In Nauvoo by Robert W. Chambers

THE long drought ended with a cloud-burst in the western mountains, which tore a new slide down the flank of Lynx Peak and scarred the Gilded Dome from summit to base. Then storm followed storm, bursting through the mountain-notch and sweeping the river into the meadows, where the haycocks were already afloat, and the gaunt mountain cattle floundered bellowing.

The stage from White Lake arrived at noon with the mail, and the driver walked into the post-office and slammed the soaking mail-sack on the floor.

“Gracious!” said the little postmistress.

“Yes’m,” said the stage-driver, irrelevantly; “them letters is wetter an’ I’m madder ’n a swimmin’ shanghai! Upsot? Yes’m—in Snow Brook. Road’s awash, meadders is flooded, an’ the water’s a-swashin’ an’ a-sloshin’ in them there galoshes.” He waved one foot about carelessly, scattering muddy spray, then balanced himself alternately on heels and toes to hear the water wheeze in his drenched boots.

“There must be a hole in the mail-pouch,” said the postmistress, in gentle distress.

There certainly was. The letters were soaked; the wrappers on newspaper and parcel had become detached; the interior of the government’s mail-pouch resembled the preliminary stages of a paper-pulp vat. But the postmistress worked so diligently among the débris that by one o’clock she had sorted and placed in separate numbered boxes every letter, newspaper, and parcel—save one.

That one was a letter directed to

James Helm, Esq.
Nauvoo, via White Lake.”

and it was so wet and the gum that sealed it was so nearly dissolved that the postmistress decided to place it between blotters, pile two volumes of government agricultural reports on it, and leave it until dry.

One by one the population of Nauvoo came dripping into the post-office for the mail, then slopped out into the storm again, umbrellas couched in the teeth of the wind. But James Helm did not come for his letter.

The postmistress sat alone in her office and looked out into her garden. It was a very wet garden; the hollyhocks still raised their flowered spikes in the air; the nasturtiums, the verbenas, and the pansies were beaten down and lying prone in muddy puddles. She wondered whether they would ever raise their heads again—those delicate flower faces that she knew so well, her only friends in Nauvoo.

Through the long drought she had tended them, ministering to their thirst, protecting them from their enemies the weeds, and from the great, fuzzy, brown-and-yellow caterpillars that travelled over the fences, guided by instinct and a raging appetite. Now each frail flower had laid its slender length along the earth, and the little postmistress watched them wistfully from her rain-stained window.

She had expected to part with her flowers; she was going away forever in a few days—somewhere—she was not yet quite certain where. But now that her flowers lay prone, bruised and broken, the idea of leaving them behind her distressed her sorely.

She picked up her crutch and walked to the door. It was no use; the rain warned her back. She sat down again by the window to watch her wounded flowers.

There was something else that distressed her too, although the paradox of parting from a person she had never met ought to have appealed to her sense of humor. But she did not think of that; never, since she had been postmistress in Nauvoo, had she spoken one word to James Helm, nor had he ever spoken to her. He had a key to his letter-box; he always came towards evening.

It was exactly a year ago to-day that Helm came to Nauvoo—a silent, pallid young fellow with unresponsive eyes and the bearing of a gentleman. He was cordially detested in Nauvoo. For a year she had watched him enter the post-office, unlock his letter-box, swing on his heel and walk away, with never a glance at her nor a sign of recognition to any of the village people who might be there. She heard people exchange uncomplimentary opinions concerning him; she heard him sneered at, denounced, slandered.

Naturally, being young and lonely and quite free from malice towards anybody, she had time to construct a romance around Helm—a very innocent romance of well-worn pattern and on most unoriginal lines. Into this romance she sometimes conducted herself, blushing secretly at her mental indiscretion, which indiscretion so worried her that she dared not even look at Helm that evening when he came for his mail. She was a grave, gentle little thing—a child still whose childhood had been a tragedy and whose womanhood promised only that shadow of happiness called contentment which comes from a blameless life and a nature which accepts sorrow without resentment.

Thinking of Helm as she sat there by the window, she heard the office clock striking five. Five was Helm’s usual hour, so she hid her crutch. It was her one vanity—that he should not know that she was lame.

She rose and lifted the two volumes of agricultural reports from the blotters where Helm’s letter lay, then she carefully raised one blotter. To her dismay half of the envelope stuck to the blotting-paper, leaving the contents of the letter open to her view.

On the half-envelope lay an object apparently so peculiarly terrifying that the little postmistress caught her breath and turned quite white at sight of it. And yet it was only a square bit of paper, perfectly blank save for half a dozen thread-like lines scattered through its texture.

