastily unfolded. One of the men ran to the further end of the car with a strip of red, white and blue bunting, and tacked it securely, while another fastened the other extremity to the railing of the steps by Meredith. The two companions of this pair performed the same operation with another strip on the other side of the car. They ran similar strips of bunting along the roof from end to end, so that, except for the windows, the car was completely covered by the national colors. Then they draped the vestibules with flags. It was all done in a trice.
Meredith's heart was beating fast. "What's it all about?" he asked.
"Picnic down the line," answered the man in charge, removing a tack from his mouth. He motioned to the conductor, "Go ahead."
The wheels began to move; the decorators remained on the platform, letting the train pass them; but Meredith, craning his neck from the steps, saw that they jumped on the last car.
"What's the celebration?" asked Harkless, when Meredith returned.
"Picnic down the line," said Meredith.
"Nipping weather for a picnic; a little cool, don't you think? One of those fellows looked like a friend of mine. Homer Tibbs, or as Homer might look if he were in disgrace. He had his hat hung on his eyes, and he slouched like a thief in melodrama, as he tacked up the bunting on this side of the car." He continued to point out various familiar places, finally breaking out enthusiastically, as they drew nearer the town, "Hello! Look there--beyond the grove yonder! See that house?"
"That's the Bowlders'. You've got to know the Bowlders."
"I'd like to."
"The kindest people in the world. The Briscoe house we can't see, because it's so shut in by trees; and, besides, it's a mile or so ahead of us. We'll go out there for supper to-night. Don't you like Briscoe? He's the best they make. We'll go up town with Judd Bennett in the omnibus, and you'll know how a rapid-fire machine gun sounds. I want to go straight to the 'Herald' office," he finished, with a suddenly darkening brow.
"After all, there may be some explanation," Meredith suggested, with a little hesitancy. "H. Fisbee might turn out more honest than you think."
Harkless threw his head back and laughed; it was the first time Meredith had heard him laugh since the night of the dance in the country. "Honest! A man in the pay of Rodney McCune! Well, we can let it wait till we get there. Listen! There's the whistle that means we're getting near home. By heaven, there's an oil-well!"
"So it is."
"And another--three--five--seven--seven in sight at once! They tried it three miles south and failed; but you can't fool Eph Watts, bless him! I want you to know Watts."
They were running by the outlying houses of the town, amidst a thousand descriptive exclamations from Harkless, who wished Meredith to meet every one in Carlow. But he came to a pause in the middle of a word.
"Do you hear music?" he asked abruptly. "Or is it only the rhythm of the ties?"
"It seems to me there's music in the air," answered his companion. "I've been fancying I heard it for a minute or so. There! No--yes. It's a band, isn't it?"
"No; what would a band----"
The train slowed up, and stopped at a watertank, two hundred yards east of the station, and their uncertainty was at an end.
From somewhere down the track came the detonating boom of a cannon. There was a dash of brass, and the travellers became aware of a band playing "Marching through Georgia." Meredith laid his hand on his companion's shoulder. "John," he said, "John----" The cannon fired again, and there came a cheer from three thousand throats, the shouters all unseen.
The engine coughed and panted, the train rolled on, and in another minute it had stopped alongside the station in the midst of a riotous jam of happy people, who were waving flags and banners and handkerchiefs, and tossing their hats high in the air, and shouting themselves hoarse. The band played in dumb show; it could not hear itself play. The people came at the smoker like a long wave, and Warren Smith, Briscoe, Keating, and Mr. Bence of Gaines were swept ahead of it. Before the train stopped they had rushed eagerly up the steps and entered the car.
Harkless was on his feet and started to meet them. He stopped.
"What does it mean?" he said, and began to grow pale. "Is Halloway--did McCune--have you----"
Warren Smith seized one of his hands and Briscoe the other. "What does it mean?" cried Warren; "it means that you were nominated for Congress at five minutes after one-o'clock this afternoon."
"On the second ballot," shouted the Judge, "just as young Fisbee planned it, weeks ago."
