HOW BEAUTIFUL WITH SHOES
by Wilbur Daniel Steele
From The Best Stories of Wilbur Daniel Steele 1946
By the time the milking was finished, the sow, which had farrowed the past week, was making such a row that the girl spilled a pint of the warm milk down the trough lead to quiet the animal before taking the pail to the well house. Then in the quiet she heard a sound of hoofs on the bridge, where the road crossed the creek a hundred yards below the house, and she set the pail down on the ground beside her bare, barn-soiled feet. She picked it up again. She set it down. It was as if she calculated its weight.
That was what she was doing, as a matter of fact, setting off against its pull toward the well house the pull of that wagon team in the road, with little more of personal will or wish in the matter than has a wooden weather vane between two currents in the wind. And as with the vane, so with the wooden girl— the added behest of a whiplash cracking in the distance was enough; leaving the pail at the barn door she set off in a deliberate, docile beeline through the cow yard, over the fence, and down in a diagonal across the farm's one tilled field toward the willow brake that walled the road at the dip. And once under way, though her mother came to the kitchen door and called in her high, flat voice, "Amarantha, where you goin', Amarantha?" the girl went on, apparently unmoved, as though she had been as deaf as the woman in the doorway; indeed, if there was emotion in her it was the purely sensuous one of feeling the clods of the furrows breaking softly between her toes. It was springtime in the mountains.
"Amarantha, why don't you answer me, Amarantha?"
For moments after the girl had disappeared beyond the willows the widow continued to call, unaware through long habit of how absurd it sounded, the name which that strange man her husband had put upon their daughter in one of his moods. Mrs. Doggett had been deaf so long she did not realize that nobody else ever thought of it for the broad-fleshed, slow-minded girl, but called her Mary, or, even more simply, Mare.
Ruby Herter had stopped his team this side of the bridge, the mules' heads turned into the lane to his father's farm beyond the road. A big-barreled, heavy-limbed fellow with a square, sallow, not unhandsome face, he took out youth in ponderous gestures of masterfulness; it was like him to have cracked his whip above his animals' ears the moment before he pulled them to a halt. When he saw the girl getting over the fence under the willows he tongued the wad of tobacco out of his mouth into his palm, threw it away beyond the road, and drew a sleeve of his jumper across his lips.
"Don't run yourself out o' breath, Mare; I got all night."
"I was comin'." It sounded sullen only because it was matter-of-fact.
"Well, keep a-comin' and give us a smack." Hunched on the wagon seat, he remained motionless for some time after she had arrived at the hub, and when he stirred it was but to cut a fresh bit of tobacco, as if already he had forgotten why he threw the old one away. Having satisfied his humor, he unbent, climbed down, kissed her passive mouth, and hugged her up to him, roughly and loosely, his hands careless of contours. It was not out of the way; they were used to handling animals both of them; and it was spring. A slow warmth pervaded the girl, formless, nameless, almost impersonal.
Her betrothed pulled her head back by the braid of her yellow hair. He studied her face, his brows gathered and his chin out.
"Listen, Mare, you wouldn't leave nobody else hug and kiss you, dang you!"
She shook her head, without vehemence or anxiety.
"Who's that?" She hearkened up the road. "Pull your team out," she added, as a Ford came in sight around the bend above the house, driven at speed. "Geddap!" she said to the mules herself.
But the car came to a halt near them, and one of the five men crowded in it called, "Come on, Ruby, climb in. They's a loony loose out o' Dayville Asylum, and they got him trailed over somewheres on Split Ridge, and Judge North phoned up to Slosson's store for ever'body come help circle him— come on, hop the runnin' board!"
Ruby hesitated, an eye on his team.
"Scared, Ruby?" The driver raced his engine. "They say this boy's a killer."
"Mare, take the team in and tell Pa." The car was already moving when Ruby jumped it. A moment after it had sounded on the bridge it was out of sight.
"Amarantha! Amarantha! why don't you come, Amarantha?"
Returning from her errand fifteen minutes later, Mare heard the plaint lifted in the twilight. The sun had dipped behind the back ridge, and though the sky was still bright with day, the dusk began to smoke up out of the plowed field like a ground fog. The girl had returned through it, got the milk, and started toward the well house before the widow saw her.
"Daughter, seems to me you might!" she expostulated without change of key. "Here's some young man friend o' yourn stopped to say howdy, and I been rackin' my lungs out after you. . . . Put the milk in the cool and come!"
Some young man friend? But there was no good to be got from puzzling. Mare poured the milk in the pan in the dark of the low house over the well, and as she came out, stooping, she saw a figure waiting for her, black in silhouette against the yellowing sky.
"Who are you?" she asked, a native timidity, making her sound sulky.
