The Story of Two Lives
by Julia Schayer
The early darkness of a moonless winter night had fallen, nowhere more
darkly and coldly than upon a certain small western town, whose houses
were huddled together in the valley as if for mutual protection
against the fierce winds sweeping through the trackless forests which
surrounded it. Here and there the cheerful glow of lamp or fire shone
from some uncurtained window, most brightly from the windows of the
stores and saloons that occupied the centre of the town, whence issued
also fitful sounds of talk and laughter. Otherwise the darkness was
On the outskirts of the town, just at the foot of a steep hill, stood
a cottage somewhat more pretentiously built than the others, and
surrounded by something of a lawn, laid out with flower-beds and
shrubbery, now almost buried in deep drifts of snow. From one window
of this cottage, too, a most heartsome glow streamed out over the snow
from a lamp placed, as could be seen, with loving intent upon the
window-ledge, and out of the darkness there presently emerged the
figure of a man, making his way up the foot-path toward the house, his
feet ringing sharply against the hard-trodden snow.
Along one side of the house—planted without doubt to break the force
of the northern gales—extended a grove of pines and firs, looking
now, in the darkness, like the advance guard of a mighty host with
banners slowly waving, and strange instruments giving forth weird,
unearthly harmonies. As the man passed this spot he slackened his
steps once or twice, and seemed to listen for some sound that had
caught his ear, and again, when his foot was already on the lower step
of the flight leading to the door, he stopped suddenly, his face
turned toward the sombre wall of trees.
The light of the lamp illumined their slender trunks and lower boughs,
leaving their tops wrapped in utter darkness. It also threw into
strong relief the powerful figure of the man, and projected his
shadow, huge, wavering and grotesque, across the intervening space.
For an instant another shadow seemed to start forward from the
mysterious recesses of the pines as if to meet this one, only to fall
back and be gathered into the blackness beyond.
The man shrugged his broad shoulders, and, turning, entered the
house. A fair, slender woman rose from her seat by the open fire, and
went to him.
“Oh! Jamie,” she said, “here you are, at last! I’m so glad! I was so
afraid something had happened?”
The man threw off his heavy coat with a good-humored laugh.
“Were you afraid I might blow away?” he asked, straightening his large
figure. “Why are you always imagining vain things, like a foolish
little wifie? I’m big enough to take care of myself, eh, lassie?”
The little wife answered with a smile of loving admiration.
“Come,” she said, “supper has been ready a long time, and Bab asleep
She took the lamp from the window and set it on the table, where it
shone full on her husband’s face. It was a fine, thoroughly English
face, with high forehead, brilliant blue eyes, and thick curling hair
and beard of a bright golden-brown. A handsome face, and a strong one,
but for a womanish fulness of the ruddy lips, and a slight lack of
firmness about the chin, which was concealed, however, by the
luxuriant beard. It was a face which could, and habitually did,
radiate amiability, good cheer, and intelligence, but which had a way
of settling at times into stern and melancholy lines, curiously
belying his assured carriage, and the sonorous ring of his ready
Very good to look at was James Dixon, and, as his townsmen unanimously
admitted, in spite of his English birth, a good citizen, a shrewd
politician, a generous neighbor, and, though at times a little
reticent and abstracted, a companionable fellow altogether.
Even now, as he sat at his own table, one might have detected a kind
of alertness in his eyes, as of a man ever on his guard, and what
seemed almost a studied avoidance of his wife’s soft, persistent gaze,
as she sat opposite him.
“Sh! What was that?” she suddenly exclaimed. There had been a faint
sound outside the window. It had ceased now.
“It was nothing, Bab!” said her husband. “How nervous you are!”
Even as he spoke the sound was repeated, and he himself started now.
“I’m catching your nervousness, Bab,” he said, with a short laugh.
“The wind is the very deuce to-night.”
At that moment a little girl in her nightgown ran out from the
adjoining room, and with a gleeful cry sprang into his arms, her long
yellow hair spreading itself over his shoulder.
“You see, dear old papa, Bab wasn’t asleep!” she cried, covering his
face with kisses.
“And why isn’t Bab asleep?” her father said, with an assumption of
“Because she can’t sleep. The wind makes such a noise in the pines,
and the icicles keep falling off the eaves, and make such a pretty
tinkling on the snow. Do you hear it? Hark!”
“The wind increases fearfully,” said the wife, going to the window and
drawing the shade. “It is a bitter night.”
“Bad enough for anybody to be out in,” said Dixon, with the
comfortable air of one safely housed. He moved his chair to the fire,
and began fondling and playing with the pretty child on his knee. Her
little face, however, had grown suddenly grave.