It was one of the great crowds of Carlow's history. They had known since morning that he was coming home, and the gentlemen of the Reception Committee had some busy hours; but long before the train arrived, everything was ready. Homer Tibbs had done his work well at Beaver, and the gray-haired veterans of a battery Carlow had sent out in '61 had placed their worn old gun in position to fire salutes. At one-o'clock, immediately after the nomination had been made unanimous, the Harkless Clubs of Carlow, Amo, and Gaines, secretly organized during the quiet agitation preceding the convention, formed on parade in the court-house yard, and, with the Plattville Band at their head, paraded the streets to the station, to make sure of being on hand when the train arrived--it was due in a couple of hours. There they were joined by an increasing number of glad enthusiasts, all noisy, exhilarated, red-faced with shouting, and patriotically happy. As Mr. Bence, himself the spoiled child of another county, generously said, in a speech, which (with no outrageous pressure) he was induced to make during the long wait: "The favorite son of Carlow is returning to his Lares and Penates like another Cincinnatus accepting the call of the people; and, for the first time in sixteen years, Carlow shall have a representative to bear the banner of this district and the flaming torch of Progress sweeping on to Washington and triumph like a speedy galleon of old. And his friends are here to take his hand and do him homage, and the number of his friends is as the number given in the last census of the population of the counties of this district!"
And, indeed, in this estimate the speaker seemed guilty of no great exaggeration. A never intermittent procession of pedestrians and vehicles made its way to the station; and every wagon, buckboard, buggy, and cut-under had its flags or bunting, or streamer of ribbons tied to the whip. The excitement increased as the time grew shorter; those on foot struggled for better positions, and the people in wagons and carriages stood upon seats, while the pedestrians besieged them, climbing on the wheels, or balancing recklessly, with feet on the hubs of opposite wagons. Everybody was bound to see him. When the whistle announced the coming of the train, the band began to play, the cannon fired, horns blew, and the cheering echoed and reechoed till heaven's vault resounded with the noise the people of Carlow were making.
There was one heart which almost stopped beating. Helen was standing on the front seat of the Briscoe buckboard, with Minnie beside her, and, at the commotion, the horses pranced and backed so that Lige Willetts ran to hold them; but she did not notice the frightened roans, nor did she know that Minnie clutched her round the waist to keep her from falling. Her eyes were fixed intently on the smoke of the far-away engine, and her hand, lifted to her face in an uncertain, tremulous fashion, as it was one day in a circus tent, pressed against the deepest blush that ever mantled a girl's cheek. When the train reached the platform, she saw Briscoe and the others rush into the car, and there ensued what was to her an almost intolerable pause of expectation, while the crowd besieged the windows of the smoker, leaning up and climbing on each other's shoulders to catch the first glimpse of him. Briscoe and a red-faced young man, a stranger to Plattville, came down the steps, laughing like boys, and then Keating and Bence, and then Warren Smith. As the lawyer reached the platform, he turned toward the door of the car and waved his hand as in welcome.
"Here he is, boys!" he shouted, "Welcome Home!" At that it was as if all the noise that had gone before had been mere leakage of pent-up enthusiasm. A thousand horns blared deafeningly, the whistles of the engine and of Hibbard's mill were added to the din, the court-house bell was pealing out a welcome, and the church bells were ringing, the cannon thundered, and then cheer on cheer shook the air, as John Harkless came out under the flags, and passed down the steps of the car.
When Helen saw him, over the heads of the people and through a flying tumult of flags and hats and handkerchiefs, she gave one frightened glance about her, and jumped down from her high perch, and sank into the back seat of the buckboard with her burning face turned from the station and her eyes fixed on the ground. She wanted to run away, as she had run from him the first time she had ever seen him. Then, as now, he came in triumph, hailed by the plaudits of his fellows; and now, as on that longdeparted day of her young girlhood, he was borne high over the heads of the people, for Minnie cried to her to look; they were carrying him on their shoulders to his carriage. She had had only that brief glimpse of him, before he was lost in the crowd that was so glad to get him back again and so proud of him; but she had seen that he looked very white and solemn.
Briscoe and Tom Meredith made their way through the crowd, and climbed into the buckboard. "All right, Lige," called the judge to Willetts, who was at the horses' heads. "You go get into line with the boys; they want you. We'll go down on Main Street to see the parade," he explained to the ladies, gathering the reins in his hand.
He clucked to the roans, and by dint of backing and twisting and turning and a hundred intricate manoeuvres, accompanied by entreaties and remonstrances and objurgations, addressed to the occupants of surrounding vehicles, he managed to extricate the buckboard from the press; and once free, the team went down the road toward Main Street at a lively gait. The judge's call to the colts rang out cheerily; his handsome face was one broad smile. "This is a big day for Carlow," he said; "I don't remember a better day's work in twenty years."
"Did you tell him about Mr. Halloway?" asked Helen, leaning forward anxiously.
"Warren told him before we left the car," answered Briscoe. "He'd have declined on the spot, I expect, if we hadn't made him sure it was all right with Kedge."
"If I understood what Mr. Smith was saying, Halloway must have behaved very well," said Meredith.
The judge laughed. "He saw it was the only way to beat McCune, and he'd have given his life and Harkless's, too, rather than let McCune have it."