"'Amarantha!'" the fellow mused. "That's poetry." And she knew then that she did not know him.
She walked past, her arms straight down and her eyes front. Strangers always affected her with a kind of muscular terror simply by being strangers. So she gained the kitchen steps, aware by his tread that he followed. There, taking courage, she turned on him, her eyes down at the level of his knees.
"Who are you and what d' y' want?"
He still mused. "Amarantha! Amarantha-in-Carolina! That makes me happy!"
Mare hazarded one upward look. She saw that he had red hair, brown eyes, and hollows under his cheekbones, and though the green sweater he wore on top of a gray overall was plainly not meant for him, sizes too large as far as girth went, yet he was built so long of limb that his wrists came inches out of the sleeves and made his big hands look even bigger.
Mrs. Doggett complained. "Why don't you introduce us, daughter?"
The girl opened her mouth and closed it again. Her mother, unaware that no sound had come out of it, smiled and nodded, evidently taking to the tall, homely fellow and tickled by the way he could not seem to get his eyes off her daughter. But the daughter saw none of it, all her attention centered upon the stranger's hands.
Restless, hard-fleshed, and chap-bitten, they were like a countryman's hands; but the fingers were longer than the ordinary, and slightly spatulate at their ends, and these ends were slowly and continuously at play among themselves.
The girl could not have explained how it came to her to be frightened and at the same time to be calm, for she was inept with words. It was simply that in an animal way she knew animals, knew them in health and ailing, and when they were ailing she knew by instinct, as her father had known, how to move so as not to fret them.
Her mother had gone in to light up; from beside the lamp shelf she called back, "If he's aimin' to stay to supper you should've told me, Amarantha, though I guess there's plenty of the side meat to go round, if you'll bring me in a few more turnips and potatoes, though it is late."
At the words the man's cheeks moved in and out. "I'm very hungry," he said.
Mare nodded deliberately. Deliberately, as if her mother could hear her, she said over her shoulder, "I'll go get the potatoes and turnips, Ma." While she spoke she was moving, slowly, softly, at first, toward the right of the yard, where the fence gave over into the field. Unluckily her mother spied her through the window.
"Amarantha, where are you goin'?"
"I'm goin' to get the potatoes and turnips." She neither raised her voice nor glanced back, but lengthened her stride. "He won't hurt her," she said to herself. "He won't hurt her; it's me, not her," she kept repeating, while she got over the fence and down into the shadow that lay more than ever like a fog on the field
The desire to believe that it actually did hide her, the temptation to break from her rapid but orderly walk grew till she could no longer fight it. She saw the road willows only a dash ahead of her. She ran, her feet floundering among the furrows.
She neither heard nor saw him, but when she realized he was with her she knew he had been with her all the while. She stopped, and he stopped, and so they stood, with the dark open of the field all around. Glancing sidewise presently, she saw he was no longer looking at her with those strangely importunate brown eyes of his, but had raised them to the crest of the wooded ridge behind her.
By and by, "What does it make you think of?" he asked. And when she made no move to see, "Turn around and look!" he said, and though it was low and almost tender in its tone, she knew enough to turn.
A ray of the sunset hidden in the west struck through the tops of the topmost trees, far and small up there, a thin, bright hem.
"What does it make you think of, Amarantha? . . .Answer!"
"Fire," she made herself say.
"Or blood, yeh. That's right, or blood." She had heard a Ford going up the road beyond the willows, and her attention was not on what she said.
The man soliloquized. "Fire and blood, both; spare one or the other, and where is beauty, the way the world is? It's an awful thing to have to carry, but Christ had it. Christ came with a sword. I love beauty, Amarantha. . . . I say, I love beauty!"
"Yeh, that's right, I hear." What she heard was the car stopping at the house.
"Not prettiness. Prettiness'll have to go with ugliness, because it's only ugliness trigged up. But beauty! " Now again he was looking at her. "Do you know how beautiful you are, Amarantha, Amarantha sweet and fair?" Of a sudden, reaching behind her, he began to unravel the meshes of her hair braid, the long, flat-tipped fingers at once impatient and infinitely gentle. "Braid no more that shining hair!"
Flat-faced Mare Doggett tried to see around those glowing eyes so near to hers, but, wise in her instinct, did not try too hard. "Yeh," she temporized. "I mean, no, I mean."
"Amarantha, I've come a long, long way for you. Will you come away with me now?"
"Yeh— that is— in a minute I will, mister— yeh. . . ."
"Because you want to, Amarantha? Because you love me as I love you? Answer!"
"Yeh--sure-uh . . . Ruby!"