“What is it, pussy?” asked her father; “it looks so serious all at
“I was thinking,” said the child, slowly; “I was wondering where the
poor old man I saw up on the hill to-day would sleep to-night. Such a
poor, poor man, so old and sick and ragged.”
“Bless the chick! What is she talking about now?”
“Some man she saw to-day when she was on the hill coasting with the
others,” the mother said. “Some tramp, I suppose.”
“I have not heard of any in town,” said Dixon, with sudden
thoughtfulness. “It isn’t the season for tramps. Oh!” he added,
carelessly, as the child continued to look in his face, “some
worthless old vagabond, I suppose, dearie. Don’t fret your little
heart about him. He’ll find a warm nest in somebody’s hay-mow, no
doubt.” But little Bab shook her head.
“I don’t think he was bad,” she said, softly, “only very sick and
sorry. He asked me my name, and when I told him he laughed out so
queer! And then I showed him our house, and told him maybe you’d give
him some money, and then he laughed again, and then I—I got scared
because the other girls had all run away, and I ran away, too.”
Her father had listened with strange intentness. His playfulness was
extinguished, and his face looked all at once careworn and troubled.
“You’re a silly little lass,” he said, after a moment’s silence, “and
you must not talk to strange men who ask questions. They might carry
you off, you know.”
He held the child silently a little while longer, and then carried her
back to her bed; after which he returned to his seat near the fire.
His wife had already seated herself in her low chair, her face bent
above the knitting in her hands. Outside the wind howled and roared,
but in the room where these two sat all was, to the eye, calm, and
sweet, and cosey. The fire glowed, and emitted cheerful little snaps
and sparks, the clock ticked, and the knitting-needles clicked, and
through the open door the child’s soft, regular breathing was
distinctly audible. Suddenly the woman stirred and looked up, to find
her husband’s eyes fixed upon her. Strangely enough they faltered, and
turned away, but presently came back to hers again.
“You are very silent to-night, lassie,” he said, putting out his hand
to stroke her fair girlish head. “Are you ill, or over-tired?”
She shook her head, and dropping the knitting from her hands, clasped
them over her husband’s knee, and laid her cheek upon them.
“No,” she said, softly, “not ill, nor tired. Only somehow I have been
thinking all day of old times and—of him!”
She dropped her voice to a whisper as she spoke the last words, and
her husband felt the hands on his knee tremble. He said nothing,
though his face grew dark, and his teeth shut over his lip tightly. “I
have been wondering,” she went on, “what became of him, Jamie!—if he
is still alive, and—” with a break in the soft voice—“if he has
forgiven me my part in his suffering. Oh, Jamie!” she broke out
passionately, throwing her arms about her husband, and raising her
lovely, tearful face to his, “Oh, Jamie! I was so young and foolish
when I promised to be his wife, and I had not even seen you then! Tell
me, Jamie, was I so very, very wicked that I loved you best? Could I
help it, Jamie?” She rose and threw herself upon his breast, sobbing
like a child. She could not, through her tears, see the working of his
face, nor the effort it caused him to speak. He tried to quiet her
with caresses and all manner of fond epithets, and at last she lay
still, with closed eyes, upon his shoulder.
A tremendous blast swept through the valley, shaking the cottage to
its foundation, and shrieking down the chimney like a cry of despair.
“Great heavens!” Dixon muttered; “what a night!” Then, rousing
himself, he added, “Come, lassie. Come rest, and promise me not to
give way to such excitement again. You are not strong, and such moods
are dangerous for you.”
They rose, and stood facing each other before the dying fire.
“One thing,” he said, seizing her hands, with a swift change of
manner—“one thing, Barbara. Have you ever been sorry that you came
with me—that you trusted me?”
She looked at him wonderingly, but with perfect love and trustfulness.
“Never, Jamie!” she said. “Never for one moment.”
“And whatever happens,” he went on, drawing her closer, “whatever
happens, you are sure you never will be sorry?”
“Quite sure, Jamie!”
He kissed her again and again, until she laughed at his lover-like
“Any one would suppose we were about to be separated for years,” she
He laughed, too, but his face and voice were serious, as he said,
“Nothing shall separate us but death, lassie!”
... When Dixon left his house the next morning it was still intensely
cold, but the wind had gone down, and the clumps of evergreens and
shrubbery on the lawn were motionless as if painted there.
He stood a moment on the lower step drawing on his fur mittens, and,
nodding at the child-face smiling at him from the window, then started
to go. But at the first step his foot struck against some object which
gave out a metallic sound, and stooping quickly, he raised from the
snow a small pistol. One glance showed him that it was in perfect
order, and every barrel loaded.