"Why didn't you stay with him, Tom?" asked Helen.
"With Halloway? I don't know him."
"One forgives a generous hilarity anything, even such quips as that," she retorted. "Why did you not stay with Mr. Harkless?"
"That's very hospitable of you," laughed the young man. "You forget that I have the felicity to sit at your side. Judge Briscoe has been kind enough to ask me to review the procession from his buckboard and to sup at his house with other distinguished visitors, and I have accepted."
"But didn't he wish you to remain with him?"
"But this second I had the honor to inform you that I am here distinctly by his invitation."
"Precisely, his. Judge Briscoe, Miss Sherwood will not believe that you desire my presence. If I intrude, pray let me--" He made as if to spring from the buckboard, and the girl seized his arm impatiently.
"You are a pitiful nonsense-monger!" she cried; and for some reason this speech made him turn his glasses upon her gravely. Her lashes fell before his gaze, and at that he took her hand and kissed it quickly.
"No, no," she faltered. "You must not think it. It isn't--you see, I-- there is nothing!"
"You shall not dull the edge of my hilarity," he answered, "especially since so much may be forgiven it."
"Why did you leave Mr. Harkless?" she asked, without raising her eyes.
"My dear girl," he replied, "because, for some inexplicable reason, my lady cousin has not nominated me for Congress, but instead has chosen to bestow that distinction upon another, and, I may say, an unworthier and unfitter man than I. And, oddly enough, the non-discriminating multitude were not cheering for me; the artillery was not in action to celebrate me; the band was not playing to do me honor; therefore why should I ride in the midst of a procession that knows me not? Why should I enthrone me in an open barouche--a little faded and possibly not quite secure as to its springs, but still a barouche--with four white horses to draw it, and draped with silken flags, both barouche and steeds? Since these things were not for me, I flew to your side to dissemble my spleen under the licensed prattle of a cousin."
"Then who is with him?"
"The population of this portion of our State, I take it."
"Oh, it's all right," said the judge, leaning back to speak to Helen. "Keating and Smith and your father are to ride in the carriage with him. You needn't be afraid of any of them letting him know that H. Fisbee is a lady. Everybody understands about that; of course they know it's to be left to you to break it to him how well a girl has run his paper." The old gentleman chuckled, and looked out of the corner of his eye at his daughter, whose expression was inscrutable.
"I!" cried Helen. "I tell him! No one must tell him. He need never know it."
Briscoe reached back and patted her cheek. "How long do you suppose he will be here in Plattville without it's leaking out?"
"But they kept guard over him for months and nobody told him."
"Ah," said Briscoe, "but this is different."
"No, no, no!" she exclaimed. "It must be kept from him somehow!"
"He'll know it by to-morrow, so you'd better tell him this evening."
"Yes. You'll have a good chance."
"He's coming to supper with us. He and your father, of course, and Keating and Bence and Boswell and Smith and Tom Martin and Lige. We're going to have a big time, with you and Minnie to do the honors; and we're all coming into town afterwards for the fireworks; I'll let him drive you in the phaeton. You'll have plenty of time to talk it over with him and tell him all about it."
Helen gave a little gasp. "Never!" she cried. "Never!"
The buckboard stopped on the "Herald" corner, and here, and along Main Street, the line of vehicles which had followed it from the station took their places. The Square was almost a solid mass of bunting, and the north entrance of the court-house had been decorated with streamers and flags, so as to make it a sort of stand. Hither the crowd was already streaming, and hither the procession made its way. At intervals the cannon boomed, and Schofields' Henry was winnowing the air with his bell; nobody had a better time that day than Schofields' Henry, except old Wilkerson, who was with the procession.
In advance, came the boys, whooping and somersaulting, and behind them, rode a band of mounted men, sitting their horses like cavalrymen, led by the sheriff and his deputy and Jim Bardlock; then followed the Harkless Club of Amo, led by Boswell, with the magnanimous Halloway himself marching in the ranks; and at sight of this the people shouted like madmen. But when Helen's eye fell upon his fat, rather unhappy face, she felt a pang of pity and unreasoning remorse, which warned her that he who looks upon politics when it is red must steel his eyes to see many a man with the heart-burn. After the men of Amo, came the Harkless Club of Gainesville, Mr. Bence in the van with the step of a grenadier. There followed next, Mr. Ephraim Watts, bearing a light wand in his hand and leading a detachment of workers from the oil-fields in their stained blue overalls and blouses; and, after them, came Mr. Martin and Mr. Landis at the head of an organization recognized in the "Order of Procession," printed in the "Herald," as the Business Men of Plattville. They played in such magnificent time that every high-stepping foot in all the line came down with the same jubilant plunk, and lifted again with a unanimity as complete as that of the last vote the convention had taken that day. The leaders of the procession set a brisk pace, and who could have set any other kind of a pace when on parade to the strains of such a band, playing such a tune as "A New Coon in Town," with all its might and main?