The man tried to run, but there were six against him, coming up out of the dark that lay in the plowed ground. Mare stood where she was while they knocked him down and got a rope around him; after that she walked back toward the house with Ruby and Older Haskins, her father's cousin.
Ruby wiped his brow and felt of his muscles. "Gees, you're lucky we come, Mare. We're no more'n past the town, when they come hollerin' he'd broke over this way."
When they came to the fence the girl sat on the rail for a moment and rebraided her hair before she went into the house, where they were making her mother smell ammonia.
Lots of cars were coming. Judge North was coming, somebody said. When Mare heard this she went into her bedroom off the kitchen and got her shoes and put them on. They were brand-new two-dollar shoes with cloth tops, and she had only begun to break them in last Sunday; she wished afterwards she had put her stockings on, too, for they would have eased the seams. Or else that she had put on the old button pair, even though the soles were worn through.
Judge North arrived. He thought first of taking the loony straight through to Dayville that night, but then decided to keep him in the lockup at the courthouse till morning and make the drive by day. Older Haskins stayed in, gentling Mrs. Doggett, while Ruby went out to help get the man into the judge's sedan. Now that she had them on, Mare didn't like to take the shoes off till Older went; it might make him feel small, she thought.
Older Haskins had a lot of facts about the loony.
"His name's Humble Jewett," he told them. "They belong back in Breed County, all them Jewetts, and I don't reckon there's none on 'em that's not a mite unbalanced. He went to college though, worked his way, and he taught somethin' 'rother in some academy school a spell, till he went off his head all of a sudden and took after folks with an ax. I remember it in the paper at the time. They give out one while how the principal wasn't goin' to live, and there was others— there was a girl he tried to strangle. That was four-five years back."
Ruby came in guffawing. "Know the only thing they can get 'im to say, Mare? Only God dang thing he'll say is 'Amarantha, she's goin' with me.' . . . Mare!"
"Yeh, I know."
The cover of the kettle the girl was handling slid off on the stove with a clatter. A sudden sick wave passed over her. She went out to the back, out into the air. It was not till now she knew how frightened she had been.
Ruby went home, but Older Haskins stayed to supper with them and helped Mare do the dishes afterward; it was nearly nine when he left. The mother was already in bed, and Mare was about to sit down to get those shoes off her wretched feet at last, when she heard the cow carrying on up at the barn, lowing and kicking, and next minute the sow was in it with a horning note. It might be a fox passing by to get at the henhouse, or a weasel. Mare forgot her feet, took a broom handle they used in boiling clothes, opened the back door, and stepped out. Blinking the lamplight from her eyes, she peered up toward the outbuildings and saw the gable end of the barn standing like a red arrow in the dark, and the top of a butternut tree beyond it drawn in skeleton traceries, and just then a cock crowed.
She went to the right corner of the house and saw where the light came from, ruddy above the woods down the valley. Returning into the house, she bent close to her mother's ear and shouted, "Somethin's afire down to the town, looks like," then went out again and up to the barn. "Soh! Soh!" she called in to the animals. She climbed up and stood on the top of the rail of the cowpen fence, only to find she could not locate the flame even there.
Ten rods behind the buildings a mass of rock mounted higher than their ridgepoles, a chopped-off buttress of the back ridge, covered with oak scrub and wild grapes and blackberries, whose thorny ropes the girl beat away from her as she scrambled up in the wine-colored dark. Once at the top, and the brush held aside, she could see the tongue tip of the conflagration half a mile away at the town. And she knew by the bearing of the two church steeples that it was the building where the lockup was that was burning.
There is a horror in knowing animals trapped in a fire, no matter what the animals.
"Omy God!" Mare said.
A car went down the road. Then there was a horse galloping. That would be Older Haskins probably. People were out at Ruby's father's farm; she could hear their voices raised. There must have been another car up from the other way, for lights wheeled and shouts were exchanged in the neighborhood of the bridge. Next thing she knew, Ruby was at the house below, looking for her probably.
He was telling her mother. Mrs. Doggett was not used to him, so he had to shout even louder than Mare had to.
"What y' reckon he done, the hellion! He broke the door and killed Lew Fyke and set the courthouse afire! . . . Where's Mare?"
Her mother would not know. Mare called. "Here, up the rock here."
She had better go down. Ruby would likely break his bones if he tried to climb the rock in the dark, not knowing the way. But the sight of the fire fascinated her simple spirit, the fearful element, more fearful than ever now, with the news. "Yes, I'm comin'," she called, sulkily, hearing feet in the brush. "You wait; I'm comin'."
When she turned and saw it was Humble Jewett, right behind her among the branches, she opened her mouth to screech. She was not quick enough. Before a sound came out he got one hand over her face and the other arm around her body.