He remained for some time turning this object over and over in his
hand, his nether lip drawn between his teeth. At last he glanced
toward the window. The child was no longer there, but he saw now, what
had before escaped his notice, that the snow beneath the window was
broken and trodden by a man’s footprints. With a smothered exclamation
Dixon bent an instant above these tracks, and then began tracing them
carefully. He found where they led from the group of pines to the
window; he found where they had first approached the house across the
open fields from the hill beyond, direct and even, as of one with a
fixed purpose; he found also where they had turned from the window in
long, regular strides as of one in flight. These he followed to the
foot of the hill, and across to the other side, where they seemed to
lose themselves in the trackless forest. He stood here again for some
moments, an ashy ring forming itself about his lips. Then, with a deep
breath, he set his teeth together, thrust the pistol into his pocket,
and turned toward the town. It was scarcely awake as yet. Smoke curled
lazily upward from the chimneys, but hardly any one was stirring. Even
about the door of that great commercial emporium known far and near as
“Buckey’s,” the regular loafers had as yet no representative; and
here, as elsewhere, the snow, which had drifted across the steps, was
A little beyond “Buckey’s” stood a neat frame structure, across whose
entrance stretched a sign bearing the inscription:
“James Dixon, Justice of the Peace.”
This building Dixon entered. A boy who was steaming himself at the
great stove in the centre of the room looked up with a duck of the
head as the proprietor of the office entered, paying no further
attention as he proceeded to divest himself of his outer garments and
seat himself at his desk.
Apparently business at this time of the year was not pressing, for,
beyond arranging some papers with legal headings, and glancing over a
newspaper or two, Dixon did no work. The most of the time he sat
industriously smoking, his eyes set upon the uncheerful winter
landscape without. Once, when the boy was absent he took from his
breast-pocket the pistol, and examined it again with a knitted brow;
after which he locked it in a drawer of the desk, and resumed his
At noon he sent the boy away, and, locking the office-door, turned his
face homeward. The town was awake now, or as much so as it was likely
to be. A few sleighs and sleds were standing before the doors of the
saloons, and it appeared to Dixon that an unwonted excitement
prevailed in and about “Buckey’s,” all the men visible being gathered
before the familiar red door, and all talking at once in even louder
tones than usual.
As Dixon came nearer, two of the men started forward and approached
“We was jest a-comin’ fur ye, Square,” said the foremost. “Thar’s a
stranger in thar as won’t give no account of himself, an’ we was
“Oh, quit foolin’,” said the other, roughly. “It’s nothing but a dead
tramp. That’s all, Square,” and he shifted his quid to the other side
of his mouth, composedly.
Dixon changed countenance. A little tremor ran through his frame.
“A tramp?” he repeated. “Dead?”
“Dead as a door-nail!” the man answered. “Froze brittle. Small an’ his
boy found him this mornin’ in Crosse’s timber.”
They started on, giving Dixon precedence. It appeared to the men that
he showed very small interest, and unaccountable deliberation. Even
when they had reached Buckey’s, he mounted the steps slowly, standing
an instant with his hands on the latch, as if indifferent, or
reluctant. At last, with another impatient movement of the shoulders,
he opened the door and went in. The crowd of rough, bearded men who
filled the space between the counters and the stove, nodded
respectfully and fell back.
That which they had surrounded lay stretched stark and stiff upon the
bare floor. It was the body of a man which had been at some time
sturdy and strong. Now it was pinched and wasted, and clad in thin,
worn garments, and shoes that seemed ready to drop from the naked,
frost-bitten feet. The unkempt iron-gray hair and beard gave the face,
at first glance, a look of wildness, but, observing more closely, one
saw that the features, though heavy, were not uncomely, and wore a
look of extreme suffering, which even death had not been able to
“Looks like a Inglishman, eh, Square?” said one of the men present.
Dixon did not seem to have heard him. He stood looking down upon the
dead man without moving or speaking. The ashy ring had again shown
itself about his lips, and was creeping slowly over his face.
“It’s the first as I’ve seen in these parts for many a year,” said
another. “Our county ain’t pop’lar with that kind,” he added, grimly.
“He took a mighty oncomfortable time o’ year fur trampin’,” said a
blear-eyed vagabond near the stove. “I’ve ben meditatin’ somethin’ o’
the kind myself, but reckon I’ll wait fur warm weather. My
constitution is delikit.”
“Don’t wait for warm weather, Shanks,” said Buckey himself, leaning
comfortably across the counter. “They’ll make it warm enough for
you, whenever ye go!”
