MoboReader> Literature > Westways

   Chapter 12 No.12

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 29285

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


When John was eager to hear what Leila wrote, his aunt laughed and said, "As you know, there is always a word of remembrance for you, but her letters would hardly interest you. They are about the girls and the teachers and new gowns. Write to her-I will enclose it, but you need expect no answer."

That Leila should have acquired interest in gowns seemed to him unlike that fearless playmate. He learned that the rules of the school forbade the writing of letters except to parents and near relatives. He was now to write to Leila the first letter he had written since his laborious epistles to his mother when at school. His compositions seemed to Rivers childlike long after he showed notable competence in speech.

"DEAR LEILA: It is very hard that you cannot write to me. We are all well here except Lucy, who is lame. It isn't very much.

"Of course you have heard about our good old Josiah. Isn't that slave law wicked? Westways is angry and all turned round for Fremont. Mr. Grace has been ill, and Uncle Jim is putting a roof on his chapel. Josiah left me his traps when he ran away. He meant to make you a muskrat skin bag. I found four in his traps, and I have caught four more, and when Mrs. Lamb makes a bag of them, I am to have for it a silver clasp which belonged to Great-grandmother Penhallow. No girl will have one like that. It was on account of Josiah the town will not vote for Buchanan.

"I wish I had asked you for a lock of your hair. I remember how it looked on the snow when Billy upset us."-

He had found his letter-writing hard work, and let it alone for a time.

Before he finished it, he had more serious news to add.

The autumnal sunset of the year, the red and gold of maple, oak and sassafras, was new to the boy who had spent so many years in Europe, and more wonderful was it when in this late October on the uplands there fell softly upon the glowing colours of the woods a light covering of early snow. Once seen it is a spectacle never to be forgotten, and he had the gift of being charmed by the scenic ingenuities of nature.

The scripture reading was over and he was thinking late in the evening of what he had seen, when his aunt said, "Goodnight, John-bed-time," and went up the stairway. John lay quiet, with closed eyes, seeing the sunlit snow lightly dusted on the red and yellows of the forest.

About eleven his uncle came from the library. "What, you scamp!-up so late! I meant to mail this letter to-day; run down and mail it. It ought to go when Billy takes the letters to Westways Crossing early to-morrow. I will wait up for you. Now use those long legs and hurry."

John took his cap and set off, liking the run over the snow, which was light and no longer falling. He raced down the avenue and climbed the gate, thinking of Leila. He dropped the letter into the post-office box, and decided to return by a short way through the Penhallow woods which faced the town. He moved eastward, climbed the fence, and stood still. He was some two hundred yards from the parsonage. His attention was arrested by a dull glow behind the house. He ran towards it as it flared upward a broad rush of flame, brilliantly lighting the expanse of snow and sending long prancing shafts of shadow through the woods as it struck on the tall spruces. Shouting, "Fire! Fire!" John came nearer.

The large store of dry pine and birch for winter-use piled in a shed against the back of Rivers's house was burning fiercely, with that look of ungoverned fury which gives such an expression of merciless, personal rage to a great fire. The terror of it at first possessed the lad, who was shouting himself hoarse. The flame was already running up and over the outer planking and curling down upon the thin snow of the shingled roof as he ran around the small garden and saw the front door open and Rivers come out. The rector said, "It is gone, John; I will go for your uncle. Run over to the Wayne and call up the men. Tell them to get out my books and what they can, but to run no risks. Quick, now! Wake up the town."

There was little need, for some one at the inn had heard John's cries. In a few minutes the village was awake and out of doors before Penhallow arriving took charge and scattered men through the easily lighted pines, in some dread of a forest fire. The snow on the floor of pine-needles and on the laden trees was, however, as he soon saw, an insurance against the peril from far-scattered sparks, and happily there was no wind. Little of what was of any value was saved, and in the absence of water there was nothing to do but to watch the fire complete its destructive work.

"There is nothing more we can do, Rivers," said Penhallow. "John was the first to see it. We will talk about it to-morrow-not now-not here."