Mare had always thought she was strong, and the loony looked gangling, yet she was so easy for him that he need not hurt her. He made no haste and little noise as he carried her deeper into the undergrowth. Where the hill began to mount it was harder though. Presently he set her on her feet. He let the hand that had been over her mouth slip down to her throat, where the broad-tipped fingers wound, tender as yearning, weightless as caress.
"I was afraid you'd scream before you knew who 'twas, Amarantha. But I didn't want to hurt your lips, dear heart, your lovely, quiet lips."
It was so dark under the trees she could hardly see him, but she felt his breath on her mouth, near to. But then, instead of kissing her, he said, "No! No!" took from her throat for an instant the hand that had held her mouth, kissed its palm, and put it back softly against her skin.
"Now, my love, let's go before they come."
She stood stock-still. Her mother's voice was to be heard in the distance, strident and meaningless. More cars were on the road. Nearer, around the rock, there were sounds of tramping and thrashing. Ruby fussed and cursed. He shouted, "Mare, dang you, where are you, Mare?" his voice harsh with uneasy anger. Now, if she aimed to do anything, was the time to do it. But there was neither breath nor power in her windpipe. It was as if those yearning fingers had paralyzed the muscles.
"Come!" The arm he put around her shivered against her shoulder blades. It was anger. "I hate killing. It's a dirty, ugly thing. It makes me sick." He gagged, judging by the sound. But then he ground his teeth. "Come away, my love!"
She found herself moving. Once when she broke a branch underfoot with an instinctive awkwardness he chided her. "Quiet, my heart, else they'll hear!" She made herself heavy. He thought she grew tired and bore more of her weight till he was breathing hard.
Men came up the hill. There must have been a dozen spread out, by the angle of their voices as they kept touch. Always Humble Jewett kept caressing Mare's throat with one hand; all she could do was hang back.
"You're tired and you're frightened," he said at last. "Get down here."
There were twigs in the dark, the overhang of a thicket of some sort. He thrust her in under this, and lay beside her on the bed of ground pine. The hand that was not in love with her throat reached across her; she felt the weight of its forearm on her shoulder and its fingers among the strands of her hair, eagerly, but tenderly, busy. Not once did he stop speaking, no louder than breathing, his lips to her ear.
"Amarantha sweet and fair— Ah, braid no more that shining hair . . ."
Mare had never heard of Lovelace, the poet; she thought the loony was just going on, hardly listened, got little sense. But the cadence of it added to the lethargy of all her flesh.
"Like a sheaf of golden thread— Most excellently ravelled . . ."
Voices loudened; feet came tramping; a pair went past not two rods away.
"... Do not then 'wind up the light— In ribbands, and overcloud in night ..."
The search went on up the woods, men shouting to one another and beating the brush.
"... But shake your head and scatter day! I've never loved, Amarantha. They've tried me with prettiness, but prettiness is too cheap, yes, it's too cheap."
Mare was cold, and the coldness made her lazy. All she knew was that he talked on.
"But dogwood blowing in the spring isn't cheap. The earth of a field isn't cheap. Lots of times I've lain down and kissed the earth of a field, Amarantha. That's beauty, and a kiss for beauty." His breath moved up her cheek. He trembled violently. "No, no, not yet!" He got to his knees and pulled her by an arm. "We can go now."
They went back down the slope, but at an angle, so that when they came to the level they passed two hundred yards to the north of the house, and crossed the road there. More and more her walking was like sleepwalking, the feet numb in their shoes. Even where he had to let go of her, crossing the creek on stones, she stepped where he stepped with an obtuse docility. The voices of the searchers on the back ridge were small in distance when they began to climb the face of Coward Hill, on the opposite side of the valley.
There is an old farm on top of Coward Hill, big hayfields as flat as tables. It had been half past nine when Mare stood on the rock above the barn; it was toward midnight when Humble Jewett put aside the last branches of the woods and led her out on the height, and half a moon had risen. And a wind blew there, tossing the withered tops of last year's grasses, and mists ran with the wind, and ragged shadows with the mists, and mares'-tails of clear moonlight among the shadows, so that now the boles of birches on the forest's edge beyond the fences were but opal blurs and now cut alabaster. It struck so cold against the girl's cold flesh, this wind, that another wind of shivers blew through her, and she put her hands over her face and eyes. But the madman stood with his eyes wide open and his mouth open, drinking the moonlight and the wet wind.
His voice, when he spoke at last, was thick in his throat.
"Get down on your knees." He got down on his and pulled her after. "And pray!"
Once in England a poet sang four lines. Four hundred years have forgotten his name, but they have remembered his lines. The daft man knelt upright, his face raised to the wild scud, his long wrists hanging to the dead grass. He began simply:
"O western wind, when wilt thou blow. That the small rain down can rain?"