At the laugh which followed this sally, Dixon started and looked
around him, in a dazed sort of way. The laugh died out suddenly, and
the men sank into a shame-faced silence, but even now he did not
“They’s somethin’ in his breast pocket, Square,” said one of them,
bending over the body. “Somethin’ like a book, or a——”
“Take it out, Slater,” said Dixon, in a voice at which all present
started, and looked at him curiously.
The man did as ordered, producing from the tattered pocket a small,
soiled blank-book, whose pages appeared to be closely written. He
handed it to Dixon, who took it mechanically, and, opening it,
appeared to glance at the contents at random.
Those nearest him saw his fingers close suddenly upon the book, and
heard the sharp indrawn breath which he shut back between his teeth.
He put his hand to his head again, and held it there while his eyes
swept over the group of respectful but inquisitive faces.
“There is something here,” he said, holding the book before him, and
speaking in the voice which had once before made them start—“there is
something here I would like to look into. Let the—the body lie here
until I come back.”
There was a murmur of assent, and he turned and left the store. They
saw him stand a moment on the step outside, his face toward home. Then
he turned in the opposite direction and disappeared.
Dixon entered his office, locked the door, and flung himself into his
chair, the little book open before him. The ashen ring had widened
until his whole face was like that of the dead. Not a muscle of his
rigid face stirred as with desperate eyes he read on and on. Only the
faint rustle of the leaves as he turned the pages, and his heavy
breathing broke the silence. And this is what he read:
THE DEAD MAN’S STORY.
My wanderings are almost over. Exposure and misery have
nearly finished their work. I feel my strength ebbing from
day to day, and I know that I must soon die, and die, it may
be, with the purpose which has sustained me all these years
unattained. Knowing this, I have determined to write in this
book the story of my life, hoping that when I am
dead—“found dead,” it may be, like a tramp or
vagabond—some pitying eye may fall upon these words and
give me decent burial, for something in me rebels at being
thrown like a dog into an outcast’s grave. Here is the story
as I have repeated it over and over to myself hundreds of
times during the weary years that have passed:
I was accounted a quiet, good-natured fellow in the little
town in England where I was born and lived before I came to
this country. I was slow of speech, but I had received a
fair education, and had a turn for reading, and for
scribbling down my thoughts. I was a printer by trade, like
my father before me. He died when I was a lad of sixteen,
leaving me to care for the mother, and for Barbara. She was
the daughter of our nearest neighbor, and from the time she
could walk we were always together. When she was still very
young her parents died, and their children were scattered,
and Barbara came to us. I was the only child left of many,
and my mother gladly welcomed her as a daughter. We lived
together for years as brother and sister, but I was not long
in finding out that my love for Barbara passed that of any
brother, and when she was fifteen we became engaged.
From that day I had but one ambition in life—to put myself
into circumstances where I could make her my wife, for I had
vowed in my heart not to do so until I could offer her
something more than the hard lot of a common mechanic’s
wife. It seemed to me she was born for something better. She
was a real English beauty, with chestnut hair falling far
below her waist, and a skin like milk and roses. A gay,
bright creature she was, fond of music and dancing and
company; fond of me too, as I believe still, though I was
slow and silent and awkward; trusting in me, leaning upon
me, and confiding in me every thought of her innocent
I did not care for gay scenes myself, but I often went with
Barbara to such entertainments as the place afforded, and
enjoyed seeing her happy, and admired, and courted.
When Barbara was about eighteen years old a young man came
to our place. I will not write his name here—there is no
need. He was London-born and bred, and, though a printer
like myself, far cleverer, and full of ambitious schemes of
which I never dreamed. He was a handsome, dashing fellow,
with finer ways than we were used to. He could do a little
of everything, and very well too. He sang, and played the
guitar, and danced like a Frenchman, and in no time had won
his way with every one. The women folks, of course, were
carried away with him.
The first time he saw Barbara was at a dance where I had
taken her. He pointed her out to me, and asked her name. I
may have betrayed something of my love and pride as I
answered, for he gave me a quick, curious look, and a moment
later asked for an introduction to her. After that they
danced together a good deal, and every one was saying what a
handsome couple they made.
Soon after this the mother became ailing and fretted at
being left alone of evenings, so I often stayed with her
while Barbara danced at some neighbor’s house or public
assembly with the new-comer.
I never had a thought of jealousy, not even when the fellows
in the shop began chaffing me for letting my sweetheart run
about with another man, for I trusted Barbara, and was not
he my friend? Unlike as we were, had he not singled me out
from all the others, and made me his confidant and companion
on all occasions?
Even after I had left the shop, having at last secured the
position as book-keeper at the —— Mills which I had for
years been working for, he kept up the former intimacy, and
often I found him waiting for me when I returned late from
my work, and I liked nothing so well as to sit and smoke,
and listen to him and Barbara, their singing, and laughter,
and foolish talk.