But as the line swung into the Square, there came a moment when the tune was ended, the musicians paused for breath, and there fell comparative quiet. Amongst the ranks of Business Men ambled Mr. Wilkerson, singing at the top of his voice, and now he could be heard distinctly enough for those near to him to distinguish the melody with which it was his intention to favor the public:
The words, the air, that husky voice, recalled to the men of Carlow another day and another procession, not like this one. And the song Wilkerson was singing is the one song every Northern-born American knows and can sing. The leader of the band caught the sound, signalled to his men; twenty instruments rose as one to twenty mouths; the snare-drum rattled, the big drum crashed, the leader lifted his baton high over his head, and music burst from twenty brazen throats:
Instantaneously, the whole procession began to sing the refrain, and the people in the street, and those in the wagons and carriages, and those leaning from the windows joined with one accord, the ringing bells caught the time of the song, and the upper air reverberated in the rhythm.
The Harkless Club of Carlow wheeled into Main Street, two hundred strong, with their banners and transparencies. Lige Willetts rode at their head, and behind him strode young William Todd and Parker and Ross Schofield and Homer Tibbs and Hartley Bowlder, and even Bud Tipworthy held a place in the ranks through his connection with the "Herald." They were all singing.
And, behind them, Helen saw the flag-covered barouche and her father, and beside him sat John Harkless with his head bared.
She glanced at Briscoe; he was standing on the front seat with Minnie beside him, and both were singing. Meredith had climbed upon the back seat and was nervously fumbling at a cigarette.
"Sing, Tom!" the girl cried to him excitedly.
"I should be ashamed not to," he answered; and dropped the cigarette and began to sing "John Brown's Body" with all his strength. With that she seized his hand, sprang up beside him, and over the swelling chorus her full soprano rose, lifted with all the power in her.
The barouche rolled into the Square, and, as it passed, Harkless turned, and bent a sudden gaze upon the group in the buckboard; but the western sun was in his eyes, and he only caught a glimpse of a vague, bright shape and a dazzle of gold, and he was borne along and out of view, down the singing street.
The barouche stopped in front of the courthouse, and he passed up a lane they made for him to the steps. When he turned to them to speak, they began to cheer again, and he had to wait for them to quiet down.
"We can't hear him from over here," said Briscoe, "we're too far off. Mr. Meredith, suppose you take the ladies closer in, and I'll stay with the horses. You want to hear his speech."
"He is a great man, isn't he?" Meredith said to Helen, gravely, as he handed her out of the buckboard. "I've been trying to realize for the last few minutes, that he is the same old fellow I've been treating so familiarly all day long."
"Yes, he is a great man," she answered. "This is only the beginning."
"That's true," said Briscoe, who had overheard her. "He'll go pretty far. A man that people know is steady and strong and level-headed can get whatever he wants, because a public man can get anything, if people know he's safe and honest and they can rely on him for sense. It sounds like a simple matter; but only three or four public men in the country have convinced us that they are like that. Hurry along, young people."
Crossing the street, they met Miss Tibbs; she was wiping her streaming eyes with the back of her left hand and still mechanically waving her handkerchief with her right. "Isn't it beautiful?" she said, not ceasing to flutter, unconsciously, the little square of cambric. "There was such a throng that I grew faint and had to come away. I don't mind your seeing me crying. Pretty near everybody cried when he walked up to the steps and we saw that he was lame."
Standing on the outskirts of the crowd, they could hear the mellow ring of Harkless's voice, but only fragments of the speech, for it was rather halting, and was not altogether clear in either rhetoric or delivery; and Mr. Bence could have been a good deal longer in saying what he had to say, and a thousand times more oratorical. Nevertheless, there was not a man or woman present who did not declare that it was the greatest speech ever heard in Plattville; and they really thought so--to such lengths are loyalty and friendship sometimes carried in Carlow and Amo and Gaines.
He looked down upon the attentive, earnest faces and into the kindly eyes of the Hoosier country people, and, as he spoke, the thought kept recurring to him that this was the place he had dreaded to come back to; that these were the people he had wished to leave--these, who gave him everything they had to give--and this made it difficult to keep his tones steady and his throat clear.