The Adam's apple was big in his bent throat. As simply he finished:
"Christ, that my love were in my arms And I in my bed again!"
Mare got up and ran. She ran without aim or feeling in the power of the wind. She told herself again that the mists would hide her from him, as she had done at dusk. And again, seeing that he ran at her shoulder, she knew he had been there all the while, making a race for it, flailing the air with his long arms for joy of play in the cloud of spring, throwing his knees high, leaping the moon-blue waves of the brown grass, shaking his bright hair; and her own hair was a weight behind her, lying level on the wind. Once a shape went bounding ahead of them for instants; she did not realize it was a fox till it was gone.
She never thought of stopping; she never thought anything, except once, "O my God, I wish I had my shoes off!" And what would have been the good in stopping or in turning another way, when it was only play? The man's ecstasy magnified his strength. When a snake fence came at them he took the top rail in flight, like a college hurdler and, seeing the girl hesitate and half turn as if to flee, he would have re-leaped it without touching a hand. But then she got a loom of buildings, climbed over quickly, before he should jump, and ran along the lane that ran with the fence.
Mare had never been up there, but she knew that the farm and the house belonged to a man named Wyker, a kind of cousin of Ruby Herter's, a violent, bearded old fellow who lived by himself. She could not believe her luck. When she had run half the distance and Jewett had not grabbed her, doubt grabbed her instead. "O my God, go careful!" she told herself. "Go slow!" she implored herself, and stopped running, to walk.
Here was a misgiving the deeper in that it touched her special knowledge. She had never known an animal so far gone that its instincts failed it; a starving rat will scent the trap sooner than a fed one. Yet, after one glance at the house they approached, Jewett paid it no further attention, but walked with his eyes to the right, where the cloud had blown away, and wooded ridges, like black waves rimed with silver, ran down away toward the Valley of Virginia.
"I've never lived!" In his single cry there were two things, beatitude and pain.
Between the bigness of the falling world and his eyes the flag of her hair blew. He reached out and let it whip between his fingers. Mare was afraid it would break the spell then, and he would stop looking away and look at the house again. So she did something almost incredible; she spoke.
"It's a pretty— I mean— a beautiful view down that-a-way."
"God Almighty beautiful, to take your breath away. I knew I'd never loved, Beloved." He caught a foot under the long end of one of the boards that covered the well and went down heavily on his hands and knees. It seemed to make no difference. "But I never knew I'd never lived," he finished in the same tone of strong rapture, quadruped in the grass, while Mare ran for the door and grabbed the latch.
When the latch would not give, she lost what little sense she had. She pounded with her fists. She cried with all her might: "Oh— hey— in— there— hey— in there!" Then Jewett came and took her gently between his hands and drew her away, and then, though she was free, she stood in something like an awful embarrassment while he tried shouting.
"Hey! Friend! Whoever you are, wake up and let my love and me come in!"
"No!" wailed the girl.
He grew peremptory. "Hey, wake up!" He tried the latch. He passed to full fury in a wink's time; he cursed, he kicked, he beat the door till Mare thought he would break his hands. Withdrawing, he ran at it with his shoulder; it burst at the latch, went slamming in, and left a black emptiness. His anger dissolved in a big laugh. Turning in time to catch her by a wrist, he cried joyously, "Come, my Sweet One!"
"No! No! Please— aw— listen. There ain't nobody there. He ain't to home. It wouldn't be right to go in anybody's house if they wasn't to home, you know that."
His laugh was blither than ever. He caught her high in his arms.
"I'd do the same by his love and him if 'twas my house, I would." At the threshold he paused and thought, "That is, if she was the true love of his heart forever."
The room was the parlor. Moonlight slanted in at the door, and another shaft came through a window and fell across a sofa, its covering dilapidated, showing its wadding in places. The air was sour, but both of them were farm-bred.
"Don't, Amarantha!" His words were pleading in her ear. "Don't be so frightened."
He set her down on the sofa. As his hands let go of her they were shaking.
"But look, I'm frightened too." He knelt on the floor before her, reached out his hands, withdrew them. "See, I'm afraid to touch you." He mused, his eyes rounded. "Of all the ugly things there are, fear is the ugliest. And yet, see, it can be the very beautifulest. That's a strange, queer thing."
The wind blew in and out of the room, bringing the thin, little bitter sweetness of new April at night. The moonlight that came across Mare's shoulders fell full upon his face, but hers it left dark, ringed by the aureole of her disordered hair.