It went on so for a good while. I was beginning to lay by
money, and the time for our marriage was not far off. But a
strike broke out just then among the spinners. I had known
it was coming, and done what I could to prevent it, knowing
what the result would be, but it was all in vain. Their
wrongs were too real and of too long standing. The crisis
came; the mills were closed; for a few days the strikers
believed they would win the day.
At the end of a week the mills opened with a new set of
operatives hired from a neighboring town. Riots and
bloodshed followed. Those were troublous times. I could not
keep my hand from giving aid to the suffering wives and
children of men I had lived among all my life. I took no
thought for consequences. One day I received my discharge.
I was dazed by the cruel blow; I went about like a man
walking in his sleep.
One night as I walked the streets, some one I met told me
that my friend, the man I am writing of, was ill. I went at
once to his room, which was in the building over the
printing office where he had now gotten to be foreman. I
found him restless and feverish, and at his request I stayed
with him until the small hours of the night. Then I went
home. No one saw me going in or out of his room, but I met
two or three stragglers on my way home. I had been half an
hour in bed when an alarm of fire was sounded, and I rose
and joined the crowd in the streets. The —— Mills were
burning, and in a short time were burned to the ground. The
same day I was arrested on a charge of having set the fire.
I laughed at the charge. My friend, who was now delirious
with fever, would soon put me right. My trial was deferred
until he was able to appear. When the day came at last, he
stood up, white and haggard, in that crowded court-room, and
swore he had not seen me at all on the night I had spent
with him—the night of the fire. There were other things
against me: my known friendship for the leaders of the
strike, my discharge, my absence from home at the time the
fire must have been started, and other small but damning
evidence. I was convicted, and sentenced to transportation.
I saw my old mother fall as if dead! I saw Barbara’s white
face bending over her; plainer than all, I saw that man who
had been my friend, and the look he gave the woman who was
to have been my wife! Something leaped into life within me
then—something which has never died. If I could have
reached him then and there!
I do not suppose twenty people in the town believed me
guilty. I do not believe the jury which convicted me, nor
the judge who sentenced me, believed me guilty; but
everything was against me, except my past life, and that had
no weight with the law. My sentence was commuted to a term
of years in the penitentiary. I will not write of my
prison-life. Three months after it began I received a letter
from Barbara, telling me of my mother’s death, bidding me
keep up courage, and pray, but saying nothing of herself, or
At the end of five years came freedom. The real criminals
had been discovered, and I was discharged. The man who went
out of that prison door was not the man who had entered it.
The law, conscious of the fact that no human power can make
amends to an innocent man for a punishment unjustly
inflicted, takes no notice of it. It is dumb before a wrong
so monstrous. I went back to my native town. Every hand was
stretched out to me. My old employers at the mill would have
put me in my old place, but I refused. I inquired for
Barbara and for him. They had married after my mother’s
death and gone, it was said, to America. I took measures to
prove this; then I went to work at my old trade. I worked
day and night, and lived on next to nothing. At the end of
a year I had what I wanted. A fortnight later I was in New
My plan was to work my way over the country—to work and
watch. I felt sure that the man I was looking for would work
at his trade, too, and I believed in time I should get on
his track. I stayed several months in New York, and found
plenty to do. The only fault found with me was my love of
change. “You know what is said of ‘rolling stones,’ Jordan,”
my employers would say, as I was about to leave. “It isn’t
moss-gathering I am after,” I would answer.
I took no man into my confidence, but I lost no chance of
getting acquainted with men of our craft. I frequented
places where they congregated, set them to talking, asking
them as to Englishmen they had known, etc.
“You are looking for some one, Jordan,” was said more than
“Maybe I am,” I would answer.
Once a man who had been looking on and listening, said, with
a laugh, “I’m devilish glad it ain’t me you’re looking for,
Jordan!” And I knew well enough what he meant.
I have wandered south and west, I have thought many a time I
was on the right trail, but it has come to naught so far.
About a year ago I fell ill, and was a long time in a
hospital. When I was discharged I was a mere wreck.
Something was the matter with my heart, they said. I have
not been able to work long at a time since. Such work as I
get is given me out of compassion.
At thirty-five I have the face and gait of a feeble man of
sixty. When I catch a glimpse of my reflection, I am like a
stranger in my own eyes, yet feeble as is my body, the
motive for which I live is strong within me.