Helen stood so far from the steps (nor could she be induced to penetrate further, though they would have made way for her) that only fragments reached her, but what she heard she remembered:
"I have come home . . . Ordinarily a man needs to fall sick by the wayside or to be set upon by thieves, in order to realize that nine-tenths of the world is Samaritan, and the other tenth only too busy or too ignorant to be. Down here he realizes it with no necessity of illness or wounds to bring it out; and if he does get hurt, you send him to Congress. . . . There will'be no other in Washington so proud of what he stands for as I shall be. To represent you is to stand for realities--fearlessness, honor, kindness. . . . We are people who take what comes to us, and it comes bountifully; we are rich--oh, we are all Americans here! . . . This is the place for a man who likes to live where people are kind to one another, and where they have the old-fashioned way of saying 'Home.' Other places, they don't seem to get so much into it as we do. And to come home as I have to-day. . . . I have come home. . . ."
Every one meant to shake hands with him, and, when the speech was over, those nearest swooped upon him, cheering and waving, and grasping at his hand. Then a line was formed, and they began to defile by him, as he stood on the steps, and one by one they came up, and gave him hearty greetings, and passed on through the court-house and out at the south door. Tom Meredith and Minnie Briscoe came amongst the others, and Tom said only, "Good old boy," as he squeezed his friend's hand; and then, as he went down the hall, wiping his glasses, he asked Minnie if she believed the young man on the steps had risen from a sick bed that morning.
It was five-o'clock when Harkless climbed the stairs to the "Herald" office, and his right arm and hand were aching and limp. Below him, as he reached the landing, he could see boys selling extras containing his speech (taken by the new reporter), and long accounts of the convention, of the nominee's career, and the celebration of his home-coming. The sales were rapid; for no one could resist the opportunity to read in print descriptions of what his eyes had beheld and his ears had heard that day.
Ross Schofield was the only person in the editorial room, and there was nothing in his appearance which should cause a man to start and fall back from the doorway; but that was what Harkless did.
"What's the matter, Mr. Harkless?" cried Ross, hurrying forward, fearing that the other had been suddenly reseized by illness.
"What are those?" asked Harkless, with a gesture of his hand which seemed to include the entire room.
"Those!" repeated Ross, staring blankly.
"Those rosettes--these streamers--that stovepipe--all this blue ribbon."
Ross turned pale. "Ribbon?" he said, inquiringly. "Ribbon?" He seemed unable to perceive the decorations referred to.
"Yes," answered John; "these rosettes on the chairs, that band, and----"
"Oh!" Ross exclaimed. "That?" He fingered the band on the stovepipe as if he saw it for the first time. "Yes; I see."
"But what are they for?" asked Harkless, touching one of the streamers curiously.
"Why--it's--it's likely meant for decorations."
John picked up the ink-well, staring in complete amazement at the hard knot of ribbon with which it was garnished.
"They seem to have been here some time."
"They have; I reckon they're almost due to be called in. They've be'n up ever sence--sence----"
"Who put them up, Ross?"
Ross was visibly embarrassed. "Why--fer--fer the other editor."
"For Mr. Fisbee?"
"Land, no! You don't suppose we'd go to work and bother to brisken things up fer that old gentleman, do you?"
"I meant young Mr. Fisbee--he is the other editor, isn't he?"
"Oh!" said Ross, coughing. "Young Mr. Fisbee? Yes; we put 'em up fer him."
"You did! Did he appreciate them?"
"Well--he seemed to--kind of like 'em."
"Where is he now? I came here to find him."
"Gone? Hasn't he been here this afternoon?"
"Yes; some 'the time. Come in and stayed durin' the leevy you was holdin', and saw the extra off all right."
"When will he be back?"
"Sence it's be'n a daily he gits here by eight, after supper, but don't stay very late; the new man and old Mr. Fisbee and Parker look after whatever comes in late, unless it's something special. He'll likely be here by half-past eight at the farthest off."
"I can't wait till then." John took a quick turn about the room. "I've been wanting to see him every minute since I got in," he said impatiently, "and he hasn't been near me. Nobody could even point him out to me. Where has he gone? I want to see him now."
"Want to discharge him again?" said a voice from the door, and turning, they saw that Mr. Martin stood there observing them.
"No," said Harkless; "I want to give him the 'Herald.' Do you know where he is?"
Mr. Martin stroked his beard deliberately. "The person you speak of hadn't ort to be very hard to find--in Carlow. The committee was reckless enough to hire that carriage of yours by the day, and Keating and Warren Smith are setting in it up at the corner, with their feet on the cushions to show they're used to ridin' around with four white horses every day in the week. It's waitin' till you're ready to go out to Briscoe's. It's an hour before supper time, and you can talk to young Fisbee all you want. He's out there."