"Why do you wear a halo, Love?" He thought about it. "Because you're an angel, is that why?" The swift, untempered logic of the mad led him to dismay. His hands came flying to hers to make sure they were of earth; and he touched her breast, her shoulders, and her hair. Peace returned to his eyes as his fingers twined among the strands.
"Thy hair is as a flock of goats that appear from Gilead . . ." He spoke like a man dreaming. "Thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks."
Mare never knew that he could not see her for the moonlight.
"Do you remember, Love?"
She dared not shake her head under his hand. "Yeh, I reckon," she temporized.
"You remember how I sat at your feet, long ago, like this, and made up a song? And all the poets in all the world have never made one to touch it, have they, Love?"
"Ugh-ugh— never . "
"How beautiful are thy feet with shoes . . .Remember?"
"O my God, what's he sayin' now?" she wailed to herself.
"How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor; thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.''''
Mare had not been to church since she was a little girl, when her mother's black dress wore out. "No, no!" she wailed under her breath. "You're awful to say such awful things." She might have shouted it; nothing could have shaken the man now, rapt in the immortal, passionate periods of Solomon's song:
"... now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples."
Hotness touched Mare's face for the first time. "Aw, no, don't talk so!"
"And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved . . . causing the lips of them that are asleep to speak."
He had ended. His expression changed. Ecstasy gave place to anger, love to hate. And Mare felt the change in the weight of the fingers in her hair.
"What do you mean, I mustn't say it like that?" But it was not to her his fury spoke, for he answered himself straightway. "Like poetry, Mr. Jewett; I won't have blasphemy around my school."
"Poetry! My God! If that isn't poetry— if that isn't music——" . . . "It's Bible, Jewett. What you're paid to teach here is literature.''
"Dr. Ryeworth, you're the blasphemer and you're an ignorant man." . . . "And you're principal. And I won't have you going around reading sacred allegory like earthly love."
"Ryeworth, you're an old man, a dull man, a dirty man, and you'd be better dead."
Jewett's hands had slid down from Mare's head. "Then I went to put my ringers around his throat, so. But my stomach turned, and I didn't do it. I went to my room. I laughed all the way to my room. I sat in my room at my table and I laughed. I laughed all afternoon and long after dark came. And then, about ten, somebody came and stood beside me in my room.
"'Wherefore dost thou laugh, son?'"
"I didn't laugh any more. He didn't say any more. I kneeled down, bowed my head.
"'Thy will be done! Where is he, Lord?'"
"'Over at the girls' dormitory, waiting for Blossom Sinckley.'"
"Brassy Blossom, dirty Blossom . . ."
It had come so suddenly it was nearly too late. Mare tore at his hands with hers, tried with all her strength to pull her neck away.
"Filthy Blossom! And him an old filthy man, Blossom! And you'll find him in hell when you reach there, Blossom . . ."
It was more the nearness of his face than the hurt of his hands that gave her power of fright to choke out three words.
"I— ain't— Blossom!"
Light ran in crooked veins. Through the veins she saw his face bewildered. His hands loosened. One fell down and hung; the other he lifted and put over his eyes, took it away again and looked at her.
"Amarantha!" His remorse was fearful to see. "What have I done!" His hands returned to hover over the hurts, ravening with pity, grief, and tenderness. Tears fell down his cheeks. And with that, dammed desire broke its dam.
"Amarantha, my love, my dove, my beautiful love —"
"And I ain't Amarantha neither, I'm Mary! Mary, that's my name!"
She had no notion what she had done. He was like a crystal crucible that a chemist watches, changing hue in a wink with one adeptly added drop; but hers was not the chemist's eye. All she knew was that she felt light and free of him; all she could see of his face as he stood away above the moonlight were the whites of his eyes.
"Mary!" he muttered. A slight paroxysm shook his frame. So in the transparent crucible desire changed its hue. He retreated farther, stood in the dark by some tall piece of furniture. And still she could see the whites of his eyes.
"Mary! Mary Adorable!" A wonder was in him. "Mother of God!"
Mare held her breath. She eyed the door, but it was too far. And already he came back to go on his knees before her, his shoulders so bowed and his face so lifted that it must have cracked his neck, she thought; all she could see on the face was pain.
"Mary Mother, I'm sick to my death. I'm so tired."
She had seen a dog like that, one she had loosed from a trap after it had been there three days, its caught leg half gnawed free. Something about the eyes.
"Mary Mother, take me in your arms . . ."
Once again her muscles tightened. But he made no move.
"... and give me sleep."
No, they were worse than the dog's eyes.
"Sleep, sleep! Why won't they let me sleep? Haven't I done it all yet, Mother? Haven't I washed them yet of all their sins? I've drunk the cup that was given me; is there another? They've mocked me and reviled me, broken my brow with thorns and my hands with nails, and I've forgiven them, for they knew not what they did. Can't I go to sleep now, Mother?"