The three Grey Pine people stood apart while books and clothes and little else were carried across the road and stored in the village houses. At last the flames rose high in the air and for a few minutes as the roof fell in, the beauty of the illumination was what impressed John and Rivers. The Squire now and then gave quick orders or stood still in thought. At last he said to the rector, "I want you to go to Grey Pine, call up Mrs. Penhallow and tell her, and then go to bed. You will like to stay here with me, John?"

"Yes, sir." The Squire walked away as Rivers left them.

"Fine sight, ain't it, Mr. John," said Billy, the one person who enjoyed the fire.

"Yes," said John, absently intent on the red-lighted snow spaces and the gigantic shadows of the thinly timbered verge of the forest as they were and were not. Then there was a moment of alarm. An old birch, loosely clad with dry, ragged bark stood near to the house. A flake of falling fire fell on it. Instantly the whole trunk-cover blazed up with a roar like that of a great beast in pain. It was sudden and for the instant terrible, but the snow-laden leaves still left on it failed to take fire, and what in summer would have been a calamity was at an end.

"Gosh!" exclaimed Billy, "didn't he howl?" John made no reply.

"Couldn't wake Peter. I was out first." He had liked the fun of banging at the doors. "Old Woman Lamb said she couldn't wake him."

"Drunk, I suppose," said John absently, stamping out a spark among the pine-needles at his feet, now freed from snow by the heat.

The night passed, and when the dawning came, the Squire leaving some orders went homeward with John, saying only, "Go to bed at once, we will talk about it later. I don't like it, John. You saw it first-where did it begin?"

"Outside, sir, in the wood-shed."

"Indeed! There has been some foul play. Who could it have been?" He said no more.

It was far into the morning when John awaking found that he had been allowed to make up for the lost sleep of the past night. His aunt smiling greeted him with a kiss, concerning which there is something to be said in regard to what commentary the assistant features make upon the kiss. "I would not have you called earlier," she said; "but now, here is your breakfast, you have earned it." She sat down and watched the disappearance of a meal which would have filled his mother with anxiety. Ann was really enjoying the young fellow's wholesome appetite and contrasting it with the apprehensive care concerning food he had shown when long before he had seemed to her husband and herself a human problem hard to solve. James Penhallow had been wise, and Leila a rough and efficient schoolmistress. "Do not hurry, John; have another cup?"

"Yes, please."

"Have you written that letter? I mean to be naughty enough to enclose it to Leila. I told you so."

"Yes, but it is not quite done, and now I must tell her about the fire. I wrote her that Josiah had gone away."

"The less of it the better. I mean about-well, about your warning him-and the rest-your share and mine."

"Of course not, Aunt Ann. I would not talk about myself. I mean, I could not write about it."

"You would talk of it if she were here-you would, I am sure."

"Yes, that's different-I suppose, I would," he returned. She was struck with this as being like what James Penhallow would have said and have, or not have, done.

"If you have finished, John, I think your uncle wants you."

"Why didn't you tell me, aunt?" he said, as he got up in haste.

"Oh, boys must be fed," she cried. She too rose from her seat, and went around the table and kissed him again, saying, "You are more and more like my captain, John."

Being a woman, as John was well aware, not given to express approval of what were merely acts of duty, he was surprised at what was, for her, excess of praise; nor was she as much given to kissing, as are many women. The lad felt, therefore, that what she thus said and did was unusual, and was what his Uncle Jim called one of Ann's rarely conferred brevets of affection.

"Yes," she repeated, "you are like him."

"What! I like Uncle Jim! I wish I were."

"Now go," she said, giving him a gentle push. She was shyly aware of a lapse into unhabitual emotion and of some closer approach to the maternal relation fostered by his growing resemblance to James Penhallow.

"So," laughed his uncle as John entered the library, "you have burned down the school and are on a holiday-you and Rivers."

John grinned. "Yes, sir."

"Sit down. We are discussing that fire. You were the first to see it,

John. It was about eleven-"

"Yes, uncle, it struck as I left the hall."

"No one else was in sight, and in fact, Rivers, no one in Westways is out of bed at ten. Both you and John are sure the fire began outside where the wood was piled under a shed."