For a long while the postmistress stood staring at the half-envelope and the bit of blank paper. Then with trembling fingers she lighted a lamp and held the little piece of paper over the chimney—carefully. When the paper was warm she raised it up to the light and read the scrawl that the sympathetic ink revealed:

 

“I send you a sample of the latest style fibre. Look out for the new postmaster at Nauvoo. He’s a secret-service spy, and he’s been sent to see what you are doing. This is the last letter I dare send you by mail.”

There was no signature to the message, but a signature was not necessary to tell the postmistress who had written the letter. With set lips and tearless eyes she watched the writing fade slowly on the paper; and when again the paper was blank she sank down by the window, laying her head in her arms.

A few moments later Helm came in wrapped in a shining wet mackintosh. He glanced at his box, saw it was empty, wheeled squarely on his heels, and walked out.

Towards sunset the rain dissolved to mist; a trail of vapor which marked the course of an unseen brook floated high among the hemlocks. There was no wind; the feathery tips of the pines, powdered with rain-spray, rose motionless in the still air. Suddenly the sun’s red search-light played through the forest; long, warm rays fell across wet moss, rain-drenched ferns dripped, the swamp steamed. In the east the thunder still boomed, and faint lightning flashed under the smother of sombre clouds; but the storm had rolled off among the mountains, and already a white-throated sparrow was calling from the edge of the clearing. It promised to be a calm evening in Nauvoo.

Meanwhile, Helm walked on down the muddy road, avoiding the puddles which the sun turned into pools of liquid flame. He heard the catbirds mewing in the alders; he heard the evening carol of the robin—that sweet, sleepy, thrushlike warble which always promises a melody that never follows; he picked a spray of rain-drenched hemlock as he passed, crushing it in his firm, pale fingers to inhale the fragrance. Now in the glowing evening the bull-bats were soaring and tumbling, and the tree-frogs trilled from the darkling pastures.

Around the bend in the road his house stood all alone, a small, single-storied cottage in a tangled garden. He passed in at his gate, but instead of unlocking the front door he began to examine the house as though he had never before seen it; he scrutinized every window, he made a cautious, silent tour of the building, returning to stare again at the front door.

The door was locked; he never left the house without locking it, and he never returned without approaching the house in alert silence, as though it might conceal an enemy.

There was no sound of his footfalls as he mounted the steps; the next instant he was inside the house, his back against the closed door—listening. As usual, he heard nothing except the ticking of a clock somewhere in the house, and as usual he slipped his revolver back into the side pocket of his coat and fitted a key into the door on his left. The room was pitch dark; he lighted a candle and held it up, shading his eyes with a steady hand.

There was a table, a printing-press, and one chair in the room; the table was littered with engraver’s tools, copper plates, bottles of acid, packets of fibre paper, and photographic paraphernalia. A camera, a reading-lamp, and a dark-lantern stood on a shelf beside a nickel-plated clock which ticked sharply.

The two windows in the room had been sealed up with planks, over which sheet iron was nailed. The door also had been reinforced with sheet-iron. From a peg above it a repeating-rifle hung festooned with two cartridge belts.

When he had filled his lamp from a can of kerosene he lighted it and sat down to the task before him with even less interest than usual—and his interest had been waning for weeks. For the excitement that makes crime interesting had subsided and the novelty was gone. There was no longer anything in his crime that appealed to his intellect. The problem of successfully accomplishing crime was no longer a problem to him; he had solved it. The twelve months’ work on the plate before him demonstrated this; the plate was perfect; the counterfeit an absolute fac-simile. The government stood to lose whatever he chose to take from it.

As an artist in engraving and as an intelligent man, Helm was, or had been, proud of his work. But for that very reason, because he was an artist, he had tired of his masterpiece, and was already fingering a new plate, vaguely meditating better and more ambitious work. Why not? Why should he not employ his splendid skill and superb accuracy in something original? That is where the artist and the artisan part company—the artisan is always content to copy; the artist, once master of his tools, creates.

In Helm the artist was now in the ascendant; he dreamed of engraving living things direct from nature—the depths of forests shot with sunshine, scrubby uplands against a sky crowded with clouds, and perhaps cattle nosing for herbage among the rank fern and tangled briers of a scanty pasture—perhaps even the shy, wild country children, bareheaded and naked of knee and shoulder, half-tamed, staring from the road-side brambles.

It is, of course, possible that Helm was a natural-born criminal, yet his motive for trying his skill at counterfeiting was revenge and not personal gain.