As they drove along the pike, Harkless's three companions kept up a conversation sprightly beyond the mere exhilaration of the victorious; but John sat almost silent, and, in spite of their liveliness, the others eyed him a little anxiously now and then, knowing that he had been living on excitement through a physically exhausting day, and they were fearful lest his nerves react and bring him to a breakdown. But the healthy flush of his cheek was reassuring; he looked steady and strong, and they were pleased to believe that the stirring-up was what he needed.
It had been a strange and beautiful day to him, begun in anger, but the sun was not to go down upon his wrath; for his choleric intention had almost vanished on his homeward way, and the first words Smith had spoken had lifted the veil of young Fisbee's duplicity, had shown him with what fine intelligence and supreme delicacy and sympathy young Fisbee had worked for him, had understood him, and had made him. If the open assault on McCune had been pressed, and the damnatory evidence published in Harkless's own paper, while Harkless himself was a candidate and rival, John would have felt dishonored. The McCune papers could have been used for Halloway's benefit, but not for his own; he would not ride to success on another man's ruin; and young Fisbee had understood and had saved him. It was a point of honor that many would have held finicky and inconsistent, but one which young Fisbee had comprehended was vital to Harkless.
And this was the man he had discharged like a dishonest servant; the man who had thrown what was (in Carlow's eyes) riches into his lap; the man who had made his paper, and who had made him, and saved him. Harkless wanted to see young Fisbee as he longed to see only one other person in the world. Two singular things had happened that day which made his craving to see Helen almost unbearable--just to rest his eyes upon her for a little while, he could ask no more. And as they passed along that wellremembered road, every tree, every leaf by the wayside, it seemed, spoke to him and called upon the dear memory of his two walks with her--into town and out of town, on show-day. He wondered if his heart was to project a wraith of her before him whenever he was deeply moved, for the rest of his life. For twice to-day he had seen her whom he knew to be so far away. She had gone back to her friends in the north, Tom had said. Twice that afternoon he had been momentarily, but vividly, conscious of her as a living presence. As he descended from the car at the station, his eyes, wandering out over the tumultuous crowd, had caught and held a picture for a second--a graceful arm upraised, and a gloved hand pressed against a blushing cheek under a hat such as is not worn in Carlow; a little figure poised apparently in air, full-length above the crowd about her; so, for the merest flick of time he had seen her, and then, to his straining eyes, it was as though she were not. She had vanished. And again, as his carriage reached the Square, a feeling had come to him that she was near him; that she was looking at him; that he should see her when the carriage turned; and in the same instant, above the singing of a multitude, he heard her voice as if there had been no other and once more his dazzled eyes beheld her for a second; she was singing, and as she sang she leaned toward him from on high with the most ineffable look of tenderness and pride and affection he had ever seen on a woman's face; such a look, he thought, as she would wear if she came to love some archangel (her love should be no less) with all of her heart and soul and strength. And so he knew he had seen a vision. But it was a cruel one to visit a man who loved her. He had summoned his philosophy and his courage in his interview with himself on the way to Carlow, and they had answered; but nothing could answer if his eyes were to play him tricks and bring her visibly before him, and with such an expression as he had seen upon her face. It was too real. It made his eyes yearn for the sight of her with an ache that was physical. And even at that moment, he saw, far ahead of them on the road, two figures standing in front of the brick house. One was unmistakable at any distance. It was that of old Fisbee; and the other was a girl's: a light, small figure without a hat, and the low, western sun dwelt on a head that shone with gold. Harkless put his hand over his eyes with a pain that was like the taste of hemlock in nectar.
"Sun in your eyes?" asked Keating, lifting his hat, so as to shield the other's face.
When he looked again, both figures were gone. He made up his mind that he would think of the only other person who could absorb his attention, at least for a time; very soon he would stand face to face with the six feet of brawn and intelligence and manhood that was young Fisbee.
"You are sure he is there?" he asked Tom Martin.
"Yes," answered Martin, with no need to inquire whom the editor meant. "I reckon," he continued, solemnly, peering at the other from under his rusty hat-brim, "I reckon when you see him, maybe you'll want to put a kind of codicil to that deed to the 'Herald.'"
"How's that, Martin?"
"Why, I guess maybe you'll--well, wait till you see him."
"I don't want to wait much longer, when I remember what I owe him and how I have used him, and that I have been here nearly three hours without seeing him."
As they neared the brick house Harkless made out, through the trees, a retreative flutter of skirts on the porch, and the thought crossed his mind that Minnie had flown indoors to give some final directions toward the preparation of the banquet; but when the barouche halted at the gate, he was surprised to see her waving to him from the steps, while Tom Meredith and Mr. Bence and Mr. Boswell formed a little court around her. Lige Willetts rode up on horse back at the same moment, and the judge was waiting in front of the gate. Harkless stepped out of the barouche and took his hand.