By every glimpse into a warm, cosey fireside where the happy
husband and wife and children gather, I renew my vow to find
the man who wrecked my life, to meet him face to face, to
unmask his villainy, to let him see Barbara, his wife, turn
from him in horror and loathing, to have his craven life at
last! This desire, continually thwarted, never extinguished,
upholds me. It is meat, and drink, and clothing to my
famished, shivering body. I must be the chosen instrument of
God’s vengeance, or I should have died of sheer despair
before now. Die? No, not yet. I must press on. Who knows but
I may be even now near the goal?
I am stranded here in a little western town where a false
trail has led me. I am growing weaker. A slow fever is
burning out my life. The last three months have been
terrible. I have had but little work, and I have
suffered—oh my God, how I have suffered—from cold and
My appearance is such that I am taken for a tramp. I have
barely escaped arrest several times as a suspicious
character. It is hard for me to see little children run away
at my approach, and women turn pale and tremble as they open
the door to me. So far I have only asked for work, though I
have often slept supperless in sheds and barns. I have found
a little work at my old trade. When it is done I shall push
on. What with this fever in my blood, and the deadly longing
in my heart, I have no rest.
I have found a new trail—the clearest I have come across.
Chance threw into my hand a newspaper in which the name of
him I am seeking is mentioned, honorably mentioned, in
connection with the politics of a certain State. It may not
be he. Another man may bear the same name, but new life has
entered my veins since I saw it. Last night I dreamed I had
my hand on his throat.
I have found him! From this hill-top where I am sitting I
see the town where he lives in comfort and honor—the very
house that shelters him. The smoke of his fire comes up to
me. It is a bitter cold day, and I have eaten nothing, but I
feel neither cold nor hunger. From the day when I started on
this last sure trail everything has been against me. I have
been sick; I have found no work; I have begged my bread; I
have been hunted for the crimes of others; I have borne abuse, scorn, insult. The very lowest depth of misery and
humiliation has been reached. But that is all nothing: my
purpose is to be accomplished. The end is near.
I reached this spot to-day at noon, and sat down here to
rest a bit before going down into the town to make assurance
sure. Soon after, a party of children came up the hill with
their sleds. When they saw me they ran, except one little
lass of seven or eight. She stood still and looked at me, as
if too scared to move. I know I am terrible to look at—I
have seen my face in pools of water as I drank—but I would
not fright the child, and I tried to make my voice gentle as
“Don’t be scared, little one; I won’t hurt you.”
Just then the sun came out of a cloud and struck across her
face and hair. I cried out, I could not help it. It was
Barbara’s face and hair, but the eyes were his.
“Stop!” I said, as the child started off. “What is your
“Barbara,” she answered, and then: “If you are hungry,” she
said, “mamma will give you something to eat. We live down
yonder in the brown cottage.”
I stared at her, shutting my teeth together.
“Maybe papa would give you some money,” she said again. “He
is such a good man, my papa is.”
I burst into a laugh. The little lass’s fear came back, and
she turned and ran away.
I have not moved from the spot since she left me. I have
carefully cleaned and loaded the weapon I have carried so
long—the instrument in my hand of God’s vengeance. Before
another sun rises it will be over.
I sit and look at the cottage the child pointed out. I can
see that it is neat and comfortable. The sun is going down,
and the windows on this side are red as blood. So is all the
snow between this place and that. I shall wait until night.
I feel no fear, no remorse; and yet, if the child had not
had his eyes——
Meanwhile the men who were waiting for Dixon’s return became a little
restive, as the minutes dragged along and he did not appear. Even
those ready means of beguiling time common to men of their stamp—the
telling of highly-seasoned and apropos stories interspersed with
frequent libations, began to pall. Some of them stole away to their
neglected dinners, returning shortly with a renewed sense of wonder as
they still found him absent.
And the stark figure lay there in their midst, itself for the time
forgotten in the stories and conjectures its presence had evoked, the
faint smile frozen on its unshaven lips, the half-open eyes fixed
seemingly upon the door with a terrible intentness.
At last one of the men who was near a window overlooking the street,
“He’s comin’!” and a moment or two later, “I swear, he’s paler’n the
dead man his self!”
“Mebbe it’s his long-lost brother!” suggested the vagabond Shanks, who
was given to pleasantries of this sort.
“He was always that a way!” declared another. “They’s men as can’t
look at a corpse without turnin’ white around the gills, an’ Dixon’s
one on ’em! I’ve seen him a-fore. An’ he ain’t no coward, neither!”
“No! He ain’t no coward!” chorused the others, and a moment or two
later Dixon pushed open the door and came in. Every man’s eye was
drawn to his face, but he saw no one. He looked straight before him
“Buckey,” he said, addressing that worthy in one of his many
capacities, that of undertaker, “I knew this—man. Make arrangements
to have the—the body brought to my house, at once, and to have the
funeral from there to-morrow morning.”