He had served his apprenticeship in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He had served the government for twelve years, through three administrations. Being a high salaried employé, the civil service gave him no protection when the quadrennial double-shuffle changed the politics of the administration. He was thrown aside like a shabby garment which has served its purpose, and although for years he had known what ultimate reward was reserved for those whom the republic hires, he could never bring himself to believe that years of faithful labor and a skill which increased with every new task set could meet the common fate. So when his resignation was requested, and when, refusing indignantly, he was turned out, neck and heels, after his twelve years of faultless service, it changed the man terribly.

He went away with revenge in his mind and the skill and intelligence to accomplish it. But now that he had accomplished it, and the plate was finished, and the government at his mercy, the incentive to consummate his revenge lagged. After all, what could he revenge himself on? The government?—that huge, stupid, abstract bulk! Had it a shape, a form concrete, nerves, that it could suffer in its turn? Even if it could suffer, after all, he was tired of suffering. There was no novelty in it.

Perhaps his recent life alone in the sweet, wholesome woods had soothed a bitter and rebellious heart. There is a balm for deepest wounds in the wind, and in the stillness of a wilderness there is salve for souls.

As he sat there brooding, or dreaming of the work he might yet do, there stole into his senses that impalpable consciousness of another presence, near, and coming nearer. Alert, silent, he rose, and as he turned he heard the front gate click. In an instant he had extinguished lamp and candle, and, stepping back into the hallway, he laid his ear to the door.

In the silence he heard steps along the gravel, then on the porch. There was a pause; leaning closer to the door he could hear the rapid, irregular breathing of his visitor. Knocking began at last, a very gentle rapping; silence, another uncertain rap, then the sound of retreating steps from the gravel, and the click of the gate-latch. With one hand covering the weapon in his coat-pocket, he opened the door without a sound and stepped out.

A young girl stood just outside his gate.

“Who are you and what is your business with this house?” he inquired, grimly. The criminal in him was now in the ascendant; he was alert, cool, suspicious, and insolent. He saw in anybody who approached his house the menace of discovery, perhaps an intentional and cunning attempt to entrap and destroy him. All that was evil in him came to the surface; the fear that anybody might forcibly frustrate his revenge—if he chose to revenge himself—raised a demon in him that blanched his naturally pallid face and started his lip muscles into that curious recession which, in animals, is the first symptom of the snarl.

“What do you want?” he repeated. “Why do you knock and then slink away?”

“I did not know you were at home,” said the girl, faintly.

“Then why do you come knocking? Who are you, anyway?” he demanded, harshly, knowing perfectly well who she was.

“I am the postmistress at Nauvoo,” she faltered—“that is, I was—”

“Really,” he said, angrily; “your intelligence might teach you to go where you are more welcome.”

His brutality seemed to paralyze the girl. She looked at him as though attempting to comprehend his meaning. “Are you not Mr. Helm?” she asked, in a sweet, bewildered voice.

“Yes, I am,” he replied, shortly.

“I thought you were a gentleman,” she continued, in the same stunned voice.

“I’m not,” said Helm, bitterly. “I fancy you will agree with me, too. Good-night.”

He deliberately turned his back on her and sat down on the wooden steps of the porch; but his finely modelled ears were alert and listening, and when to his amazement he heard her open his gate again and re-enter, he swung around with eyes contracting wickedly.

She met his evil glance quite bravely, wincing when he invited her to leave the yard. But she came nearer, crossing the rank, soaking grass, and stood beside him where he was sitting.

“May I tell you something?” she asked, timidly.

“Will you be good enough to pass your way?” he answered, rising.

“Not yet,” she replied, and seated herself on the steps. The next moment she was crying, silently, but that only lasted until she could touch her eyes with her handkerchief.

He stood above her on the steps. Perhaps it was astonishment that sealed his lips, perhaps decency. He had noticed that she was slightly lame, although her slender figure appeared almost faultless. He waited for a moment.

Far on the clearing’s dusky edge a white-throated sparrow called persistently to a mate that did not answer.

If Helm felt alarm or feared treachery his voice did not betray it. “What is the trouble?” he demanded, less roughly.

She said, without looking at him: “I have deceived you. There was a letter for you to-day. It came apart and—I found—this—”

She held out a bit of paper. He took it mechanically. His face had suddenly turned gray.

The paper was fibre paper. He stood there breathless, his face a ghastly, bloodless mask; and when he found his voice it was only the ghost of a voice.

“What is all this about?” he asked.

“About fibre paper,” she answered, looking up at him.

“Fibre paper!” he repeated, confounded by her candor.

“Yes—government fibre. Do you think I don’t know what it is?”

For the first time there was bitterness in her voice. She turned partly around, supporting her body on one arm. “Fibre paper? Ah, yes—I know what it is,” she said again.