"Yes," said Rivers. "It was a well dried winter supply, birch and pine. The shed, as you know, was alongside of the kitchen door. I went over the house as usual about nine, after old Susan, the maid, had gone home. I covered the kitchen fire with ashes-a thing she is apt to neglect. I went to bed at ten and wakened to hear the glass crack and to smell smoke. The kitchen lay under my bedroom. I fear it was a deliberate act of wickedness."

"That is certain," said Penhallow, "but who could have wanted to do it. You and I, Rivers, know every one in Westways. Can you think of any one with malice enough to make him want to bum a house and risk the possibility of murder?"

Rivers turned his lean pale face toward the Squire, unwilling to speak out what was in the minds of both men. John listened, looking from one serious face to the other.

"It seems to me quite incredible," said Penhallow, and then Rivers knew surely that the older man had a pretty definite belief in regard to the person who had been concerned. He knew too why the Squire was unwilling to accuse him, and waited to hear what next Penhallow would say.

"It makes one feel uncomfortable," said Penhallow, and turning to John,

"Who was first there after you came?"

"Billy, sir, I think, even before the men from the Wayne, but I am not sure. I told him to pound on the doors and wake up the town."

"Did he say anything?"

"Oh, just his usual silliness."

"Was Peter Lamb at the fire?"

"I think not. His mother opened a window and said that she could not waken Peter. It was Billy told me that. I told Billy, I supposed Peter was drunk. But he wasn't yesterday afternoon-I saw him."

"Oh, there was time enough for that," remarked Rivers.

Then the two men smoked and were silent, until at last the Squire said, "Of course, you must stay here, Rivers, and you know how glad we shall be-oh, don't protest. It is the only pleasant thing which comes out of this abominable matter. Ann will like it."

"Thank you," returned Rivers, "I too like it."

John went away to look at the ruin left by the fire, and the Squire said to his friend, "As I am absent in the mornings at the mills, you may keep school here, Rivers," and it was so settled.

Before going out Penhallow went to his wife's little room on the farther side of the hall. He had no desire to hide his conclusions from her. She saw how grave he looked. "What is it, James?" she asked, looking up from her desk.

"I am as sure as a man can be that Peter Lamb set fire to the parsonage. He has always been revengeful and he owed our friend, the Rector, a grudge. I have no direct evidence of his guilt, and what am I to do? You know why I have always stood by him. I suppose that I was wrong."

She knew only too well, but now his evident trouble troubled her and she loved him too well to accept the temptation to use the exasperating phrase, "I always told you so." "You can do nothing, James, without more certainty. You will not question his mother?"

"No, I can't do that, Ann; and yet I cannot quite let this go by and simply sit still."

"What do you propose to do?"

"I do not know," and with this he left her and rode to the mills. In the afternoon he called at Mrs. Lamb's and asked where he could find Peter.

She was evidently uneasy, as she said, "You gave him work on the new roof of the Baptist chapel with Boynton; he might be there."

He made no comment, and went on his way until reaching the chapel he called Peter down from the roof and said, "Come with me, I want to talk to you."

Peter was now sober and was sharply on guard. "Come away from the town," added the Squire. He crossed the street, entered his own woods and walked through them until he came in sight of the smoking relics of the parsonage, where at a distance some few persons were idly discussing what was also on Penhallow's mind. Here he turned on his foster-brother, and said, "You set that house on fire. I could get out of your mother enough to make it right to arrest you, but I will not bring her into the matter. Others suspect you. Now, what have you to say?"

"Say! I didn't do it-that's all. I was in bed."

"Why did you not get up and help?"

"Wasn't any of my business," he replied sulkily. "Everybody in this town's against me, and now when I've given up drinking, to say I set a house afire-"

"Well!" said Penhallow, "this is my last word, you may go. I shall not have you arrested, but I cannot answer for what others may do."