He paused a moment, a kind of click in his throat, and then added,
“Let every man and woman who knows me be present.”
He turned and went out, and they saw him, with his head sunk on his
breast, walking homeward.
At the appointed hour the small front room of Dixon’s cottage was
filled with men and women, drawn thither in part through deference to
his expressed desire, in part through curiosity excited by the rumors
which had filled the air since the day before.
The body of the stranger, now shrouded and coffined, rested upon a
bier in the centre of the room. At its head sat the minister of the
one church of which the town could boast.
The people were very silent, even more so than the occasion seemed to
warrant, but they studied each other’s faces furtively, as if each
sought in the other some clue to the mystery which was to himself
They were plain, hard-working people, and, for the most part, decent,
law-abiding citizens. The man in whose house they were assembled had
been with them for years. What he had been before he came among them
they had never asked. It may be that some of them had something in
their own past they would fain have forgotten. He had won their
respect and confidence, and in time their affection, for, as has been
said, he was generous, brave and helpful. He had been their chosen
leader. They had honored him with such small honors as they had to
bestow, and as his reputation as a political writer and speaker
spread, other and higher honors were more than hinted at.
To-day they were disturbed and restless, as if under the shadow of
some impending change or calamity. They waited in a tense, constrained
silence for what might happen. At length a door opened noiselessly and
Dixon stood before them. A thrill ran through every breast as they saw
him. A score of years might have passed over him, and not have wrought
the change of this one night. The assured carriage, the look of
strength and power and pride had vanished. The broad shoulders
stooped. The hair was matted over his brow, the features pinched and
He let his eyes wander over the faces of those present a moment; then,
in a strained, husky voice, began speaking.
“You who have been my friends,” he said, “who for years have given me
your respect and confidence and support, look at the man lying there
in his coffin! That is my work!”
He paused. Every face blanched perceptibly. No one moved, but all
hung, with parted lips, upon the next words that strange, toneless
voice might utter. It began again:
“That man was my friend, and I was his; but he possessed one thing I
wanted—the love of a woman, his betrothed wife. Up to the time I
began to covet this woman’s love, I was as truly his friend as he was
mine. Up to the hour when the devil put it into my power to swear away
his good name I had never dreamed of being false to him, though I had
reason to believe that the woman I loved cared for him only as a
sister might, and I might have fairly won her. He was accused of a
crime, and my word might have cleared him. Instead of that, it
convicted him. On my false testimony he went, an innocent man, to
prison, and I came with the woman I had perjured my soul to win as my
wife to this country.
“For years I tried to forget. I could not. My sin followed me day and
night, and poisoned every moment of my existence. At last I made up my
mind to go back to the old place and give myself up, and make amends
for what I had done. I left my wife and child here, and worked my
passage back to England. I was too late. Justice had been done so far
as human law could do it. The real criminals had been found, and he I
had wronged was free. And he had gone to America. I knew what for. He
was slow to anger, but, when once aroused, his anger was terrible. I
knew that he was seeking me, and I knew that he would find me. From
that time I never lay down to sleep but my last thought was, ‘It may
be to-morrow!’ I never rose in the morning that I did not say to
myself, ‘Perhaps it may be to-day!’ For years I have lived with this
spectre of vengeance at my elbow. What my life has been since I came
among you, you think you know. What it really has been, no mortal man
can guess. At last, what was to be came to pass. He found me.”
A shudder shook the speaker, and he was silent an instant. Then he
“He found me. I have read in his own hand-writing how he found me,
and all the history of his ruined life. He has stood at my window with
my life in his hands, and at the last moment—God alone knows why,
perhaps for the sake of the woman he loved and her child—he has
spared my life. I have seen the print of his feet where he must have
stood outside in the bitter cold looking in upon my warmth and
comfort. I have found the very weapon with which he would have taken
my life lying at my door where he must have flung it, and I have
traced his steps where he must have fled across the field to hide
himself in the darkness, only to die almost within a stone’s-throw of
this house. He had sworn to meet me face to face, and it was to
be—like this! The hand of God was in it. I might have kept silent.
The secret was in my hands alone. No human law could reach me now that
his tongue is silent; but lying there, as he lay yesterday, dead, in
rags, he has spoken as no living man could speak! He has accused and
convicted and sentenced me, as no human law could have done!”
He ceased as abruptly as he had began. He stood there, broken,
self-accused, in a humiliation so deep, a despair so utter, that the
sternest of his listeners was moved to a compassion which fought
desperately with the horror his story had inspired. Involuntarily,
unconsciously, those nearest him had shrunk away until he stood apart,
alone, at the foot of the coffin, from which the dead, half-opened
eyes seem to hold him in a stony, unrelenting stare.