He looked her squarely in the eyes and he saw in her face that she knew what he was and what he had been doing in Nauvoo. The blood slowly stained his pallid cheeks.

“Well,” he said, coolly, “what are you going to do about it?”

His eyes began to grow narrow and the lines about his mouth deepened. The criminal in him, brought to bay, watched every movement of the young girl before him. Tranquil and optimistic, he quietly seated himself on the wooden steps beside her. Little he cared for her and her discovery. It would take more than a pretty, lame girl to turn him from his destiny; and his destiny was what he chose to make it. He almost smiled at her.

“So,” he said, in smooth, even tones, “you think the game is up?”

“Yes; but nothing need harm you,” she answered, eagerly.

“Harm me!” he repeated, with an ugly sneer; then a sudden, wholesome curiosity seized him, and he blurted out, “But what do you care?”

Looking up at him, she started to reply, and the words failed her. She bent her head in silence.

“Why?” he demanded again.

“I have often seen you,” she faltered; “I sometimes thought you were unhappy.”

“But why do you come to warn me? People hate me in Nauvoo.”

“I do not hate you,” she replied, faintly.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

A star suddenly gleamed low over the forest’s level crest. Night had fallen in Nauvoo. After a silence he said, in an altered voice, “Am I to understand that you came to warn a common criminal?”

She did not answer.

“Do you know what I am doing?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What?”

“You are counterfeiting.”

“How do you know,” he said, with a touch of menace in his sullen voice.

“Because—because—my father did it—”

“Did what?”

“Counterfeited—what you are doing now!” she gasped. “That is how I know about the fibre. I knew it the moment I saw it—government fibre—and I knew what was on it; the flame justified me. And oh, I could not let them take you as they took father—to prison for all those years!”

“Your father!” he blurted out.

“Yes,” she cried, revolted; “and his handwriting is on that piece of paper in your hand!”

Through the stillness of the evening the rushing of a distant brook among the hemlocks grew louder, increasing on the night wind like the sound of a distant train on a trestle. Then the wind died out; a night bird whistled in the starlight; a white moth hummed up and down the vines over the porch.

“I know who you are now,” the girl continued; “you knew my father in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.”

“Yes.”

“And your name is not Helm.”

“No.”

“Do you not know that the government watches discharged employés of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing?”

“I know it.”

“So you changed your name?”

“Yes.”

She leaned nearer, looking earnestly into his shadowy eyes.

“Do you know that an officer of the secret service is coming to Nauvoo?”

“I could take the plate and go. There is time,” he answered, sullenly.

“Yes—there is time.” A dry sob choked her. He heard the catch in her voice, but he did not move his eyes from the ground. His heart seemed to have grown curiously heavy; a strange inertia weighted his limbs. Fear, anger, bitterness, nay, revenge itself, had died out, leaving not a tranquil mind but a tired one. The pulse scarcely beat in his body. After a while the apathy of mind and body appeared to rest him. He was so tired of hate.

“Give me the keys,” she whispered. “Is it in there? Where is the plate? In that room? Give me the keys.”

As in a dream he handed her his keys. Through a lethargy which was almost a stupor he saw her enter his house; he heard her unlock the door of the room where his plates lay. After a moment she found a match and lighted the candles. Helm sat heavily on the steps, his head on his breast, dimly aware that she was passing and repassing, carrying bottles and armfuls of tools and paper and plates out into the darkness somewhere.

It may have been a few minutes; it may have been an hour before she returned to him on the steps, breathing rapidly, her limp gown clinging to her limbs, her dark hair falling to her shoulders.

“The plates and acids will never be found,” she said, breathlessly; “I put everything into the swamp. It is quicksand.”

For a long time neither spoke. At length she slowly turned away towards the gate, and he rose and followed, scarcely aware of what he was doing.

At the gate she stooped and pushed a dark object out of sight under the bushes by the fence.

“Let me help you,” he said, bending beside her.

“No, no; don’t,” she stammered; “it is nothing.”

He found it and handed it to her. It was her crutch; and she turned crimson to the roots of her hair.

“Lean on me,” he said, very gently.

The girl bit her trembling lip till the blood came. “Thank you,” she said, crushing back her tears; “my crutch is enough—but you need not have known it. Kindness is comparative; one can be too kind.”

He misunderstood her and drew back. “I forgot,” he said, quietly, “what privileges are denied to criminals.”

“Privilege!” she faltered. After a moment she laid one hand on his arm.

“I shall be very glad of your help,” she said; “I am more lame than I wish the world to know. It was only the vanity of a cripple that refused you.”

But he thought her very beautiful as she passed with him out into the starlight.