Peter walked away. He had been for several days enough under the influence of whisky to intensify what were for him normal or at least habitually indulged characteristics. For them he was only in part responsible. His mother had spoiled him. He had been as a child the playmate of his breast-brother until time and change had left him only in such a relation to Penhallow as would have meant little or nothing to most men. As a

result, out of the Squire's long and indulgent care of a lad who grew up a very competent carpenter, and gradually more and more an idle drunkard, Peter had come to overestimate the power of his claim on Penhallow. What share in his evil qualities his father's drunkenness had, is in no man's power to say. His desire to revenge the slightest ill-treatment or the abuse his evil ways earned had the impelling force of a brute instinct. What he called "getting even" kept him in difficulties, and when he made things unpleasant or worse for the offenders, his constant state of induced indifference to consequences left him careless and satisfied. When there was not enough whisky to be had, his wild acts of revengeful malice were succeeded by such childlike terror as Penhallow's words produced. 'The preacher would have him arrested; the Squire would not interfere. Some day he would get even with him too!' There was now, however, no recourse but flight. He hastened home and finding his mother absent searched roughly until by accident as he let fall her Bible, a bank note dropped out. There were others, some sixty dollars or more, her meagre savings. He took it all without the least indecision. At dark after her return he ate the supper she provided. When she had gone to bed, he packed some clothes in a canvas bag and went quietly out upon the highway. Opposite to the smoking ruin of the rectory he halted. He muttered, "I've got even with him anyhow!"

As he murmured his satisfaction, a man left on guard crossed the road.

"Halloa! Where are you bound, Peter?"

"Goin' after a job. Bad fire, wasn't it-hard on the preacher!"

"Hard. He's well lodged at the Squire's, and I do hear it was insured. Nobody's much the worse, and it will make a fine bit of work for some of us. Who done it, I wonder?"

"How should I know! Good-night."

When out of sight, he turned and said, "I ain't got even yet. Them rich people's hard to beat. Damn the Squire! I'll get even with him some day." He was bitterly disappointed. "Gosh! I ran that nigger out, and now I'm a runaway too. It's queer."

At Westways Crossing he waited until an empty freight train was switched off to let the night express go by. Then he stowed himself away in an open box-car and had a comfortable sense of relief as it rolled eastward. He felt sure that the Squire's last words meant that he might be arrested and that immediate flight was his only chance of escape.

He thus passes, like Josiah, for some years out of my story. He had money, was when sober a clever carpenter, and felt, therefore, no fear of his future. He had the shrewd conviction that the Squire at least would not be displeased to get rid of him, and would not be very eager to have him pursued.

James Penhallow was disagreeably aware that it was his duty to bring about the punishment of his drunken foster-brother, but he did not like it. When the next morning he was about to mount his horse, he saw Mrs. Lamb, now an aged woman, coming slowly up the avenue. As she came to the steps of the porch, Penhallow went to meet her, giving the help of his hand.

"Good-morning, Ellen," he said, "what brings you here over the snow this frosty day? Do you want to see Mrs. Penhallow?"

For a moment she was too breathless to answer. The withered leanness of the weary old face moved in an effort to speak, but was defeated by emotion. She gasped, "Let me set down."

He led her into the hall and gave her a chair. Then he called his wife from her library-room. Ann at once knew that something more than the effect of exertion was to be read in the moving face. The dull grey eyes of age stared at James Penhallow and then at her, and again at him, as in the vigour of perfect health they looked down at his old nurse and with kindly patience waited. "Don't hurry, Ellen," said Mrs. Ann. "You are out of breath."

She seemed to Ann like some dumb animal that had no language but a look to tell the story of despair or pain. At last she found her voice and gasped out, "I came to tell you he has run away. He went last night. I'd like to be able to say, James Penhallow, that I don't know why he went away-"

"We will not talk of it, Ellen," said the Squire, with some sense of relief at the loss of need to do what he had felt to be a duty. "Come near to the fire," he added.

"No, I want to go home. I had to tell you. I just want to be alone. I'd have given it to him if he had asked me. I don't mind his taking the money, but he took it out of my Bible. I kept it there. It was like stealing from the Lord. It'll bring him bad luck. Mostly it was in the Gospels-just a bank-note here and there-sixty-one dollars and seventy-three cents it was." She seemed to be talking to herself rather than to the man and woman at her side. She went on-sometimes a babble they could not comprehend, as in pity and wonder they stood over her. Then again her voice rose, "He took it from the book of God. Oh, my son, my son! I must go."