"I was told young Fisbee was here."
"Young Fisbee is here," said the judge.
"Where, please, Briscoe?"
"Want to see him right off?"
"I do, very much."
"You'll withdraw his discharge, I expect, now?"
"Ah!" exclaimed the other. "I want to make him a present of the 'Herald,' if he'll take it." He fumed to Meredith, who had come to the gate. "Tom, where is he?"
Meredith put his hand on his friend's shoulder, and answered: "I don't know. God bless you, old fellow!"
"The truth is," said the judge, as they entered the gate, "that when you drove up, young Fisbee ran into the house. Minnie--" He turned, but his daughter had disappeared; however, she came to the door, a moment later, and shook her head mysteriously at her father.
"Not in the house," she said.
Mr. Fisbee came around the corner of the porch and went toward Harkless. "Fisbee," cried the latter, "where is your nephew?"
The old man took his hand in both his own, and looked him between the eyes, and thus stood, while there was a long pause, the others watching them.
"You must not say that I told you," he said at last. "Go into the garden."
But when Harkless's step crunched the garden path there was no one there. Asters were blooming in beds between the green rose-bushes, and their many-fingered hands were flung open in wide surprise that he should expect to find young Fisbee there. It was just before sunset. Birds were gossiping in the sycamores on the bank. At the foot of the garden, near the creek, there were some tall hydrangea bushes, flower-laden, and, beyond them, one broad shaft of the sun smote the creek bends for a mile in that flat land, and crossed the garden like a bright, taut-drawn veil. Harkless passed the bushes and stepped out into this gold brilliance. Then he uttered a cry and stopped.
Helen was standing beside the hydrangeas, with both hands against her cheeks and her eyes fixed on the ground. She had run away as far as she could run; there were high fences extending down to the creek on each side, and the water was beyond.
"You!" he said. "You--you!"
She did not lift her eyes, but began to move away from him with little backward steps. When she reached the bench on the bank, she spoke with a quick intake of breath and in a voice he scarcely heard. It was the merest whisper, and her words came so slowly that sometimes minutes separated them.
"Can you--will you keep me--on the 'Herald'?"
"Will you--let me--help?"
He came near her. "I don't understand. Is it you--you--who are here again?"
"Have you--forgiven me? You know now why I wouldn't--resign? You forgive my--that telegram?"
"That one that came to you--this morning."
"Did you send me one?"
"It did not come to me."
"But there--What was it about?"
"It was signed," she said, "it was signed--" She paused and turned half way, not lifting the downcast lashes; her hand, laid upon the arm of the bench, was shaking; she put it behind her. Then her eyes were lifted a little, and, though they did not meet his, he saw them, and a strange, frightened glory leaped in his heart. Her voice fell still lower and two heavy tears rolled down her cheeks. "It was signed," she whispered, "it was signed--'H. Fisbee.'"
He began to tremble from head to foot. There was a long silence. She had turned quite away from him. When he spoke, his voice was as low as hers, and he spoke as slowly as she had.
"You mean--then--it was--you?"
"And you have been here all the time?"
"All--all except the week you were--hurt, and that--that one evening."
The bright veil which wrapped them was drawn away, and they stood in the silent, gathering dusk.
He tried to loosen his neck-band; it seemed to be choking him. "I--I can't--I don't comprehend it. I am trying to realize what it----"
"It means nothing," she answered.
"There was an editorial, yesterday," he said, "an editorial that I thought was about Rodney McCune. Did you write it?"
"It was about--me--wasn't it?"
"It said--it said--that I had won the love of every person in Carlow County."
Suddenly she found her voice. "Do not misunderstand me," she said rapidly. "I have done the little that I have done out of gratitude." She faced him now, but without meeting his eyes. "I told you, remember, that you would understand some day what I meant by that, and the day has come. I owed you more gratitude than a woman ever owed a man before, I think, and I would have died to pay a part of it. I set every gossip's tongue in Rouen clacking at the very start, in the merest amateurish preparation for the work Mr. Macauley gave me. That was nothing. And the rest has been the happiest time in my life. I have only pleased myself, after all!"
"What gratitude did you owe me?"
"What gratitude? For what you did for my father."
"I have only seen your father once in my life--at your table at the dance supper, that night."