Mare could not have said why, but now she was more frightened than she had ever been. Her hands lay heavy on her knees, side by side, and she could not take them away when he bowed his head and rested his face upon them.
After a moment he said one thing more. "Take me down gently when you take me from the Tree."
Gradually the weight of his body came against her shins, and he slept.
The moon streak that entered by the eastern window crept north across the floor, thinner and thinner; the one that fell through the southern doorway traveled east and grew fat. For a while Mare's feet pained her terribly and her legs, too. She dared not move them, though, and by and by they did not hurt so much.
A dozen times, moving her head slowly on her neck, she canvassed the shadows of the room for a weapon. Each time her eyes came back to a heavy earthenware pitcher on a stand some feet to the left of the sofa. It would have had flowers in it when Wyker's wife was alive; probably it had not been moved from its dust ring since she died. It would be a long grab, perhaps too long; still, it might be done if she had her hands.
To get her hands from under the sleeper's head was the task she set herself. She pulled first one, then the other, infinitesimally. She waited. Again she tugged a very, very little. The order of his breathing was not disturbed. But at the third trial he stirred.
"Gently! Gently!" His own muttering waked him more. With some drowsy instinct of possession he threw one hand across her wrists, pinning them together between thumb and fingers. She kept dead quiet, shut her eyes, lengthened her breathing, as if she too slept.
There came a time when what was pretense grew a peril; strange as it was, she had to fight to keep her eyes open. She never knew whether or not she really napped. But something changed in the air, and she was wide awake again. The moonlight was fading on the doorsill, and the light that runs before dawn waxed in the window behind her head.
And then she heard a voice in the distance, lifted in maundering song. It was old man Wyker coming home after a night, and it was plain he had had some whisky.
Now a new terror laid hold of Mare.
"Shut up, you fool you!" she wanted to shout. "Come quiet, quiet!" She might have chanced it now to throw the sleeper away from her and scramble and run, had his powers of strength and quickness not taken her simple imagination utterly in thrall.
Happily the singing stopped. What had occurred was that the farmer had espied the open door and, even befuddled as he was, wanted to know more about it quietly. He was so quiet that Mare began to fear he had gone away. He had the squirrel hunter's foot, and the first she knew of him was when she looked and saw his head in the doorway, his hard, soiled whiskery face half upside down with craning.
He had been to the town. Between drinks he had wandered in and out of the night's excitement; had even gone a short distance with one search party himself. Now he took in the situation in the room. He used his forefinger. First he held it to his lips. Next he pointed it with jabbing motion at the sleeper. Then he tapped his own forehead and described wheels. Lastly, with his whole hand, he made pushing gestures, for Mare to wait. Then he vanished as silently as he had appeared.
The minutes dragged. The light in the east strengthened and turned rosy. Once she thought she heard a board creaking in another part of the house, and looked down sharply to see if the loony stirred. All she could see of his face was a temple with freckles on it and the sharp ridge of a cheekbone, but even from so little she knew how deeply and peacefully he slept. The door darkened. Wyker was there again. In one hand he carried something heavy; with the other he beckoned.
"Come jumpin'!" he said out loud.
Mare went jumping, but her cramped legs threw her down halfway to the sill; the rest of the distance she rolled and crawled. Just as she tumbled through the door it seemed as if the world had come to an end above her; two barrels of a shotgun discharged into a room make a noise. Afterwards all she could hear in there was something twisting and bumping on the floor boards. She got up and ran.
Mare's mother had gone to pieces; neighbor women put her to bed when Mare came home. They wanted to put Mare to bed, but she would not let them. She sat on the edge of her bed in her lean-to bedroom off the kitchen, just as she was, her hair down all over her shoulders and her shoes on, and stared away from them, at a place in the wallpaper.
"Yeh, I'll go myself. Lea' me be!"
The women exchanged quick glances, thinned their lips, and left her be. "God knows," was all they would answer to the questionings of those that had not gone in, "but she's gettin' herself to bed."
When the doctor came through he found her sitting just as she had been, still dressed, her hair down on her shoulders and her shoes on.
"What d' y' want?" she muttered and stared at the place in the wallpaper.
How could Doc Paradise say, when he did not know himself?
"I didn't know if you might be— might be feeling very smart, Mary."
"I'm all right. Lea' me be."
It was a heavy responsibility. Doc shouldered it. "No, it's all right," he said to the men in the road. Ruby Herter stood a little apart, chewing sullenly and looking another way. Doc raised his voice to make certain it carried. "Nope, nothing."