For a time there was a complete, terrible silence. Then the minister,
who had sat all this time at the head of the coffin, his venerable
head bowed upon his hands, rose, and went across the room, his mild
face illumined with a look of divine pity. He laid his withered hands
upon Dixon’s folded arms, and spoke:
“‘When I kept silence my bones waxed old. Day and night Thy hand was
heavy upon me.
“‘Mine iniquities are gone over my head, as a heavy burden they are
too heavy for me. I am troubled. I am bowed down greatly. My sorrow is
continually before me. I will declare my iniquity. I will be sorry for
my sin. Forsake me not, O Lord! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my
All heads were bowed. From the corner where the women sat together
came the sound of suppressed sobbing.
The minister went back to his place, and folding his hands above the
“Let us pray.”
When the prayer was ended, the coffin was closed, and, followed by the
entire assemblage, was borne to the place prepared for it.
The day was mild. A dense, soft snow was falling, through which the
figures of men and women moved with phantasmal noiselessness. Dixon
walked foremost by the side of the clergyman. When all was over, he
raised his eyes from the icy clods of the new-made grave. The
venerable man stood silent at its foot. Otherwise he was alone.
At the door of his cottage, the old man, too, left him, with a strong,
long hand-pressure. He stood for some time before the door. The air
was thick with the great flakes of snow, the footprints beneath the
window and across the frozen field were already hidden from sight,
but he knew that they were there, and always would be.
At last, very slowly and heavily, he turned and went into the house.
It was cold and silent. The door of the front room stood open, and the
chairs were as the people had left them. He went into the room and
tried to restore things to their customary appearance. With a visible
shudder he crossed the middle of the room where the coffin had stood,
and threw open the windows. Then he went out, closing the door
carefully. In the passage he listened a moment, but it was still
silent. He knew that the child had been sent to a neighbor’s, and that
he should find his wife in her own room.
He found her sitting by the window. She did not move as he entered,
and he stood near her for some moments waiting vainly for some sign
that she was aware of his presence. Then he spoke her name.
She turned slightly toward him. That was all.
Dixon threw himself upon a chair near her, with a groan.
“Barbara!” he cried, in a voice of anguish, “Barbara! Is this all you
have to give me?”
She turned toward him a wan, drawn face with dazed, tearless eyes that
seemed to look at him as from afar off.
“I trusted you so completely,” she said, her words falling as slowly
and coldly as the snowflakes outside, “so completely! I never knew
that such things could be! I shall never forgive myself that I
believed him guilty, never! I shall never forgive myself that I helped
to drive him to despair. I shall never forgive——”
“Don’t say it, Barbara! For God’s sake, don’t say it!” her husband
cried, throwing himself at her feet, and burying his face upon her
lap. He felt her whole body recoil from his touch, and shrank back,
hiding his face upon his arms.
“I was such a child,” she went on, “such a foolish, weak child—but I
might have known better. I shall never forgive myself!”
Dixon groaned aloud. “But I am ready, quite ready,” she continued in
the same voice.
He started up, and stared at her wildly. He feared for her reason.
“Yes,” she said, “ready to go with you, away from here, anywhere, at
any time. You cannot stay here?”
There was something in her voice and face impossible to describe—a
deadly apathy, an icy coldness, a stony acceptance of a hopeless
For the first time in twenty-four hours the color returned to Dixon’s
face. His eyes flashed, his teeth were set, as he sprang to his feet.
In that instant he set his face against the power that would fling him
into bottomless abysses of shame and ruin.
“I will stay here!” he said, fiercely. “I will not fly again! The
worst that could happen has happened. Where should I go to escape
my fate? Why should I attempt it? No! I swear to live my life here,
and to live it as a man should live with God’s help, and yours,
Barbara!” he implored. “Will you drive me to despair? Will you forsake
me, or will you help me?”
A shiver shook the woman’s slight form, and she passed her hand across
her eyes once or twice, before reaching it toward him. A piteous smile
quivered across her lips, but her eyes did not seek his.
He seized her hand, and again threw himself before her.
“I am your wife, Jamie,” she said, gently. “Your wife, for better or
for worse. Whatever I can do to help you, I will do.”
Then at last the eyes of the two met in a long, long gaze, and in that
moment Dixon read his fate.
Everything else might, and did, come back to him—the esteem and
confidence of his fellow-men, worldly success, aye, and the blessing
of God upon the work to which he dedicated the best portion of his
remaining years—the raising up of the fallen and unfortunate; all
these things came to him in time, but one thing he forever missed—the
old look of perfect, unquestioning trust in one woman’s eyes, the eyes
of the woman for whose sake he had sinned.