"Listen. My father is a gentle old man with white hair and kind eyes. You saw my uncle, that night; he has been as good to me as a father, since I was seven years old, and he gave me his name by law and I lived with him. My father came to see me once a year; I never came to see him. He always told me everything was well with him; that his life was happy. Once he lost the little he had left to him in the world, his only way of making his living. He had no friends; he was hungry and desperate, and he wandered. I was dancing and going about wearing jewels--only--I did not know. All the time the brave heart wrote me happy letters. I should have known, for there was one who did, and who saved him. When at last I came to see my father, he told me. He had written of his idol before; but it was not till I came that he told it all to me. Do you know what I felt? While his daughter was dancing cotillions, a stranger had taken his hand-- and--" A sob rose in her throat and checked her utterance for a moment; but she threw up her head and met his eyes proudly. "Gratitude, Mr. Harkless!" she cried. "I am James Fisbee's daughter."
He fell back from the bench with a sharp exclamation, and stared at her through the gray twilight. She went on hurriedly, again not looking at him:
"When you showed me that you cared for me--when you told me that you did-- I--do you think I wanted to care for you? I wanted to do something to show you that I could be ashamed of my vile neglect of him--something to show you his daughter could be grateful. If I had loved you, what I did would have been for that--and I could not have done it. And how could I have shown my gratitude if I had done it for love? And it has been such dear, happy work, the little I have done, that it seems, after all, that I have done it for love of myself. But--but when you first told me--" She broke off with a strange, fluttering, half inarticulate little laugh that was half tears; and then resumed in another tone: "When you told me you cared that night--that night we were here--how could I be sure? It had been only two days, you see, and even if I could have been sure of myself, why, I couldn't have told you. Oh! I had so brazenly thrown myself at your head, time and again, those two days, in my--my worship of your goodness to my father and my excitement in recognizing in his friend the hero of my girlhood, that you had every right to think I cared; but if--but if I had --if I had--loved you with my whole soul, I could not have--why, no woman could have--I mean the sort of girl I am couldn't have admitted it--must have denied it. And what I was trying to do for you when we met in Rouen was--was courting you. You surely see I couldn't have done it if I had cared. It would have been brazen! And do you think that then I could have answered--'Yes'--even if I wanted to--even if I had been sure of myself? And now--" Her voice sank again to a whisper. "And now----"
From the meadows across the creek, and over the fields, came a far tinkling of farm-bells. Three months ago, at this hour, John Harkless had listened to that sound, and its great lonesomeness had touched his heart like a cold hand; but now, as the mists were rising from the water and the small stars pierced the sky one by one, glinting down through the dim, immeasurable blue distances, he found no loneliness in heaven or earth. He leaned forward toward her; the bench was between them. The last light was gone; evening had fallen.
"And now--" he said.
She moved backward as he leaned nearer.
"You promised to remember on the day you understood," she answered, a little huskily, "that it was all from the purest gratitude."
"And--and there is nothing else?"
"If there were," she said, and her voice grew more and more unsteady, "if there were, can't you see that what I have done--" She stopped, and then, suddenly, "Ah, it would have been brazen!"
He looked up at the little stars and he heard the bells, and they struck into his heart like a dirge. He made a singular gesture of abnegation, and then dropped upon the bench with his head bowed between his hands.
She pressed her hand to her bosom, watching him in a startled fashion, her eyes wide and her lips parted. She took a few quick, short steps toward the garden, still watching him over her shoulder.
"You mustn't worry," he said, not lifting his bent head, "I know you're sorry. I'll be all right in a minute."
She gave a hurried glance from right to left and from left to right, like one in terror seeking a way of escape; she gathered her skirts in her hand, as if to run into the garden; but suddenly she turned and ran to him--ran to him swiftly, with her great love shining from her eyes. She sank upon her knees beside him. She threw her arms about his neck and kissed him on the forehead.
"Oh, my dear, don't you see?" she whispered, "don't you see--don't you see?"
When they heard the judge calling from the orchard, they went back through the garden toward the house. It was dark; the whitest asters were but gray splotches. There was no one in the orchard; Briscoe had gone indoors. "Did you know you are to drive me into town in the phaeton for the fireworks?" she asked.
"Yes; the Great Harkless has come home."
Even in the darkness he could see the look the vision had given him when the barouche turned into the Square. She smiled upon him and said, "All afternoon I was wishing I could have been your mother."
He clasped her hand more tightly. "This wonderful world!" he cried. "Yesterday I had a doctor--a doctor to cure me of love-sickness!"
They went on a little way. "We must hurry," she said. "I am sure they have been waiting for us." This was true; they had.
From the dining-room came laughter and hearty voices, and the windows were bright with the light of many lamps. By and by, they stood just outside the patch of light that fell from one of the windows.
"Look," said Helen. "Aren't they good, dear people?"
"The beautiful people!" he answered.
"Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
As we go marching on."
"Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!"
"Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
As we go marching on!"