She rose feebly tottering, and added, "It will follow him like a curse out of the Bible. He took it out of the Bible. I must go."

"No," said Penhallow, "wait and I will send you home."

She sat down again. "Thank you." Then with renewed strength, she said,

"You won't have them go after him?"

"No, I will not."

He went away to order the carriage, and returning said, "You know, Ellen, that you will always be taken care of."

"Yes, I know, sir-I know. But he took it out of my Bible-out of the book of God." She was presently helped into the wagon and sent away murmuring incoherently.

"And so, James," said Ann, "she knew too much about the fire. What a tragedy!"

"Yes, she knew. I am glad that he has gone. If he had faced it out and stayed, I must have done something. I suppose it is better for her on the whole. When he was drunk, he was brutal; when he was sober, he kept her worried. I am glad he has gone."

"But," said Ann, "he was her son-"

"Yes, more's the pity."

In a day or two it was known that Peter had disappeared. The town knew very well why and discussed it at evening, when as usual the men gathered for a talk. Pole expressed the general opinion when he said, "It's hard on the old woman, but I guess it's a riddance of bad rubbish." Then they fell to talking politics, the roofing of the chapel and the price of wheat and so Westways settled down again to its every-day quiet round of duties.

The excitement of the fire and Lamb's flight had been unfavourable to literary composition, but now John returned to his letter. He continued:

"The reticule will have to be finished in town. Uncle will take it after the election or send it to you. If you remember your Latin, you will know that reticule comes from reticulus, a net. But this isn't really a net.

"We have had a big excitement. Some one set fire to the parsonage and it burnt down." [He did not tell her who set it on fire, although he knew very well that it was Peter Lamb.] "Lamb has run away, and I think we are well rid of him.

"I do miss you very much. Mr. Rivers says you will be a fashionable young lady when you come back and will never snowball any more. I don't believe it.

"Yours truly,

"JOHN PENHALLOW."

Mrs. Penhallow enclosed the letter in one of her own, and no answer came until she gave him a note at the end of October. Leila wrote:

"DEAR JOHN: It is against the rules to write to any one but parents, and I am breaking the rules when I enclose this to you. I do not think I ought to do it, and I will not again.

"You would not know me in my long skirts, and I wear my hair in two plaits. The girls are all from the South and are very angry when they talk about the North. I cannot answer them and am sorry I do not know more about politics, but I do know that Uncle Jim would not agree with them.

"I go on Saturdays and over Sundays to my cousins in Baltimore. They say that the South will secede if Fremont should be elected. I just hold my tongue and listen.

"Yours sincerely,

"LEILA GREY.

"P.S. I shall be very proud of the bag. I hope you are studying hard."

"Indeed!" muttered John. "Thanks, Miss Grey." There was no more of it.

John Penhallow had come by degrees to value the rare privilege of a walk with the too easily wearied clergyman, who had avenues of ready intellectual approach which invited the adventurous mind of the lad and were not in the mental topography of James Penhallow. The cool, hazy days of late October had come with their splendour of colour-contrasts such as only the artist nature could make acceptable, and this year the autumn was unusually brilliant.

"Do you enjoy it?" asked Rivers.

"Oh, yes, sir. I suppose every one does."

"In a measure, as some people do the great music, and as the poets usually do not. People presume that the ear for rhythm is the same as that for music. They are things apart. A few poets have had both."

"That seems strange," said John. "I have neither," and he was lost in thought until Rivers, as usual easily tired, said, "Let us sit down. How hazy the air is, John! It tenderly flatters these wild colour-contrasts. It is like a November day of the Indian summer."

"Why do they call it Indian summer?" asked John.

"I do not know. I tried in vain to run it down in the dictionaries. In

Canada it is known as 'L'été de St. Martin.'"

"It seems," said John, "as if the decay of the year had ceased, in pity. It is so beautiful and so new to me. I feel sometimes when I am alone in these woods as if something was going to happen. Did you ever feel that, sir?"

Rivers was silent for a moment. The lad's power to state things in speech and his incapacity to put his thoughts in writing had often puzzled the tutor. "Why don't you put such reflections into verse, John? It's good practice in English."