Ruby's ears got red, and he clamped his jaws. He knew he ought to go in and see Mare, but he was not going to do it while everybody hung around waiting to see if he would. A mule tied near him reached out and mouthed his sleeve in idle innocence; he wheeled and banged a fist against the side of the animal's head.
"Well, what d' y' aim to do 'bout it?" he challenged its owner.
He looked at the sun then. It was ten in the morning. "Hell, I got work!" he flared, and set off down the road for home. Doc looked at Judge North, and the judge started after Ruby. But Ruby shook his head angrily. "Lea' me be!" He went on, and the judge came back.
It got to be eleven and then noon. People began to say, "Like enough she'd be as thankful if the whole neighborhood wasn't camped here." But none went away.
As a matter of fact they were no bother to the girl. She never saw them. The only move she made was to bend her ankles over and rest her feet on edge; her shoes hurt terribly and her feet knew it, though she did not. She sat all the while staring at that one figure in the wallpaper, and she never saw the figure.
Strange as the night had been, this day was stranger. Fright and physical pain are perishable things once they are gone. But while pain merely dulls and telescopes in memory and remains diluted pain, terror looked back upon has nothing of terror left. A gambling chance taken, at no matter what odds, and won was a sure thing since the world's beginning; perils come through safely were never perilous. But what fright does do in retrospect is this— it heightens each sensuous recollection, like a hard, clear lacquer laid on wood, bringing out the color and grain of it vividly.
Last night Mare had lain stupid with fear on ground pine beneath a bush, loud footfalls and light whispers confused in her ear. Only now, in her room, did she smell the ground pine.
Only now did the conscious part of her brain begin to make words of the whispering.
"Amarantha" she remembered, Amarantha sweet and fair." That was as far as she could go for the moment, except that the rhyme with "fair" was "hair." But then a puzzle, held in abeyance, brought other words. She wondered what "ravel Ed" could mean.
"Most excellently ravelled." It was left to her mother to bring the end.
They gave up trying to keep her mother out at last. The poor woman's prostration took the form of fussiness.
"Good gracious, daughter, you look a sight. Them new shoes, half ruined; ain't your feet dead? And look at your hair, all tangled like a wild one!"
She got a comb.
"Be quiet, daughter; what's ailin' you? Don't shake your head!"
"But shake your head and scatter day."
"What you say, Amarantha?" Mrs. Doggett held an ear down.
"Go 'way! Lea' me be!"
Her mother was hurt and left. And Mare ran, as she stared at the wallpaper.
"Christ, that my love were in my arms . . ."
Mare ran. She ran through a wind white with moonlight and wet with "the small rain." And the wind she ran through, it ran through her, and made her shiver as she ran. And the man beside her leaped high over the waves of the dead grasses and gathered the wind in his arms, and her hair was heavy and his was tossing, and a little fox ran before them in waves of black and silver, more immense than she had ever known the world could be, and more beautiful.
"God Almighty beautiful, to take your breath away!"
Mare wondered, and she was not used to wondering. "Is it only crazy folks ever run like that and talk that way?"
She no longer ran; she walked; for her breath was gone. And there was some other reason, some other reason. Oh yes, it was because her feet were hurting her. So, at last, and roundabout, her shoes had made contact with her brain.
Bending over the side of the bed, she loosened one of them mechanically. She pulled it half off. But then she looked down at it sharply, and she pulled it on again.
"How beautiful . . ."
Color overspread her face in a slow wave.
"How beautiful are thy feet with shoes . .."
"Is it only crazy folks ever say such things?"
"O prince's daughter!"
"Call you that?"
By and by there was a knock at the door. It opened, and Ruby Herter came in.
"Hello, Mare old girl!" His face was red. He scowled and kicked at the floor. "I'd-a been over sooner, except we got a mule down sick." He looked at his dumb betrothed. "Come on, cheer up, forget it! He won't scare you no more, not that boy, not what's left o' him. What you lookin' at, sourface? Ain't you glad to see me?"
Mare quit looking at the wallpaper and looked at the floor.
"Yeh," she said.
"That's more like it, babe." He came and sat beside her; reached down behind her and gave her a spank. "Come on, give us a kiss, babe!" He wiped his mouth on his jumper sleeve, a good farmer's sleeve, spotted with milking. He put his hands on her; he was used to handling animals. "Hey, you, warm up a little; reckon I'm goin' to do all the lovin'?"
"Ruby, lea' me be!"
She was up, twisting. He was up, purple.
"What's ailin' of you, Mare? What you bawlin' about?"
"Nothin'— only go 'way!"
She pushed him to the door and through it with all her strength, and closed it in his face, and stood with her weight against it, crying, "Go 'way! Go 'way! Lea' me be!"