"I can't-I've tried."

"Try again."

"No," said John decidedly. "Do look at those maples, Mr. Rivers-and the oaks-and the variety of colour in the sassafras. Did you ever notice how its leaves differ in shape?"

"I never did, but nothing is exactly the same as anything else. We talked of that once."

"Then since the world began there never was another me or Leila?"

"Never. There is only one of anything."

John was silent-in thought of his unresemblance to any other John. "But

I am like Uncle Jim! Aunt says so."

"Yes, outwardly you are; but you have what he has not-imagination. It is both friend and foe as may be. It may not be a good gift for a soldier-at least one form of it. It may be the parent of fear-of indecisions."

"But, Mr. Rivers, may it not work also for good and suggest possibilities-let you into seeing what other men may do?"

The reflection seemed to Rivers not like the thought of so young a man. He returned, "But I said it might be a friend and have practical uses in life. I have not found it that myself. But some men have morbid imagination. Let us walk." They went on again through the quiet splendour of the woodlands.

"Uncle Jim is going away after the election."

"Yes."

"He will see Leila. Don't you miss her?"

"Yes, but not as you do. However, she will grow up and go by you and be a woman while you are more slowly maturing. That is their way. And then she will marry."

"Good gracious! Leila marry!"

"Yes-it is a way they have. Let us go home."

John was disinclined to talk. Marry-yes-when I am older, I shall ask her until she does!

November came in churlish humour and raged in storms of wind and rain, until before their time to let fall their leaves the woods were stripped of their gay colours. On the fourth day of November the Squire voted the Fremont electoral ticket, and understood that with the exception of Swallow and Pole, Westways had followed the master of Grey Pine. The other candidates did not trouble them. The sad case of Josiah and the threat to capture their barber had lost Buchanan the twenty-seven votes of the little town. Mr. Boynton, the carpenter, fastening the last shingles on the chapel roof remarked to a workman that it was an awful pity Josiah couldn't know about it and that the new barber wasn't up to shaving a real stiff beard.

The Squire wrote to his wife from Philadelphia on the ninth:

"DEAR ANN: We never talk politics because you were born a Democrat and consider Andrew Jackson a political saint. I begin to wish he might be reincarnated in the body of Buchanan. He will need backbone, I fear. He has carried our State by only three thousand majority in a vote of 433,000. I am told that the excitement here was so great that the peacemaking effect of a day of cold drizzle alone prevented riot and bloodshed. Mr. Buchanan said in October, 'We shall hear no more of "Bleeding Kansas."' Well, I hope so. Here we are at one. I should feel more regret at the defeat of my party if I had more belief in Fremont, but your man is, I am sure, elected, and we must hope for the best and try to think that hope reasonable.

"I have been fortunate in my contracts for rails with the two railroads.

I shall finish this letter in Baltimore.-

"Baltimore.-I saw Leila, who has quite the air of a young lady and is well, handsome and reasonably contented. Dined with your brother Henry; and really, Ann, the cold-blooded way the men talked of secession was a little beyond endurance. I spoke my mind at last, and was heard with courteous disapproval. My friend, Lt.-Colonel Robert Lee of the Army, was the only man who was silent about our troubles. Two men earnestly advocated the re-opening of the slave-trade, and if as they say slavery is a blessing, the slave-trade is morally justified and logically desirable. I do want you to feel, my dear Ann, how extreme are the views of these pleasant gentlemen.

"The Madeira was good, and despite the half-hidden bitterness of opinion,

I enjoyed my visit. Let John read this letter if you like to do so.

"Yours always and in all ways,

"JAMES PENHALLOW."

She did not like, but John heard all about this visit when the Squire came home.

The winter of 1856-7 went by without other incident at Westways, with Mrs. Ann's usual bountiful Christmas gifts to the children at the mills and Westways. Mr. Buchanan was inaugurated in March. The captain smiled grimly as he read in the same paper the message of the Governor of South Carolina recommending the re-opening of the trade in slaves, and the new President's hopes "that the long agitation over slavery is approaching its end." Nor did Penhallow fancy the Cabinet appointments, but he said nothing more of his opinions to Ann Penhallow.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares