The Casting Vote by Charles Egbert
An election of civil and judicial officers was impending in Kildeer
County when a comet appeared in the July sky, a mysterious, aloof,
uncanny presence, that invaded the night and the stereotyped routine
of nature with that gruesome effect of the phenomenal which gives to
the mind so definite a realization of how dear and secure is the
prosaic sense of custom.
All the lenses of the great observatories of the world had, in a
manner, sought to entertain the strange visitant of the heavens. The
learned had gone so far as to claim its acquaintance, to recognize it
as the returning comet of a date long gone by. It even carried amidst
its shining glories, along the far unimagined ways of its orbit, the
name of a human being—of the man who had discovered it on its former
visit, for thus splendidly does astronomy honor its votaries. Less
scientific people regarded it askance as in some sort harbinger of
woe, and spoke of presage, recalling other comets, and the commotions
that came in their train—from the Deluge, with the traditional
cometary influences rife in the breaking up of "the fountains of the
great deep," to the victories of Mohammed II. and the threatened
overthrow of Christendom, and even down to our own war of 1812.
Others, again, scorned superstition, and entertained merely practical
misgivings concerning the weight, density, and temperature of the
comet, lest the eccentric aerial wanderer should run amuck of the
earth in some confusion touching the right of way through space.
Meanwhile, it grew from the semblance of a vaporous tissue—an
illuminated haze only discernible through the telescope, the private
view of the favored few—till it gradually became visible to the
unassisted eye of the profanum vulgus, and finally it flamed across
the darkling spaces with its white crown of glory, its splendid
wing-like train, and its effect of motion as of a wondrous flight
among the stars—and all the world, and, for aught we know, many
worlds, gazed at it.
Only in some great desert, the vast stretches of unsailed seas, or the
depths of uninhabited forests, were its supernal splendors unnoted. It
sunk as wistful, as tremulous, a reflection in a lonely pool in the
dense mountain wilds as any simple star, a familiar of these haunts,
that had looked down to mark its responsive image year after year,
for countless ages, whenever the season brought it, in its place in
the glittering mail of the Archer, or among the jewels of the Northern
Crown, once more to the spot it had known and its tryst with its fair
semblance in the water.
The great silver flake which the comet struck out upon the serene
surface lay glinting there among the lesser stellar reflections, when
a man, kneeling in a gully of the steep bank sloping to the "salt
lick," leaned forward suddenly to gaze at it; then, with a gasp,
turned his eyes upward to that flaming blade drawn athwart the
peaceful sky. He did not utter a sound. The habit of silence essential
to the deer-hunter kept its mechanical hold upon his nerves. Only the
hand with which he grasped the half-exposed roots of a great
sycamore-tree, denuded in some partial caving of the bank long ago,
relaxed and trembled slightly.
He was a man of scant and narrow experience, his world the
impenetrable mountain wilderness, and, though seemingly the pupil of
nature, versed in the ways of beast and bird, the signs of the clouds,
the seasons of bourgeoning and burr, it was but of casual external
aspects. He knew naught of its wondrous history, its subtler
significance, its strange record—the flood-tides registered on that
cliff beyond the laurel; the reptilian trail in the ledge beneath the
butt of his rifle, the imprint still fast in the solid rock, albeit
the species extinct; the great bones of ancient unknown beasts sunk in
the depressions of this saline quagmire, which herds of them had once
frequented for the salt, as did of late the buffalo, and now the
timorous deer, wont to come, like shadows wavering in the wind, to
lick the briny earth. The strange, glinting blade overhead had no
claim on his recognition as the "comet of Aristotle," or the
"evil-disposed comet" personified by the Italians as Sir Great-Lance,
il Signor Astone, or Halley's comet, or Donati's. Self is the centre
of the solar system with many souls, and around this point do all its
incidents revolve. For him that wondrous white fire was kindled in
the skies, for him, in special relation to his small life, to the
wish nearest his hot human heart, to the clumsy scheme dear to his
slow, crude brain. He thought it a warning then: and later he thought
Some vague stir—the wind perhaps, or perhaps a light-footed
dryad—flitted past and was gone. The surface of the "lick" rippled
with her footprints, and was smooth again. All the encompassing masses
of trees and undergrowth about the place were densely black and
opaque, giving the sense of absolute solidity and weight, except upon
the verges, which were somehow shaded off into a cloudy brown against
the translucent dove-tinted tissues in which the night seemed
enveloped and obscured save for the white gleaming of the stars. This
was the clear color that the brackish water wore as it reflected the
night. It reflected suddenly a face—a face with a long velvety
muzzle, a pair of spreading antlers, and dark eyes, gentle, timorous,
liquidly bright. The water stirred with a sibilant lapping sound as
the buck's tongue licked at the margin. Once he held up his head to
listen, with his hoof lifted, then he bent again to the ripples. There
was slight relation between him, the native of these woods, and that
wayward waif of the skies; but among the unnumbered influences and
incidents of its course it served to save that humble sylvan life for
a space. The hunter neither saw nor heard.
It was only when the deer with a sudden snort and a precipitate bound
fled crashing through the laurel that Walter Hoxon became aware of his
presence, and of the stealthy approach that had alarmed him. The
approach was stealthy no longer. A quick, nervous tread, a rustling of
the boughs, and as the hunter rose to his feet his elder brother
emerged from the undergrowth, taller than he as they stood together on
the margin of the lick, more active, sinewy, alert.
"Whyn't ye take a shot at him, Wat?" cried Justus Hoxon tumultuously.
"I'll be bound ye war nappin'," he added in keen rebuke.
A pause, then Walter Hoxon pulled himself together and retorted:—
"Nappin'!" in scornful falsetto. "How could I get a shot, with ye
a-trompin' up ez n'isy ez a herd o' cattle?"
The reproach evidently struck home, for the elder said nothing. With
the thoroughness characteristic of the habitual liar, Walter proceeded
to add circumstance to his original statement.
"I seen the buck whenst he fust kem sidlin' an' slippin' up ter the
water, oneasy an' onsartain from the fust minute. I hed jes' sighted
my rifle. An' hyar ye kem, a-bulgin' out o' the lau'l, an' sp'iled my
shot." As the verisimilitude of his representations bore upon him, he
unconsciously assumed the sentiments natural to the situation
simulated. "Who tole ye ez I war hyar, anyhows?" he demanded angrily.
"'Dosia," replied Justus Hoxon in a mild tone. Then, with an effort at
exculpation, "I 'lowed ye'd be keen—plumb sharp set—fur news 'bout
the prospec's o' the 'lection. An' she 'lowed ez ye hed kem down hyar
hopin' ter git a deer. 'T war The'dosia."
At the name the other had turned slightly away and looked down, a
gesture that invidious daylight might have interpreted as anxiety, or
faltering, or at the least replete with consciousness. But even if
open to observation, it could scarcely have signified aught to Justus
Hoxon, wrapped in his own thoughts, and in his absorbing interest in
the events of the day. His mental attitude was so apparent to his
brother, albeit his form was barely distinguishable as they stood
together by the salt lick, that Wat ventured a question—a bold one,
it seemed to him, and he felt a chill because of its temerity.
"Glad ter see ye, I s'pose?"
"Plumb tickled ter death," exclaimed Justus, his laughing voice full
of reminiscent enthusiasm. "Thar war a big crowd at the Cross-Roads
ter hear the speakin', an' a toler'ble gatherin' at Sycamore Gap.
Everybody inquired partic'lar arter ye, an' whenst I tole 'em ye war
tuk sick, an' couldn't be thar, an' I war 'lectioneerin' in yer place,
they shuck han's, an' shuck han's. One ole man—ole Sam Coggins, up
ter Sims's Mill—says ter me, he says, 'I dunno yer brother, Justus
Hoxon; but blister my boots, ef I don't vote fur anybody ez air kin
ter you-uns, an' ez ye hev set yer heart on 'lectin' ter office.' An'
the way folks inquired arter ye, an'"—
"I ain't talkin' 'bout the 'lection," Wat broke in brusquely. "I war
axin' 'bout 'Dosia. She war"—he hesitated—"liable ter be glad ter
see ye, I reckon."
There was a note of surprise in his brother's voice from which Wat
shrank in sudden alarm. "Oh, 'Dosia! Course she war glad. I seen her
jes' now, an' she told me ez ye hed kem down ter the lick ter git a
shot at the deer, bein' ez she hed 'lowed the venison war powerful
good 'bout now. I never stayed but a minute. I says, ''Dosia, ye an'
me hev got the rest o' our lives ter do our courtin' in, but this
'lection hev got ter be tended ter now, kase ef Wat ain't 'lected
it'll set him back all his life. Some folks 'low ez 't ain't perlite
an' respec'ful, nohow, fur pore folks like we-uns ter run fur office,
like ez ef we war good ez anybody.' An' 'Dosia she jes' hustled me
out'n the house. 'G'long! G'long! Do everything 'bout'n the
'lection! Turn every stone! Time enough fur courtin' arterward! Time
Once more Justus laughed contentedly.
The man beside him stirred uneasily, then broke out irritably: "Waal,
I'm powerful tired o' this 'lection foolishness, fur one. I wisht I
hed never let ye push an' boost me inter it. I reckon them war right
ez 'lowed pore folks like we-uns ain't fit ter run fur office, an'
ain't goin' ter git 'lected. I'd never hev dreamt o' sech ef it
hedn't been fur you-uns—never in this worl'." Walter's voice sunk
moodily, and he had a flouting gesture as he turned aside.
A vicarious ambition is the most ungrateful of passions. There was
something more than anger, than eager affection, than urgent reproach,
than prescient alarm, albeit all rang sharply forth, in his brother's
voice raised to reply; it was a keen note of helplessness, from which
Walter's nerves recoiled with a sense of pain, so insistently
clamorous it was.
"How kin ye say that!" cried Justus. "Fur ye ter stan' thar, ready ter
throw away all yer good chances, jes' kase ye hev got the rheumatics
an' don't feel like viewin' the people—though it 'pears like ye air
well enough ter go huntin' of deer of a damp night at a salt lick! An'
then, kase a mean-spirited half-liver flings dirt on ye an' yer
fambly, fur ye ter sit down on a low stool, an' fill yer mouth with
mud, an' 'low this air plenty good enough fur we-uns! 'Pore folks
ain't fit ter git 'lected ter office!'" with scornful iteration. "My
Lord! this hyar is a democratic kentry!" with an echo from the stump
speeches of the day. "Leastwise the folks yander at Sycamore Gap
'peared ter think so. This hyar Tom Markham he war speakin' on the
issues o' the day, an' bein' he's a frien' o' Sheriff Quigley's, he
tuk a turn at me an' you-uns, o' course. Tole the folks how my dad an'
mam died whenst I war twelve year old, an' how the only reason the
fambly warn't sent ter the pore-house war kase the county folks war
dil'tory, an' put it off, till they 'lowed our own house war pore
enough. An' then he sot out ter be mighty funny, an' mocked the way I
useter call the t'other chil'n 'Fambly,' sech ez—'Fambly, kem ter
dinner, Fambly!' 'Shet up yer cryin', Fambly!' An' then he tole how I
cooked—gathered all sorts o' yarbs an' vegetables tergether an' sot a
pot ter bile, an' whenever 'Fambly' war hongry 'Fambly' tuk a snack,
an' gracefully eat out'n the pot with thar fingers. An' sometimes
'Fambly' war moved ter wash thar clothes, an' they all repaired ter
the ruver-bank, an' rubbed out thar rags, an' hung 'em on the bushes
ter dry—an', duty done, 'Fambly' went a-wadin'. Everybody jes' laffed
There was a strained tone in his voice, not far foreign to a sob, as
he repeated these derisive flouts at his early and forlorn estate.
"An' now," resuming their rehearsal, "this enlightened constituency
was asked ter bestow on a scion o' this same 'Fambly'—ignorant,
scrub, pauper—an office of great importance to the people, that
needed to fill it a man o' eddication an' experiunce, varsed in the
ways o' the world—asked to bestow the office o' sheriff o' the county
on a man who war so obviously incomp'tent an' illit'rate that he
darsn't face the people ter make his perposterous demand!"
The wind came and went. The darkling bushes bowed and bent again. The
leaves took up their testimony in elusive, sibilant mutterings. Justus
Hoxon's eyes were cast upward for a moment, as he watched a massive
bough of an oak-tree sway against the far sky, shutting off the stars,
which became visible anew as the elastic branch swung back once more.
Only the pallor of his face and a certain lustrous liquid gleam
betokening his eyes were distinguishable to his brother, who
nevertheless watched him with anxiety and quickened breathing as he
"That thar feller hed sca'cely stepped down off'n that thar stump
afore I war on ter it. I asked fur a few minutes' attention, an'
'lowed, I did, that Mr. Markham's account o' the humble beginnin's of
me an' 'Fambly' war accurate an' exac'. (Everybody hed looked fur me
ter deny it, or ter git mad, or suthin', an' they war toler'ble
s'prised.) 'Fambly' did eat out'n the pot permiscuous, an' made a
mighty pore dinner thar many a day. An' 'Fambly' washed thar clothes
ez described, infrequent enough, an' no doubt war ez ragged an' dirty
ez they war hongry. But, I said, Mr. Markham hedn't told the haffen o'
it. Cold winter nights, when the snow sifted in through the cracks,
an' the wind blew in the rotten old door, 'Fambly' liked ter hev friz
ter death. They hed the pneumonia, an' whoopin'-cough, an' croup; an'
in summer, bein' a perverse set o' brats, 'Fambly' hed fever an' ager,
an' similar ailments common ter the young o' the human race, the same
ez ef 'Fambly' war folks! 'T war 'stonishin', kem ter think of it,
how 'Fambly' hed the insurance ter grow up ter look like folks, let
alone settin' out ter run fur office; an' ef God hedn't raised 'em up
some mighty good frien's in this county, I reckon thar wouldn't be
much o' 'Fambly' left. Some folks 'low ez Providence hev got mighty
leetle jedgmint in worldly affairs, an' this mus' be one o' the
strikin' instances of it. These frien's gin the bigges' boy work ter
do, an' that holped ter keep 'Fambly's' bodies an' souls tergether. I
reckon, says I, that I hev ploughed in the fields o' haffen the men in
our deestric'; I hev worked in the tan-yard; I hev been striker in the
blacksmith shop; an' all the time that pot, aforesaid, b'iled at home,
an' 'Fambly' tuk thar dinner thar constant, with thar fingers, ez
aforesaid. But 'Fambly' warn't so durned ragged, nuther. Good
neighbors gin 'em some clothes wunst in a while, an' l'arned the gals
ter sew an' cook some. An' thar kem ter be a skillet an' a fryin'-pan
on the h'a'th ter holp the pot out. Why, 'Fambly' got so prosperous
that one day, whenst a' ole, drunken, cripple, ragged man war passin',
they enj'yed themselves mightily, laffin' at somebody po'rer than
themselves. An' ole Pa'son Tyson war goin' by in his gig, an' he tuk
note o' the finger o' scorn, an' he stopped. He said mighty leetle,
but he tuk the trouble ter cut a stout hickory sprout, an' he gin
'Fambly' a good thrashin' all roun'. It lasted 'Fambly' well. They
ain't laffed at 'God's pore' sence! Waal, 'Fambly' 's takin' up too
much o' this enlightened assembly's attention. Enough to tell what's
kem o' 'Fambly.' The oldes' gal went ter free school, l'arned ter
read, write, an' cipher, an' married Pa'son Tyson's son, ez air a
minister o' the gospel a-ridin' a Methodis' circuit in north Georgy
now. An' the second gal"—his voice faltered—"she went ter free
school, l'arned mo' still o' readin' an' writin' an' cipherin', an'
taught school two year down on Bird Creek, an' war goin' ter be
married ter a good man, well-ter-do, who had built her a house, not
knowin' ez God hed prepared her a mansion in the skies. She is livin'
thar now! An' las', the Benjamin o' all the tribe, kems my brother
Walter. He went ter school; kin read, write, an' cipher; he's been
taught ez much ez any man ez ever held the office he axes ter be
'lected ter, an' air thoroughly competent. Fac' is, gentlemen, thar's
nothin' lef' ter show fur the humble 'Fambly' Mr. Markham's be'n
tellin' 'bout, but me. I never went ter school, 'ceptin' in yer
fields. I l'arned ter cure hides, an' temper steel, an' shoe
horse-critters, so that pot mought be kep' a-b'ilin', an' 'Fambly'
mought dine accordin' to thar humble way in them very humble days that
somehow, gentlemen, I ain't got an' can't git the grace ter be 'shamed
He paused abruptly as he concluded the recital of his speech, and
wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I wisht ye could hev hearn
them men cheer. They jes' hollered tharse'fs hoarse. They shuck hands
till they mighty nigh yanked my arm out'n its socket." With the
recollection, he rubbed his right arm with a gesture of pain.
Something there was in the account of this ovation that smote upon the
younger brother's sense of values, and he hastened to take possession
"Oh, I knowed I war powerful pop'lar in the Sycamore Gap deestric',"
he said, dropping his lowering manner, that had somehow been
perceptible in the darkness, and wagging his head from side to side
with a gesture of great security in the affections of Sycamore Gap.
"Sycamore Gap's all right, I know; I'll poll a big majority thar,
"I reckon ye will; but I warn't so sure o' that at fust," replied the
elder. "They 'peared ter me at fust ter be sorter set ag'in
us—leastwise me, though arter a while I could hardly git away from
'em, they war so durned friendly."
Walter cast a keen look upon him; but he evidently spoke from his
simple heart, and was all unaware that he was personally the source of
this sudden popularity in Sycamore Gap—his magnetism, his unconscious
eloquence, and his character as shown in the simple and forlorn annals
of "Fambly." And yet he was not crudely unthinking. He perceived the
incongruity of his brother's successive standpoints.
"I dunno how ye kin purtend ter be so all-fired sure o' Sycamore Gap,"
he said suddenly. "'T ain't five minutes sence ye war 'lowin' ez pore
folks couldn't git 'lected ter office, an' ye wished ye hed hed
nothin' ter do with sech, an' 't war me ez bed jes' pushed an' boosted
ye inter it."
The resources of subterfuge are well-nigh limitless. Walter Hoxon was
an adept in utilizing them. He had seen a warning in the skies, and it
had struck terror and discouragement to his heart; but not to his
political prospects had he felt its application. Other schemes,
deeper, treacherous, secret, seemed menaced, and his conscience, or
that endowment to quake with the fear of requital that answers for
conscience in some ill-developed souls, was set astir. Nevertheless,
the election might suffice as scapegoat.
"Look a-yander, Justus," he said suddenly, pointing with the muzzle of
his gun at the brilliant wayfarer of the skies, as if he might in
another moment essay a shot. "That thar critter means mischief, sure
ez ye air born."
The other stepped back a pace or two, and lifted his head to look.
"The comic?" he demanded. Walter's silence seemed assent.
"Laws-a-massy, ye tomfool," Justus cried, "let it be a sign ter them
ez run ag'in' ye! Count the comic in like a qualified voter—it kem
hyar on account o' the incumbent's incompetence in office. Signs! Rolf
Quigley is sign enough,—if ye want signs in 'lections,—with money,
an' frien's, an' a term of office, an' the reg'lar nominee o' the
party, an' ye jes' an independent candidate. No star a-waggin' a tale
aroun' the sky air haffen ez dangerous ter yer 'lection ez him. An'
he ain't lookin' at no comic! He looked this evenin' like he'd put his
finger in his mouth in one more minute, plumb 'shamed ter his
boot-sole o' the things Markham hed said. An' Markham he kem up ter me
before a crowd o' fellers, an' says, says he: 'Mr. Hoxon, I meant no
reflections on yer fambly in alludin' ter its poverty, an' I honor ye
fur yer lifelong exertions in its behalf. I take pride, sir, in makin'
this apology.' An' I says: 'I be a' illit'rate, humble man, Mr.
Markham; but I will venture the liberty to tell ye ez ye mought take
mo' pride in givin' no occasion fur apologies ter poverty.' Them
fellers standin' aroun' jes' laffed. I knowed he didn't mean a word he
said then, but war jes' slickin' over the things he hed said on
Quigley's account, kase the crowd seemed ter favor me. I say, comic!
Let Rolf Quigley take the comic fur a sign."
It is easy to pluck up fears that have no root. "Oh, I be goin' ter
'lectioneer all the same ez ever. Whar 's the nex' place we air bound
Walter put his hand on his brother's shoulder as he asked the
question, and in the eager unfolding of plans and possibilities the
two, as Justus talked, made their way along the deer-path beside the
salt lick, leaving the stars coldly glittering on the ripples, with
that wonderful streak of white fire reflected among them; leaving,
too, the vaguely whispering woods, communing with the wind as it came
and went; reaching the slope of the mountain at last, where was
perched, amid sterile fields and humble garden-patch, the little cabin
in which "Fambly" had struggled through its forlorn youth to better
* * * * *
The door was closed after this. A padlock knocked against it when the
wind blew, as if spuriously announcing a visitor. The deceit failed of
effect, for there was no inmate left, and the freakish gust could only
twirl the lock anew, and go swirling down the road with a rout of dust
in a witches' dance behind it. The passers-by took note of the
deserted aspect of things, and knew that the brothers were absent
electioneering, and wondered vaguely what the chances might be. This
passing was somewhat more frequent than was normal along the road; for
when the mists that had hung about the mountains persistently during a
warm, clammy, wet season had withdrawn suddenly, and one night
revealed for the first time the comet fairly ablaze in the sky, a
desire to hear what was said and known about it at the Cross-Roads and
the settlement and the blacksmith shop took possession of the
denizens of the region, and the coteries of amateur astronomers at
these centres were added to daily. Some remembered a comet or two in
past times, and if the deponent were advanced in years his hearers
were given to understand that the present luminary couldn't hold a
tallow dip to the incandescent terrors he recollected. There were
utilitarian souls who were disquieted about the crops, and anxiously
examined growing ears of corn, expecting to find the comet's influence
tucked away in the husks. Some looked for the end of the world; those
most obviously and determinedly pious took, it might seem, a certain
unfraternal joy in the contrast of their superior forethought, in
being prepared for the day of doom, with the uncovenanted estate of
the non-professor. A revival broke out at New Bethel; the number of
mourners grew in proportion as the comet got bigger night by night.
Small wonder that as evening drew slowly on, and the flaring,
assertive, red west gradually paled, and the ranges began to lose
semblance and symmetry in the dusk, and the river gloomed benighted in
the vague circuit of its course, and a lonely star slipped into the
sky, darkening, too, till, rank after rank, and phalanx after phalanx,
all the splendid armament of night had mustered, with that great,
glamourous guidon in the midst—small wonder that the ignorant
mountaineer looked up at the unaccustomed thing to mark it there, and
fear smote his heart.
At these times certain of the little sequestered households far among
the wooded ranges got them within their doors, as if to place between
them and the uncanny invader of the night, and the threatening
influences rife in the very atmosphere, all the simple habitudes of
home. The hearthstone seemed safest, the door a barrier, the home
circle a guard. Others spent the nocturnal hours in the dooryard or on
the porch, marking the march of the constellations, and filling the
time with vague speculations, or retailing dreadful rumors of strange
happenings in the neighboring coves, and wild stories of turmoil and
misfortune that comets had wrought years ago.
It was at one of these makeshift observatories that Justus Hoxon
stopped the first evening after his electioneering tour in the
interest of his brother. The weather had turned hot and fair; a
drought, a set-off to the surplusage of recent rain, was in progress;
the dooryard on the high slope of the mountain, apart from its
availability for the surveillance of any eccentric doings of the
comet, was an acceptable lounging-place for the sake of the air, the
dew, the hope of a vagrant breeze, and, more than all, the ample
"elbow-room" which it offered the rest of the family while he talked
with Theodosia Blakely. The rest of the family—unwelcome
wights!—were not disposed to make their existence obtrusive; on the
contrary, they did much to further his wishes, even to the sacrifice
of personal predilection. Mrs. Blakely, her arms befloured, her hands
in the dough, had observed him at the gate, while she stood at the
biscuit-block in the shed-room, and although pining to rush forth and
ask the latest news from the settlement and the comet, she only called
out in a husky undertone: "'Dosia, 'Dosia, yander's Justus a-kemin' in
the gate! Put on yer white apern, chile."
Because she had been adjured to put on her white apron, Theodosia did
not put it on. She advanced to the window, about which grew, with its
graceful habit, a hop-vine. A little slanting roof was above the
lintel, a mere board or so, with a few warped shingles; but it made a
gentle shadow, and Theodosia thought few men besides the one at the
gate would have failed to see her there. He lingered a little, turning
back to glance over the landscape, and then he deflected his course
toward a rough bench that was placed in a corner of the rail fence,
threw himself upon it, and fanned himself with his broad-brimmed hat.
"The insurance o' the critter! I'm a mind ter leave ye a-settin' thar
by yerse'f till ye be wore out waitin'," she muttered.
She hesitated a moment, then took her sunbonnet and went out to meet
The scene was like some great painting, with this corner in the
foreground left unfinished, so minute was the detail of the distance,
so elaborate and perfect the coloring of the curves of purple, and
amethyst, and blue mountains afar off, rising in tiers about the
cup-shaped valley. Above it hung a tawny tissue of haze, surcharged
with a deeply red, vinous splendor, as if spilled from the stirrup-cup
of the departing sun. He was already out of sight, spurring along
unknown ways. The sky was yellow here and amber there, and a pearly
flake, its only cloud, glittered white in the midst. Up the hither
slope the various green of the pine and the poplar, the sycamore and
the sweet-gum, was keenly differentiated, but where the rail fence
drew the line of demarkation, Art seemed to fail.
A crude wash of ochre had apparently sufficed for the dooryard; no
weed grew here, no twig. It was tramped firm and hard by the feet of
cow, and horse, and the peripatetic children, and poultry. The cabin
was drawn in with careless angles and lines by a mere stroke or two;
and surely no painter, no builder save the utilitarian backwoodsman,
would have left it with no relief of trees behind it, no vineyard, no
garden, no orchard, no background, naught; in its gaunt simplicity and
ugliness it stood against its own ill-tended fields flattening away in
Such as it was, however, it satisfied all of Justus Hoxon's sense of
the appropriate and the picturesque when Theodosia Blakely stepped out
from the door and came slowly to meet him. The painter's art, if she
were to be esteemed part of the foreground, might have seemed redeemed
in her. Her dress was of light blue homespun; her sunbonnet of deep
red calico, pushed back, showed her dark brown hair waving upward in
heavy undulations from her brow, her large blue eyes with their thick
black lashes, her rich brunette complexion, her delicate red lips cut
in fine lines, and the gleam of her teeth as she smiled. She had a
string of opaque white, wax-like beads around the neck of her dress,
and the contrast of the pearly whiteness of the bauble with the creamy
whiteness and softness of her throat was marked with much finish. Her
figure was hardly of medium height, and, despite the suppleness of
youth, as "plump as a partridge," according to the familiar saying.
The clear iris of her eyes gave an impression of quick shifting, and
by them one could see her mood change as she approached.
She looked at him intently, speculatively, a sort of doubtful
curiosity furtively suggested in her expression; but there was naught
subtle or covert in the gaze that met hers—naught but the frankest
pleasure and happiness. He did not move, as she advanced, nor offer
formal greeting; he only smiled, secure, content, restful, as she came
up and sat down on the end of the bench. The children, playing noisily
in the back yard on the wood-pile, paused for a moment to gaze with
callow interest at them; but the spectacle of "The'dosia's sweetheart"
was too familiar to be of more than fleeting diversion, and they
resorted once more to their pastime. Mrs. Blakely too, who with
rolling-pin in her hand had turned to gaze out of the window, went
back to rolling out the dough vigorously, with only the muttered
comment, "Wish The'dosia didn't know how much I'd like that man fur a
son-in-law, then she'd be willin' ter like him better herse'f."
He was unconscious of them all, as he leaned his elbow on the
projecting rails of the fence at their intersection close at hand.
"Hev ye hed yer health, The'dosia?" he said.
"Don't I look like it?" she replied laughingly.
There was something both of cordiality and coquetry in her manner. Her
large eyes narrowed as she laughed, and albeit they glittered between
their closing lids, the expression was not pleasant. Levity did not
"Yes, ye do," he said seriously. "Ye 'pear ter be real thrivin' an'
peart an' healthy."
His look, his words, were charged with no sort of recognition or value
of her beauty: clearly her challenge had fallen to the ground
"He'd like me jes' ez well ef I war all pitted up with the smallpox,
or ez freckled ez a tur-r-key-aig," she thought, flushing with
Beauty is jealous of preëminence, and would fain have precedence even
of love. She could take no sort of satisfaction in a captive that her
bright eyes had not shackled. Somehow this love seemed to flout, to
diminish, her attractions. It was like an accident. She could account
for his subjection on no other grounds. As she sat silent, grave
enough now and very beautiful, gazing askance and troubled upon him,
he went on:—
"I war so oneasy an' beset lest suthin' hed happened on the mounting,
whilst I war away, ter trouble you-uns or some o' yer folks. I never
hed time ter study much 'bout sech in the day, but I dreamt 'bout ye
in the night, an' all night,"—he laughed a little,—"all sort'n
mixed up things. I got ter be a plumb Joseph fur readin' dreams—only
I could read the same one forty diff'rent ways, an' every way made me
a leetle mo' oneasy than the t'other one. I s'pose ye hev been perlite
enough ter miss me a leetle," he concluded.
She flashed her great eyes at him with a pretended stare of surprise.
"My—no!" she exclaimed. "We-uns hev hed the comet ter keep us
comp'ny—we ain't missed nobody!"
He laughed a little, as at a repartee, and then went on:—
"Waal, the comic war a-cuttin' a pretty showy figger down yander at
Colbury. 'Ston-ishin' how much store folks do 'pear ter set on it!
They hed rigged up some sort'n peepin'-glass in the Court-House yard,
an' thar war mighty nigh the whole town a-squinchin' up one eye ter
examinate the consarn through it—all the court off'cers,
'torney-gin'ral, an' sech, an' old Doctor Kane an' Jedge Peters,
besides a whole passel o' ginerality folks. They 'lowed the glass made
it 'pear bigger."
"Did it?" she asked, with sudden interest.
"Bless yer soul, chile, I didn't hev time ter waste on it. Jedge
Peters he beckoned ter me, an' 'lowed he'd interjuce me ter it; but I
'lowed the comic outside war plenty big enough fur me. 'Jedge,' I
says, 'my mission hyar air ter make onnecessary things seem small,
not magnified. That's why I'm continually belittlin' Rolf Quigley. Wat
kin go on lookin' cross-eyed at the stars, ef so minded, but I be
bound ter tend ter the 'lection.' An' the jedge laffed and says:
'Justus, nex' time I want ter git 'lected ter office, I'm goin' ter
git ye ter boost me in. Ye hev got it a sight mo' at heart than yer
brother.' Fur thar war Wat, all twisted up at the small e-end o' the
tellingscope, purtendin' ter be on mighty close terms with the comic,
though lots o' other men said it jes' dazed thar eyes, an' they
couldn't see nuthin' through it, an' mighty leetle arterward through
sightin' so long one-eyed."
"Waal, how's the prospects fur the 'lection?" she asked.
"Fine! Fine!" he answered with gusto. "Folks all be so frien'ly
everywhar ter we-uns."
He leaned his shoulder suddenly back against the rough rails of the
fence. His hat was in his hand. His hair, fine, thin, chestnut-brown,
and closely clinging about his narrow head, was thrown back from his
forehead. His clear blue eyes were turned upward, with the light of
reminiscence slowly dawning in them. It may have been the reflection
of the dazzling flake of cloud, it may have been some mental
illumination, but a sort of radiance was breaking over the keen,
irregular lines of his features, and a flush other than the floridity
of a naturally fair complexion was upon his thin cheek and hollow
"O The'dosia," he cried, "I can't holp thinkin', hevin' so many
frien's nowadays,—whenst it's 'Hail!' hyar, an' 'Howdy!' thar, an' a
clap on the shoulder ter the east, an' a 'How's yer health?' ter the
west, an' a handshake ter the north, an' 'Take a drink?' ter the
south, from one e-end o' the county ter the t'other,—how I fared
whenst I hed jes' one frien' in the worl', an' that war yer mother!
An' how she looked the fust day she stood in the door o' my cabin up
thar—kem ter nuss Elmiry through that spell she hed o' the scarlet
fever. An' arterward she says ter me: 'Ye do manage s'prisin', Justus;
an' I be goin' ter save ye some gyardin seed out'n my patch this year,
an' ef ye'll plough my patch I'll loan ye my horse-critter ter plough
your'n. An' the gals kin kem an' l'arn ter sew an' churn, an' sech,
long o' 'Dosia.' An' how they loved ye, 'Dosia—special Elmiry!"
His eyes filled with sudden tears. They did not fall; they were
absorbed somehow as he resumed:—
"Sech a superflu'ty o' frien's nowadays! Ef 't warn't they'd count fur
all they're wuth in the ballot-box, I'd hev no use fur 'em. I kin
sca'cely 'member thar names. But then I hed jes' one—jes' one in
all the worl'—yer mother! Bless her soul!" he concluded
He was still and reflective for a moment. Then he made a motion as
though he would take one of Theodosia's hands. But she clasped both of
them demurely behind her.
"I don't hold hands with no man ez blesses another 'oman's soul by the
hour," she said, with an affectation of primness.
There may have been something more serious in her playful rebuff, but
in the serenity of his perfect security he did not feel it or gauge
A glimpse of her mother at the window added its suggestion—a lean,
sallow, lined face, full of anxious furrows, with a rim of scanty
gray-streaked hair about the brow, with spectacles perched above, and
beneath the flabby jaw a scraggy, wrinkled neck.
"An' she's so powerful pretty!" Theodosia exclaimed, with an
irreverent burst of laughter, "I don't wonder ye feel obligated ter
bless her soul."
"She 'pears plumb beautiful to my mind," he said unequivocally,—"all
of a piece with her beautiful life."
Theodosia was suddenly grave, angered into a secret, sullen
irritation. These were words she loved for herself: it was but lately
she had learned so to prize them. Her eyes were as bright as a deer's!
Had not some one protested this, with a good round rural oath as
attestation? Her hair on the back of her head, and its shape to the
nape of her neck, were so beautiful—she had never seen it: how could
she say it wasn't? Her chin and her throat—well, if people could
think snow was a prettier white, he wouldn't give much for their
head-stuffin'. And her blush! her blush! It was her own fault. He
would not have taken another kiss if she had not blushed so at the
first that he must needs again see her cheek glow like the wild rose.
These were echoes of a love-making that had lately taken hold of her
heart, that had grown insistently sweet and dear to her, that had
established its sway impetuously, tyrannically, over her life, that
had caused her to seem more to herself, and as if she were infinitely
more to her new lover.
She wondered how she could ever have even tolerated this dullard, with
his slow, measured preference, his unquestioning security of her
heart, his doltish credulity in her and her promise, his humble
gratitude to her mother,—who had often enough, in good sooth, got
full value in return for aught she gave,—who appeared "beautiful" to
his mind. She broke forth abruptly, her cheeks flushing, her eyes
brave and bright, the subject nearest her heart on her lips, in the
sudden influx of courage set astir by the mere contemplation of it.
"Waal now, tell 'bout Wat—how he enj'ys bein' a candidate, an' sech."
Then, with a tremor because of her temerity: "I have hearn o' that
thar beautisome old 'oman a time or two afore, but Wat ez a candidate
air sorter fraish an' new."
He turned his clear, unsuspicious eyes upon her. He had replaced his
wide wool hat on his head, and he leaned forward, resting his cheek on
his hand and his elbow on his knee. He aimlessly flicked his long
spurred boot, as he talked, with a willow wand which he carried in
lieu of horsewhip.
"Waal, Wat is some similar ter a balky horse. He don't seem ter sense
a word I say, nor ter be willin' ter do a thing I advise, nor even ter
take heart o' grace 'bout bein' 'lected, till we gets out 'mongst
folks, an' thar handshakin's and frien'liness seems ter hearten up
the critter. I hev jes' hed ter baig an' baig, an' plead an' plead,
with that boy 'bout this an' that an' t'other, till I wouldn't go
through ag'in what I hev been through ter git 'lected doorkeeper o'
heaven. But," with a sudden change of tone and a flush of pride,
"The'dosia, ye dunno what a' all-fired pretty speaker Wat hev got ter
be. Jes' stan's up ez straight an' smilin' afore all the crowd, an'
jes' tells off his p'ints, one, two, three, ez nip! An' the crowd
always cheers an' cheers—jes' bawls itse'f hoarse. Whenever thar's a
chance ter speak, Wat jes' leaves them t'other candidates nowhar."
Ah, Theodosia's beauty well deserved the guerdon of sweet words. She
might have been pictured as a thirsting Hebe. She had a look of
quaffing some cup of nectar, still craving its depths, so immediate a
joy, so intense a light, were in her widely open eyes; her lips were
parted; the spray of blackberry leaves that she held near her cheek
did not quiver, so had her interest petrified every muscle. She was
leaning slightly forward; her red sunbonnet had fallen to the ground,
and the wind tossed her dark brown hair till the heavy masses, with
their curling ends disheveled, showed tendrils of golden hue. Her
round, plump arm was like ivory. The torn sleeve fell away to the
elbow, and her mother, glancing out of the window, took remorseful
heed of it, and wished that she herself had set a stitch in it.
"The'dosia shows herself so back'ard 'bout mendin', an' sech—she air
enough ter skeer any man away. An' Justus knows jes' what sech
laziness means. Kin mend clothes hisse'f ez good ez the nex' one, an'
useter do it too, strong an' taut, with a double thread, whenst the
fambly war leetle chil'n an' gin ter bustin' out'n thar gear."
But Justus took no note of the significance of the torn sleeve.
"Why, 'Dosia," he went on, "everybody 'lowed ez Wat's speeches seemed
ter sense what the people wanted ter hear. Him an' me we'd talk it
over the night before, an' Wat he'd write down what we said on paper
an' mem'rize it; an' the nex' day, why, folks that wouldn't hev
nuthin' ter say ter him afore he spoke would be jes' aidgin' up
through the crowd ter git ter shake han's with him."
She smiled with delight at the picture. If it were sweet to him to
praise, how sweet it was to her to listen! "Tell on!" she said softly.
Her interest flattered him; it enriched the reminiscence, dear though
his memory held it. He had no doubt as to the unity of feeling with
which they both regarded the incidents he chronicled. He went on with
the certainty of responsive sentiment, the ease, the serenity of a man
who opens his heart to the woman he loves.
"Why, 'Dosia," he said, "often, often if it hed n't been fur the
folks, I could hev run up an' dragged him off'n the rostrum an' hugged
him fur pride, he looked so han'some an' spoke so peart! An' ter think
't war jes' our leetle Wat—the Fambly's leetle Wat—growed up ter be
sech a man! Ye'll laff at me—other folks did—whenst I tell ye that
ag'in an' ag'in I jes' cotch' myse'f cheerin' with the loudest. I
could n't holp it."
"He'll be 'lected, Justus?" she breathlessly inquired, and yet
imperatively, as if, even though she asked, she would brook no denial.
"Oh, they all say thar's no doubt—no doubt at all."
She drew a long breath of contentment, of pleasure. She leaned back,
silent and reflective, against the rail fence behind the bench, her
eyes fixed, absorbed, following the outline of other scenes than the
one before them, which indeed left no impression upon her senses,
scenes to come, slowly shaping the future. All trace of the red glow
of the sun had departed from the landscape. No heavy, light-absorbing,
sad-hued tapestries could wear so deep a purple, such sombre
suggestions of green, as the circling mountains had now assumed: they
were not black, and yet such depths of darkness hardly comported with
the idea of color. The neutral tints of the sky were graded more
definitely, with purer transparency, because of the contrast. The
fine grays were akin to pearl color, to lavender, even, in approaching
the zenith, to the palest of blue—so pale that the white glitter of a
star alternately appeared and was lost again in its tranquil
inexpressiveness. The river seemed suddenly awake; its voice was
lifted loud upon the evening air, a rhythmic song without words. The
frogs chanted by the waterside. Fireflies here and there quivered
palely over the flat cornfields at the back of the house. There was a
light within, dully showing through the vines at the window.
"An' then, 'Dosia," said Justus softly, "when the 'lection is over,
it's time fur ye an' me ter git married."
She roused herself with an obvious effort, and looked
uncomprehendingly at him for a moment, as if she hardly heard.
"The las' one o' Fambly will be off my han's then. Fambly will hev
been pervided fur—every one, Wat an' all. I hev done my bes' fur
Fambly, an' I dunno but I hev earned the right ter think some fur
He would not perhaps have arrogated so much, except to the woman by
whom he believed himself beloved. She said nothing, and he went on
slowly, lingering upon the words as if he loved the prospect they
"We-uns will hev the gyardin an' orchard, an' pastur' an' woods-lot
an' fields, ter tend ter, an' the cows an' bees, an' the mare an'
filly, an' peegs an' poultry, ter look arter. An' the house air all
tight, the roof an' all in good repair, an' we-uns will have it all
She turned upon him with sudden interest.
"What will kem o' Wat?"
"Oh, he mus' live in town whilst sher'ff, bein' off'cer o' the court
an' official keeper o' jail, though he kin app'int a jailer."
"Live in Colbury!" she exclaimed in wonderment.
Justus laughed in triumph. "Oh, I tell ye, Wat's 'way up in the
pictur's! He'll be a reg'lar town man 'fore long, I reckon, dandified
an' sniptious ez the nex' one, marryin' one o' them finified town gals
ez wear straw hats stiddier sunbonnets,—though they do look ter be
about ez flimsy an' no-'count cattle ez any I ever see," the sterling
rural standpoint modifying his relish of Walter's frivolous worldly
She tossed her head in defiance of some sudden unspoken thought. As
she lifted her eyes, fired by pride, she saw the comet all a-glitter
in the darkening sky.
She hardly knew that he had seized her hand; but his importunity must
"D'rec'ly after the 'lection—'lection day, 'Dosia?" he urged.
"Ain't ye got no jedgmint," she temporized, laughing unmirthfully,
"axin' sech a question ez that under that onlucky comet!"
"I hev been waitin' so long, 'Dosia!"
It was the first suggestion of complaint she had ever heard from him.
"Then ye air used ter waitin', an' 't won't kill ye ter wait a leetle
longer. I'll let ye know 'lection day."
It was a hot day in the little valley town, the first Thursday in
August, the climax of a drought, with the sun blazing down from dawn
to dusk, and not a cloud, not a vagrant mist, not even the stir of the
impalpable ether, to interpose. The mountains that rimmed the horizon
all around Colbury shimmered azure, through the heated air. No wind
came down those darker indentations that marked ravines. A dazzling,
stifling stillness reigned; yet now and again an eddying cloud of dust
would spring up along the streets, and go whirling up-hill and down,
pausing suddenly, and settling upon the overgrown shrubbery in the
pretty village yards, or on white curtains hanging motionless at the
windows of large, old-fashioned frame houses. Even the shade was hot
with a sort of closeness unknown in the open air, yet as it dwindled
to noontide proportions some alleviation seemed withdrawn; and though
the mercury marked no change, all the senses welcomed the
post-meridian lengthening of the images of bough and bole beneath the
trees, and the fantastic architecture of the shadows of chimney and
gable and dormer-window, elongated out of drawing, stretching across
the grassy streets and ample gardens. There among the grape trellises,
and raspberry bushes, and peach and cherry trees, the locusts chirred
and chirred a tireless, vibrating panegyric on hot weather. The birds
were hushed; sometimes under a clump of matted leaves one of the
feathered gentry might be seen with wings well held out from his
panting sides. The beautiful green beetle, here called the "June-bug,"
hovered about the beds of thyme, its jeweled, enameled green body and
its silver gauze wings flashing in the sun, although June was far down
the revolving year. Blue and lilac lizards basked in the garden walks,
which were cracked by the heat. Little stir was in the streets; the
languid business of a small town was transacted if absolute need
required, and postponed if a morrow would admit of contemplation. The
voters slowly repaired to the polls with a sense of martyrdom in the
cause of party, and the election was passing off in a most orderly
fashion, there being no residuum of energy in the baking town to
render it disorderly or unseemly. Often not a human being was to be
seen, coming or going.
To Theodosia it was all vastly different from the picture she had
projected of Colbury with an election in progress. In interest,
movement, populousness, it did not compare with a county-court day,
which her imagination had multiplied when she estimated the relative
importance of the events. She had made no allowance for the absence of
the country people, specially wont to visit the town when the
quarterly court was in session, but now all dutifully in place voting
in their own remote districts. The dust, the suffocating heat, the
stale, vapid air, the indescribable sense of a lower level—all these
affected her like a veritable burden, accustomed as she was to the
light and rare mountain breeze, to the tempered sun, the mist, and the
cloud. The new and untried conditions of town life trammeled and
constrained her. She had a certain pride, and she feared she
continually offended against the canons of metropolitan taste. In
every passing face she saw surprise, and she fancied contempt. In
every casual laugh she heard ridicule. Her brain was a turmoil of
conflicting anxieties, hopes, resolutions, and in addition these
external demands upon her attention served to intensify her absorbing
emotions and to irritate her nerves rather than to divert or soothe
them. She had escaped from the relative at whose house she was making
a visit, craftily timed to include election day, on the plea that she
wished to see something of the town. "Ye don't live up on the
mounting, Cousin Anice, 'mongst the deer, an' b'ar, an' fox, like me,"
she had said jestingly, "or ye'd want ter view all the town ye kin."
And once outside the shabby little palings, she returned no more for
Along the scorching streets she wandered, debating within herself
anxious questions which, she felt, affected all her future, and
unfitting herself still further to reach that just and wise conclusion
she desired to compass. She could not altogether abstract her mind,
despite the interests which she had at stake. She noticed that her
unaccustomed feet stumbled over the flag-stones of the pavement—"Fit
fur nothin' but followin' the plough!" she muttered in irritation. She
hesitated at the door of a store, then sidled sheepishly in, tearing
her dress on a nail in a barrel set well in the corner and out of the
But while looking over the pile of goods which she had neither the
wish nor the money to purchase, she could have sunk with shame with
the sudden thought that perhaps it was not the vogue in Colbury to
keep a clerk actively afoot to while away the idle time of a
desperately idle woman. She could not at once decide how she might
best extricate herself, and for considerable time the empty show of an
impending purchase went on.
"I'll—I'll kem an' see 'bout'n it ter-morrer," she faltered at last.
"No trouble to show goods," said the martyr of the counter, politely.
In truth he had in the course of his career shown them as futilely to
women who were much older and far, far uglier, and contemplating
purchase as remotely.
She went out scarlet, slow, tremulous, and walking close into the wall
like an apprehensive cat, looking now and again over her shoulder. She
wondered if he laughed when he was alone.
Her shadow was long now as it preceded her down the street, lank,
awkward, clumsy. She took note of the late hour which it intimated,
and followed the extravagant, lurching caricature of herself to her
cousin's house, a little unpainted, humble building set far back in
the yard, against the good time coming when a more ornate structure
should be prefixed. The good time seemed still a long way off. Her
cousin's ironing-board was on the porch, and presently a lean,
elderly, active woman whisked out, her flat-iron in her hand.
"Cousin Anice," called Theodosia from the gate, "how's the 'lection
Cousin Anice paused to put her finger in her mouth; thus moistened,
she touched it to the flat-iron, which hissed smartly, and which she
applied then to the apron on the board.
"Laws-a-massy! chile, the polls is jes' closed, an' all the country
deestric's ter be hearn from. We won't know till ter-morrer—till late
Theodosia leaned against the gate. How could she wait! How could she
endure the suspense! She thought of Justus, and of her promise to fix
the date of the wedding on election day, but only as an additional
factor of trouble in her own anxiety and indecision.
"Wat's been hyar ez cross ez two sticks," said Mrs. Elmer. She paused
to hold up the apron, exquisitely white, and sheer, and stiff, and to
gaze with critical professional eyes upon it; she was what is known as
a "beautiful washer and ironer," although otherwise not comely. "Wat's
beat plumb out o' sight, ef the truth war knowed, I reckon. He 'lows
he's powerful 'feared. Ef't war Justus, now, he'd hev been 'lected
sure. Justus is a mighty s'perior man; pity he never hed no
eddication. He could hev done anything—sharp ez a brier. Yes; Wat's
beat, I reckon."
In the instant Theodosia's heart sank. But she turned from the
palings, and sauntered resolutely on. It well behooved her to take
counsel with herself. "I mought hev made a turr'ble, turr'ble
mistake," she muttered. She was sensible of a sharp pang pervading her
consciousness. Nevertheless, judgment clamored for recognition.
"Everybody gins Justus a good name, better'n Wat," she argued. "An' ef
Wat ain't 'lected"—
She walked down the street with a freer step, her head lifted, her
self-respect more secure. With the possible collapse of her prospect
of living in Colbury, and her ambition to adjust herself to the
exigent demands of its more ornate civilization, her natural untrained
grace was returning to her. She felt that she was certainly stylish
enough for the hills, where she was likely to live all her days, and
with this realization she quite unconsciously seemed easy enough,
unconstrained enough, graceful enough, to pass muster in a wider
sphere. Her heart was beating placidly now with the casting away of
this new expectation that had made all its pulses tense. The still air
was cooler, or at least darker. A roseate suffusion was in the sky,
although a star twinkled there. More people were in the streets; doors
and windows were open, and faces appeared now and again among the
vines and curtains. As she hesitated on the street corner, two young
girls in white dresses and with fair hair passed her. She watched them
with darkening brow as they drew hastily together, and suddenly she
overheard the half-smothered exclamation which had a dozen times
to-day barely escaped her ears.
"What a pretty, pretty girl! Oh, my! how pretty, how pretty!"
Theodosia stood like one bewitched; a light like the illumination of
jewels was in her sapphire eyes; the color surged to her cheek; she
lifted up her head on its round, white throat; her lips curved. "Oh,
poor fool!" she thought in pity for herself, for this was what the
Colbury people had been saying all day in their swift, recurrent
glances, their half-masked asides, their furtive turning to look after
her. And she—to have given herself a day of such keen misery
unconscious of their covert encomiums!
"I live up thar in the wilderness till I jes' don't sense nothin',"
All the wilting prospects of life were refreshed as a flower in the
perfumed dew-fall. She felt competent, able to cope with them all; her
restored self-confidence pervaded her whole entity, spiritual and
material. She walked back with an elastic step, a breezy, debonair
manner, and she met Justus Hoxon at the gate of her cousin's yard with
a jaunty assurance, and with all the charm of her rich beauty in the
He would fain have detained her in the twilight. "What's that ye
promised to tell me 'lection day?"
"I 'lowed the day Wat war 'lected," she temporized, laying her hand on
the gate, which his stronger hand kept still closed.
"Waal, this is the day Wat is 'lected."
She drew back. Even in the dim light he could see her blue eyes
widening with inquiry as she looked at him.
"I 'lowed the returns warn't all in," she said doubtfully.
"They ain't, but enough hev kem in sence the polls closed ter gin him
a thumpin' majority. He's safe." The tense ring of triumph was in his
The scene was swimming before her; she was dazed by the sudden
alternations of hope and despair, of decision and counter-decision, by
the seeming instability of all this. Once more she thought, in a
tremble, and with a difference, of the mistake she might have made.
She held to the gate to keep her feet, no longer to open it.
"What did ye promise ter tell me 'lection day?" he demanded once
more, clasping her hand as it lay on the palings.
"'Lection day?" she said with a forced laugh—"'t ain't e-ended yit.
An'," with a sudden resolution of effecting a diversion—"afore it
is e-ended I want ter git a peep through that thar thing they call a
tellingscope, ef they let women folks look through it."
He was instantly intent.
"Laws-a-massy, yes!" he exclaimed. "I seen Mis' Dr. Kane and Mis'
Jedge Peters, an' thar darters, an' a whole passel o' women folks over
thar one night las' week. The young folks jes' amble up an' down the
court-house yard, bein' moonlight, like a lot o' young colts showin'
thar paces. An' even ef they ain't thar ter-night, I'll take ye over
thar arter supper, with yer cousin Anice ter keep ye in countenance."
But after supper there was a sufficiency of fluttering white dresses
astir in the court-house yard, and now and again crossing the wide,
ill-paved street thither, to warrant Theodosia in dispensing with her
cousin's company, much to that sophisticated worthy's relief.
"I hev seen all Colbury's got ter show," she said with sated pride.
"An' bein' ez I hev hed a hard day's ironin', I hev got a stitch in my
"I'd onderstan' that better if ye hed hed a hard day's sewin'," said
Justus. He was in high feather, eager, jubilant, drinking in all the
rich and subtle flavors of success with the gusto of personal triumph.
"He air prouder'n Wat," more than one observer opined.
There was another fine exhibition of pride on display in the
court-house yard that evening. One might have inferred that Dr. Kane
had made the comet, from his satisfaction in its proportions, his
accurate knowledge and exposition of its history, its previous
appearances, and when its coming again might be expected. He was the
principal physician of the place, and the little telescope was his
property, and he had thus generously loaned it to the public with the
hope of illuminating the general ignorance by a nearer view of the
starry heavens, while it served his own and his neighbors' interest in
the nightly progress of the great comet. Total destruction had been
prophesied as the imminent fate of the telescope, but it had so far
justified its owner's confidence in the promiscuous politeness of
Kildeer County, and had been a source of infinite pleasure to the
country folks from the coves and mountains, who had never before seen,
nor in good sooth heard of, such an instrument. For weeks past almost
all night curious groups took possession of it at intervals, and
doubtless it did much to enlarge their idea of science and knowledge
of celestial phenomena, for often Dr. Kane's idle humor induced him to
stand by and explain the various theories touching comets,—their
velocity, their substance or lack of substance, their recurrence,
their status in the astral economy,—and cognate themes. As he was a
man of very considerable reading and mental qualifications, of some
means for the indulgence of his taste, and a good deal of leisure, the
synopsis of astronomical science presented in the successive
expositions was very well worth listening to, especially by the more
ignorant of the community, who were thus enlightened as to facts
hitherto foreign even to their wildest imaginings.
But following hard on every benefaction is the trail of ingratitude,
and certain of the irreverent in the crowd found a piquant zest in
secret derision of the doctor, who sometimes did, in truth, present
the air of a showman with a panorama. More especially was this the
case when his enthusiasm waxed high, and his satisfaction in the
glories of the comet partook of a positive personal pride.
"What's he goin' ter do about it?" demanded one grinning rustic of
another on the outskirts of the crowd.
"Put salt on its tail," responded his interlocutor.
Others affected to believe that the doctor was performing a great feat
with the long bow, especially in the tremendous measurements of which
he seemed singularly prodigal. A reference to the height of the
mountains of the moon as compared with the neighboring ranges elicited
a whispered hope that the roads were better there than those of the
Great Smoky; and an inquiry concerning the probable fate of the comet
provoked a speculation that when he was done with it he would sell it
at public outcry to the highest bidder at the east door of the
Close about the stand, however, the crowd took on something of the
demeanor of a literary society. Discussions were in order, questions
asked and answered, authorities quoted and refuted: the other
physician, who practiced much in consultation with Dr. Kane, two or
three clergymen, several of the officers of the court, and a number of
lawyers, all taking part. The more youthful members of the gathering
affected the role of peripatetic philosophers, and sauntered to and
fro, arm in arm, in the light of the waxing moon.
The big black shadows of the giant oaks were all dappled with silver
as the beams pierced the foliage and fell to the ground below; only
the cornice of the building threw an unbroken image, massive and
sombre, on the sward. The low clustering roofs of the town had a thin
bluish haze hovering about them, and were all softly and blurringly
imposed on the vaguely blue sky and the dim hills beyond. Among them a
vertical silver line glinted, sharply metallic,—the steeple of a
church. Here and there a yellow light gleamed from a lamp within a
window. No sound came from the streets; all the life of the place
seemed congregated here.
There was a continual succession of postulants to gaze through the
telescope, some gravely curious, some stolidly iconoclastic and
incredulous, others with covert levity, and still others,
self-conscious, solicitous, secretly determined to affect to see all
that other people could see, lest some subtle incapacity, some
flagrant rusticity, be inferred from failure. These last were hasty
observers, scarcely waiting to adjust the eye to the lens, fluttered,
and prolific of inapt exclamations, which too often betrayed the
superficial character of the investigation. To this class did
"Plumb beautiful!" she murmured under her breath, after a momentary
contact of her dazzled eye with the brass rim of the telescope.
"Try ag'in, 'Dosia!" exclaimed Justus, aghast at this perfunctory
dismissal of the comet, as she turned to go away.
She winced a little from his voice, clear, vibrant and urgent, for
Justus had no solicitude concerning the superior canons of Colbury
touching etiquette, and suffered none of her anxieties. She caught Dr.
Kane's eyes fixed upon him as she moved hastily away, and then he came
up beside Justus, who stood near the telescope.
"Let me explain the thing to you, Hoxon," he said. "Try a peep
Justus glanced after her. Walter had joined her—not so soon, however,
but that she heard a half-suppressed criticism on her lover as he
turned to the telescope and Dr. Kane's exposition.
"Pity he's got no education—smart fellow, but can't even read and
"Smart" enough to be an apt pupil. The others pressed close around,
listening to the measured voice of the physician and the quick,
pertinent questions of the star-gazer.
It is as an open scroll, that magnificent, wonder-compelling cult of
the skies, not the sealed book of other sciences. Since the days of
the Chaldean, all men of receptive soul in solitary places, the
sailor, the shepherd, the hunter, or the hermit, whether of the
wilderness of nature or the isolation of crowds, have read there of
the mystery of the infinite, of the order and symmetry of the plan of
creation, of the proof of the existence of a God, who controls the
sweet influences of Pleiades and makes strong the bands of Orion. The
unspeakable thought, the unformulated prayer, the poignant sense of
individual littleness, of atomic unimportance, in the midst of the
vast scheme of the universe, inform every eye, throb in every breast,
whether it be of the savant, with all the appliances of invention to
bring to his cheated senses the illusion of a slightly nearer
approach, or of the half-civilized llanero of the tropic solitudes,
whose knowledge suffices only to note the hour by the bending of the
great Southern Cross. It is the heritage of all alike.
For Justus Hoxon, who had followed the slow march of the stars through
many a year in the troubled watches of the night, when anxiety and
foreboding could make no covenant with sleep, there was, in one sense,
little to learn. He knew them all in their several seasons, the time
of their rising, when they came to the meridian, and when they were
engulfed in the west, till with another year they sparkled on the
eastern rim of the sky. He listened to Dr. Kane's explanation of this
with an air of acceptance, but he hardly heeded the detail of their
distance from the earth and from one another—he knew that they were
far,—and he shook his head over speculations as to their physical
condition, vegetation, and inhabitation. "Ye ain't got no sort o'
means o' knowin' sech, Doctor," he said reprehensively, gauging the
depths of the ignorance of the wise man.
He heard their names with alert interest, and repeated them swiftly
after his mentor to set them in his memory. "By George!" he cried
delightedly, "I hed no idee they hed names!"
And as the amateur astronomer, pleased with so responsive a glow,
began the tracing of the fantastic imagery of the constellations,
detailing the story of each vague similitude, he marked the sudden
dawn of a certain enchantment in his interlocutor's mind, the first
subtle experience of the delights of the ideal and the resources of
fable. It exerted upon Dr. Kane a sort of fascinated interest, the
observation of this earliest exploration of the realms of fancy by so
keen and receptive an intelligence. The comet, the telescope, the
crowd, were forgotten, as with Hoxon at his elbow he made the tour of
the court-house yard, from point to point, wherever the best
observation might be had of each separate sidereal etching on the deep
blue. For a time the crowd casually watched them with a certain
good-natured ridicule of their absorption, and the telescope
maintained its interest to the successive wights who peered through at
the comet still splendidly ablaze despite the light of the gibbous
moon. The ranks of young people promenaded up and down the brick walks
and the grassy spaces. Elder gossips sat on the court-house steps, or
stood in groups, and discussed the questions of the day. Gradually
disintegration began. The clangor of the gate rose now and then as
homeward-bound parties passed through, becoming constantly more
frequent. Still the shifting back and forth of the thinning ranks of
the peripatetic youth went on, and laughter and talk resounded from
the court-house steps. At intervals the telescope was deserted; the
motionless trees were bright with the moon and glossy with the dew.
The voice of guard-dogs was now and again reverberated from the hills.
The languid sense of a late hour had dulled the pulses, and when
Justus Hoxon turned back to earth it was to an almost depopulated
scene, the realization of the approach of midnight, and the sight of
Theodosia sitting alone in the moonlight on the steps of the east door
of the court-house, waiting for him with a touching patience, as it
seemed to him at the moment.
"Air you-uns waitin' fur me, 'Dosia, all by yerse'f?" he demanded
hastily, with a contrite intonation.
"I 'pear to be all by myse'f," she said, with a playful feigning of
uncertainty, glancing about her. She gave a forced laugh, and the
constraint in her tone struck his attention.
"I 'lowed ez Wat war with ye," he said apologetically. "Air ye ready
ter go over ter yer cousin Anice's now?"
He was standing leaning against one of the columns of the portico, his
face half in the shadow of his hat and half in the moonlight.
She sat still upon the steps, looking up at him, her upturned eyes
taking an appealing expression from her lowly attitude. She was silent
for a moment, as if at a loss. Then suddenly her eyes fell.
"'Pears ter me ter be right comical ter hev ter remind ye o' what
I promised ter tell ye 'lection day," she said.
"Why, 'Dosia," he broke in vehemently, "I hev axed ye twice ter-day,
an' I didn't ax ye jes' now 'kase ye hed been hyar so long alone, an'
I wanted ter take ye ter yer cousin Anice's ef so be ye wanted ter
go." He stopped for a moment. Then, with a change of tone, "Ye can't
make out ez I hev been anything but hearty in lovin' ye—nearly all
yer life long!" His voice rang out with a definite note of conviction,
Reproach was an untenable ground. She desisted from the effort. Her
eyes wandered down the street that lay shadowy with gable, and
dormer-window, and long chimneys, in sharp geometric figures in the
moonshine, alternating with the deeper shadow of the trees. There were
no lights save a twinkle here and there in an upper window.
A flush rose to his pale cheeks. His heart was beating fast with heavy
presage. He hesitated to demand his fate at so untoward a moment. He
took off his hat, mechanically fanning with its broad brim, and gazing
about him at the slowly dulling splendor of the moonlight as the disk
tended further and further toward the west. The stars were brightening
gradually, and within the range of his vision flared the great comet,
every moment the lustre of its white fire intensifying. He only saw;
he did not note. His every faculty was concentrated on the girl's
drawling voice as she began again, hesitating, and evidently at a
"Waal, I hate ter tell ye, Justus, but I hev ter do it, an'
I mought ez well the day that I promised ter set the day.
It's—it's—never! I ain't goin' ter marry ye at all!"
He recoiled as from a blow. And yet he could not accept the fact.
"The'dosia," he said, "air ye mad with me 'kase ye 'low I forgot ye
Theodosia had recovered her poise. Now that she had begun she felt
suddenly fluent. It did not accord with her estimate of her own
attractions to dismiss a lover because he had forgotten her. She began
to find a relish in the situation, and sought to adjust its details
more accurately to her preferences.
"Justus, I know ye never furgot me fur one minute. I kin find no fault
with yer likin' fur me."
She had never seen a stage. She had never heard of a theatre, but she
was posing and playing a part as definitely as if it graced the
He detected a certain spurious note in her voice. It bewildered him.
He stared silently at her.
"I can't marry you-uns. I never kin."
"Why?" he demanded in a measured tone. "How kem ye hev changed yer
mind? Ye hev told me often that ye would."
"W-a-al," she drawled, looking away at the skies, her unthinking eyes
arrested, too, by the blazing comet, "I did 'low wunst I would. But
a man with eddication would suit me bes', an' ye hain't got none."
"No more hev ye," he argued warmly. He was clinging for dear life to
his vanishing hope of happiness. He did not realize depreciation in
his words—only the facts that made them suited to each other. "Ye
know ye wouldn't take l'arnin' at school—an' I couldn't git it;
'pears ter me we air 'bout ekal."
"It air a differ in a 'oman," said Theodosia, quickly. "A 'oman hev
got no call to be l'arned like a man."
This very subordinate view failed in this instance of the satisfaction
it is wont to give to the masculine mind.
"Waal, ye didn't git enough l'arnin' ter hurt ye," he retorted. Then,
relenting, he added, "But I don't find no fault with ye fur that
The color flared into her face. How she resented his clemency to her
ignorance! She still sat in her lowly posture on the step, leaning her
bare head against the column of the porch, for her bonnet lay on the
floor beside her; but there was a suggestion of self-assertion in her
"I ain't expectin' ter live all my days in the woods, like a deer or
suthin' wild. I expec' ter live in town with eddicated folks, ez be
looked up ter, an' respected by all, an' kin make money, an' hev a
sure-enough house." Her ambitious eyes swept the shadowy gables down
He broke out laughing; his voice was softer; his face relaxed.
"Laws-a-massy! Dosia," he exclaimed, "yer head's plumb turned by one
day's roamin' round town. Ye won't be in sech a hurry ter turn me off
whenst we git back ter the mountings."
"I ain't goin' back ter the mountings!" she cried; "I be a-goin' ter
marry a town man ez hev got position, an' eddication, an' place." She
paused, stung by the fancied incredulity in his eyes. "Why not? Ain't
I good-lookin' enough?"
She had risen to her feet; her eyes flashed upon him; her beautiful
face wore a look of pride. It might have elicited from another man a
protest of its beauty. He stared at her with an expression of alarm
that was almost ghastly.
"Other men like me fur my looks, ef ye don't, Justus Hoxon," she said
"Ef they jes' likes ye fur yer looks they won't like ye long," Hoxon
said severely. "I'll like ye when yer brown head is ez white ez
cotton—ez much ez I like ye now—more!—more, I'll be bound! O
'Dosia," with a sudden renewal of tenderness, "don't talk this hyar
cur'ous way! I dunno what's witched ye. But let's go home ter the
mountings, ter yer mother, an' see ef she can't straighten out any
tangle yer feelin's hev got inter."
It needed only this—the allusion to her commonplace mother, the
recollection of the forlorn little mountain home, the idea of her
mother's insistent championship of Justus Hoxon—to bring the avowal
so long trembling on her lips.
"I won't! I ain't likin' ye nowadays, Justus Hoxon, nor fur a long
time past. I ain't keerin' nothin' 'bout ye."
There was something in her tone that carried conviction.
"Air ye in earnest?" he said, appalled.
He gazed at her in the ever dulling light, that yet was clear enough
to show every lineament—even the long black eyelashes that did not
droop or quiver above her great blue eyes.
"Then thar's no more to be said." He spoke in a changed voice, calm
and clear, and she stared at him in palpable surprise. She had
expected an outburst of reproach, of beseechings, of protestation. She
had braced herself to meet it, and she felt the reaction. She was
hardly capable of coping with seeming indifference. It touched her
pride. She missed the tribute of the withheld pleadings. She sought to
rouse his jealousy.
"It's another man I like," she said, "better—oh, a heap better—than
"That's all right, then."
He wondered to hear the words so glibly enunciated. His lips seemed to
him stiff, petrifying. He looked very white about them. She did not
heed. She was angered, wounded, perplexed, by his acquiescence, his
calmness, his taciturnity. A wave of anxiety that was half regret
went over her. She felt lost in the turmoil of these complex emotions.
With that destructive impulse to hurl down, to tear, to strike, that
is an element of a sort of blind irritation, she went on tumultuously:
"He is a man ez hev got eddication, an' a place, an' a fine chance an'
show in life—it's—it's—yer brother Walter."
Her aim was true that time. Her shaft struck in the very core of his
heart: but the satisfaction of this knowledge was denied her. He
looked very white, it is true, but the pale moonlight was on his face;
and he only said in an undertone:
She laughed aloud, a sort of mockery of glee. She had expected to
enjoy the revelation, and her laughter was an incident of the scene as
she had planned it.
"We war a-courtin' consider'ble o' the time whilst ye war off
electioneerin'," she said, with the side glance of her old coquetry.
She saw his long shadow on the pavement bend forward and recoil
suddenly. She did not look at him.
"An' so ter-night," she went on briskly,—she had truly thought it a
very good joke,—"whilst you-uns war a-star-gazing an' sech, Wat an'
me jes stepped inter the register's office thar, an' the Squair
married us. We 'lowed ye didn't see nothin' of it through the
tellingscope, did ye? So Wat said I must tell ye, ez he didn't want
ter tell ye."
She could not see his face, the light was dulling so, and he had
replaced his wide hat. There was a moment's silence. Then his voice
rang out quite strong and cheerful, "Why, then thar's no more to be
He stood motionless an instant longer. Then suddenly he turned with a
wave of his hand that was like a gesture of farewell, and she marked
how swiftly his shadow seemed to slink from before him as he walked
away, and passed the corner of the house, and disappeared from view.
She gazed silently after him for a moment. Then, leaning against the
column, she burst into a tumult of tears.
* * * * *
Daylight found Justus Hoxon far on the road to the mountains. In the
many miles, as he fared along, his thoughts could hardly have been
pleasant company. As he sought to discover fault or flaw in himself,
search as he might, he could find naught that might palliate the
flippant faithlessness of his beloved, or the treachery of his
brother. His ambition might have been too worldly a thing, but not a
pulse of that most vital emotion beat for himself. He realized it
now—he realized his life in looking back upon this completed episode,
as he might have done in the hour of death. He had so expended himself
in the service of others that there was naught left for him. He had no
gratulation in it, no sense of the virtue of unselfishness, no
preception of achievement; it only seemed to him that his was the most
flagrant folly that ever left a man in the world, but with no place in
it. A sorry object for pride he seemed to himself, but he quivered,
and scorched, and writhed in its hot flames. His one object was to
take himself out of the sight and sound of Colbury, till he might have
counsel within himself, and perfect his scheme of revenge—not upon
the woman. Poor Theodosia, with her limitations, could hardly have
conceived how she had shattered the ideal to which her image had
conformed in his mind, as she had stood on the porch and vaunted her
beauty, and her belief in its power, and her pitiful ambitions. The
woman was heartily welcome to the lot she had chosen. But the
treacherous man,—it was not in Justus Hoxon's scheme of things to
receive a blow and return nothing. A "hardy fighter" he was esteemed,
albeit his prowess was eclipsed by his more peaceful virtues. This,
however, should be returned in kind. He would make no attack to be put
in the wrong, arrested, perhaps, after the Colbury interpretation of
assault and battery. But Walter had many a weak point in his armor,
glaringly apparent now to the once fond brother.
Only a surly, bitter word he had for greeting to the few neighbors
whom he met, and who went their way in the conviction that his brother
had lost his election; for none ascribed any emotion of Justus Hoxon's
to his own sake.
He reached in the evening the little cabin where the padlock hung on
the door, and the heavy, untrodden dust of the drought lay without;
and so it was that the old days when "Fambly" had struggled through
their humble experiences came back to him with that incomparable
sweetness of the irrevocable past. Hardships! How could there be, with
fond faith in one another, and in all the world! Poverty—so rich they
were in love! Life, after all, is more than meat, and there is no
hunger like that of a famished heart. He reviewed that forlorn,
anxious, struggling orphanage, transfigured in the subtle glow of
regretful, loving memory, as one might gaze into the rich glamours of
a promised land. Alas, that our promised land should be so often the
land we made haste to leave! As he sat down on the step he saw the
ragged cluster of children troop down the road from twenty years
agone, almost as if he actually beheld them, himself at the head. He
could still feel their plump palms clinging to his hand at the first
suggestion of danger. He had led them a right thorny path, each to a
successful goal. And now could he turn against "Fambly"? Should he
denounce the treachery of one of the little group that he could see
huddling together for warmth on the meagre hearthstone, while outside
the snows of a long-vanished winter were a-whirl? Should he pull down
the temple on Walter's success—the pride of them all? He remembered
how his sisters, with that feminine necessity of hero-worship in their
untaught little hearts, had clung about Walter. He remembered too that
almost every thought of his own life had been given to this man, who
had ruthlessly and secretly robbed him of all that was dear to him,
and in such wise as to hold him up to ridicule, a scoffing jest, a
very good joke! So Walter considered it, and so doubtless would all
Colbury. It would have surprised Walter, but his sometime mentor's
cheek burned with shame for him.
No; the claims of "Fambly" were paramount. He gave it precedence, as
in the old days he had denied himself when "Fambly" dined at the
skillet, and the bone and the broken bit he took for his share. He
could not bring discredit upon it. He would not lift his hand against
it. It was the object of a lifelong allegiance, and he only marveled
that, since the uses of the loyalty were at an end, the empty life
should go on. He gazed mechanically at the padlock as he sat there
with his dreary thoughts, remembering with what different heart he had
turned the key. Ah, Happiness—to pass out from a door, and knock
there never again!
He rose at last, his burden adjusted to his strength. He had never
worked for thanks. It hardly mattered to him now how his efforts were
requited. And though he encountered treachery at close quarters,—of
his own household,—it was not in his heart to be a traitor to
"Fambly" and its obvious interests. So he too went out from the door
in the footprints of Happiness—likewise to return no more.
* * * * *
Walter Hoxon had not altogether ill-gauged the general proclivity to
deem all fair in love or war. He was accounted to have performed
something of a feat in the clever outwitting of his unsuspecting
rival, and to the minds of the many there was an element of the
romantic in this hasty wedding of the damsel of his choice almost
under the eyes of the expectant bridegroom. He had added to the
prestige of success in politics the lustre of valiance in the lists of
love, and he encountered laughing congratulations from his friends
and political supporters, which served much to reassure him and to
banish a vague and subtle anxiety as to public opinion that had begun
to gnaw at his heart. They all seemed to think he had done a very fine
thing, and that it was a very good joke, and he was soon most jauntily
of their persuasion. He could not know that here and there people were
saying to one another, aside, the words he had feared to hear in
reproach—that the swain whom he and his lady-love had conspired to
dupe was his brother, who had done everything for him—had, as a mere
child, encountered and vanquished poverty, had clothed and educated
this man and his sisters, had served his every interest with a perfect
self-abnegation all his life; that it was his brother who had won his
election, being a man of much influence and untaught eloquence, and of
great native tact and intelligence; that the secrecy, the conspiracy,
and the publicity of the dramatic dénouement, in lieu of an open
rivalry, rendered it a case of the most flagrant ingratitude, and
argued much unworthiness in the people's choice.
But suddenly a doubt began to prevail as to whether he were the
people's choice. In the returns from the farthest districts, not heard
from till quite late in the day, in which Walter Hoxon had felt
secure, Quigley developed unexpected strength. In great perturbation
Walter swiftly patrolled the town in search of Justus; unprecedented
developments were imminent, and he hardly dared face the emergency
without his valiant backer at hand. Justus had disappeared as utterly
as if the night had swallowed him up.
"Consarn the tormentin' critter!" exclaimed Walter, mopping his brow
as he stood at the little gate of Mrs. Elmer's yard, returning
thither, after his fruitless searching, in the hope of finding his
brother among the familiar faces. "Mad ez a hornet, I'll be bound, an'
lef' me in the lurch. Beat arter all, I'll bet!"
Theodosia listened, tremulous, aghast. All the fine prospects that had
seemed so near, into whose charming perspectives she might in another
moment have stepped as actually as upon that path to the gate, were
drawing away, dissolving, as tenuous, as intangible, as those morning
sunlit mists shifting and rising from before the massive blue ranges
of the Great Smoky Mountains, and dallying with the distances into
"I tole ye ag'in an' ag'in ye bes' not be too sure," she said, a sob
in her throat, with an obvious disposition to wreak her disappointment
It was crushed in the moment.
He turned a frowning face full upon her. "Hold yer jaw!" he cried
violently. "Ef 't warn't for you-uns I'd hev Justus hyar, an' I'll be
bound he could fix it. Ye miserable deceitful critter—settin' two
own brothers at loggerheads! I'll take no word from you-uns—sure!"
He shook his head indignantly at her, clapped his hat upon it, and
turned desperately away as a man came running up. "Have ye found
Justus?" Wat exclaimed.
"Justus? No. But they say it's a tie—a tie!"
For the news was already bruited throughout the town—in a ferment of
excitement, because of the closeness of the contest—that the two
candidates, racing gallantly neck and neck, had come under the wire
together with not so much as the point of a nose to distinguish the
Walter stood still for a moment, his dark eyes dilated with eagerness
and anxiety. Suddenly he leaned back against the gate-post with a deep
sigh of relief and relaxation.
"Then it's all right," he exclaimed breathlessly. "The coroner's my
frien', ef I ain't got another in the worl'. Old Beckett will stan' by
As the coroner held the election, the sheriff himself being a
candidate, it was his duty to give the casting vote. This
prolongation of the jeopardy of the result heightened the popular
interest, the more as the officer did not immediately decide upon his
action in the matter.
"I want a leetle time ter think it over—a leetle time fur the casting
vote," he said, as he gnawed at a plug of tobacco, then crossed his
ponderous legs while he leaned back in a splint-bottomed chair in the
He was a tall, portly man, with a large, round imperious face,
thatched heavily with iron-gray hair. He wore no beard, and was
dressed in brown jeans, which imparted a certain sallowness to his
dark complexion. He had small gray eyes, at once shrewd and
good-natured, but his manner was bluff, imperative, and all the
judiciary of the State could hardly have compassed an expression of a
greater sense of importance.
He was observed with much interest by a number of men who lounged
about the room. A tense sub-current of curiosity underlay the suspense
natural to the occasion, for it was well known to the gossips about
the court-house that he and the sheriff had not been on the best of
terms; when their official functions had happened to bring them into
contact they had clashed smartly, and the county rang with their
feuds. His course was obvious to all—his hesitation only an
affectation, lest a too vehement animosity be imputed to him.
"Poor Quigley's cake is dough," observed one of the incumbent's
friends in an undertone, standing with his hands in his pockets, and
gazing through the long dark vista of the hall out of the door into
the sunlight's glow, as it fell upon the few houses and the great
stretch of arable land beyond. A horizontal shadow of a cloud lay at
its extremity, as definite as a material barrier, and far above it
rose tiers of green and bronze hills like a moulding to the base of
the lapis-lazuli-tinted mountains.
"This never happened in this county before," said the register,
glancing up from a big book in which he was copying the doings of "the
party of the first part" and "the party of the second part"—the
familiar spirits of his den.
"Why, no!" exclaimed the coroner, with a pleased laugh. "To me the
castin' vote is ez phee-nomenal an' ez astonishin' ez the comet." He
chuckled—the fat man's unctuous laugh. "Something like the comet,
too: it has its place in the legal firmament, but 't ain't often
necessary to use it."
"That war a toler'ble funny tale 'bout the comet they air a-tellin'
roun' town," observed a young countryman pausing in front of the two,
his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his red head, a wide
grin of enjoyment on his freckled face,—"about the feller that hed
his sweetheart a-courtin' out hyar in the yard last night, an' tuk ter
lookin' at the comet through the spy-glass, an' whilst he war busy
a-star-gazin' the comet, another feller stepped up with the Squair,
an' married his gal—ha! ha! ha!"
Beckett looked up interested. Incongruously enough a vein of romance
ran through the massive strata of conceit, and intolerance, and
vainglory, and pertinacity, and pugnacity that made up the very
definite structure of his nature. He dearly loved a lover. He was as
sentimental as a girl of eighteen, and he melted instantly into
suavest amenities at the first intimation of a love-story in abeyance.
"I ain't heard 'bout that," he said in a mellifluous voice.
"Ye know I was tucked up in yonder"—he jerked his thumb over
his shoulder—"tendin' to the countin' of the votes, bein'
returnin'-officer. Who married?"
"Why this hyar Walter Hoxon—him ez is candidate fur sher'ff,"
said the red-haired interlocutor, widening his grin.
Beckett elevated his heavy, grizzled eyebrows. A sudden, secret,
important look, as if he were colloguing with some one vanquished in
argument, crossed his face. He nodded once or twice, but only said
acquiescently: "Ah—ha! Ah—ha! Toler'ble enterprisin'. Run fur office
an git married 'lection day."
He smiled broadly. Any innovation on the stereotyped methods appealed
to him with the grace and relish of a new metre to a neophytic
"Wat's a nice boy, a mighty good boy, too," he went on, with his oily
voice quite soft. "Run mighty well in this 'lection, too. He's a
mighty smart, good boy."
He nodded his big head approvingly. "I don't wonder he cut the t'other
feller out. Mighty fine feller Wat is."
"Well, now," said the register, suddenly putting his pen behind his
ear, and leaving the party of the first part and the party of the
second part to their own devices, "I'm blest if I don't think Justus
is worth a hundred of Wat, lock, stock, an' barrel."
Once more the grizzled eyebrows went up toward the iron-gray thatch of
the coroner's forehead. "Justus! I'm free ter say I dunno nobody
equal ter Justus. I hev known Justus sence he war knee-high ter a
pa'tridge—the way he did keer fur them chil'n, an' brung 'em up ter
be equal ter anybody in the lan'! An' smart—smart ain't the word
fur him! Ef he hed education he could do anything; but he hed ter
stan' back an' let the t'other chil'n git it. Whar would Wat be ef 't
warn't fur Justus?"
"That's what makes me say 't was a mighty mean trick he played on
Justus," the register broke in.
"Who? How?" demanded the coroner.
"Why, Justus was the t'other feller. Wat an' the girl never let him
have an inklin' of it. They just fooled him along, believin' she was
goin' ter marry him. An' las' night when it was reported all over
town that Wat was elected, an' Justus took time from electioneerin'
fur his brother to breathe, they tolled him out to look at the comet,
an' slipped off an' married."
The man of sentiment, with the election in his hand, sat looking
loweringly about him. His satisfaction was wilted; his fat hung
flabbily on his big bones; his small eyes were hard and cold.
"Waal," he said, rising at last, "these extry an' occasional
opportunities like comets an' castin' votes oughter be took full
advantage of—full advantage of; no doubt about that."
And thus it was that the casting vote tipped the scale in favor of the
"He's ez hard-headed, an' _ty_rannical, an' _per_verse, an'
cantankerous a critter ez ever lived, with no feelin's, nor softness,
nor perliteness in him—but he's a square man. He'll do the fair
thing—every time," the coroner said in explanation.
And so he braced himself for another term of official wrangling.
* * * * *
Poor Theodosia! She never forgot that return home, through all the
dust of the drought and the glare of the midsummer sun. Even to
herself her nature seemed too small for the magnitude of the various
anguish which she was called upon to endure. The sharp alternations of
certainty and doubt which she had undergone seemed slight, seemed
naught, in comparison with the desolate finality of despair, the fang
of hopeless regret, and the dread of the veiled future with which she
had made no covenant of expectation or preparation, that preyed upon
every plodding step as she went. Her anxiety as to the wisdom of her
course was not assuaged by the aghast dismay of her mother's face,
when she reached the little house overlooking the encircling
mountains,—as still, as meditative, as majestically unmoved, as if no
more troublous world existed,—and unfolded the story of her visit to
Colbury. She felt for the first time in her life how Justus Hoxon's
friend merited his confidence. Her mother had no reproaches, no
sarcasms, no outbursts of grief. She addressed herself to the support
and the comforting of her daughter, but with so evident a hopelessness
and an expectation of bitter things to come that the girl burst out
"D' ye think Wat air so wuthless ez all that!"
The discipline of life began for her here. As the price of his
political defeat, Walter had scant relish for the triumph he had
scored in love. He was surly, taciturn, or else loud with reproaches
and criminations, which grew more vehement and contumelious if she
answered, seeking to exculpate or justify herself; and if she were
silent, her submission seemed to exasperate him and to develop a
crafty ingenuity in finding fault. He brooded grimly on his brother's
probable exultation when he should return and hear the news of the
casting vote. To fortify himself for the encounter he spent much time
at the still, and his drunken, reasonless wrath was even more
formidable to the object of his displeasure than his sober, surly
resentment against her as the cause of all his disasters. But Justus
did not come. Walter began to doubt if the news of the untoward result
of the election, in which he had spent all his energies, had reached
him. He also began to desire, contradictorily enough, that his brother
should know it. For although Justus must needs recognize it as a
mortal blow to his dearest foe, it had the capacity of doing much
execution in its recoil. Justus had had the election so greatly at
heart; he had struggled, and planned, and managed with such
preternatural activity and tact and energy from the first, that it
would smite him hard to know that it was all in vain. And then his
vicarious ambitions, his pride, his pleasure, in the elevation of
"Fambly"! Walter cast about futilely for an assurance that he might
have the satisfaction of reducing all this. He knew that Justus, in
his mistaken certainty of the result of the election, would not ask
for information, and that he could not read the newspapers. A
letter—even if there were any remote presumption as to his
address—would lie indefinitely in the mail, and find its way at last
to the Dead Letter Office.
Walter realized after a time that Justus intended to return no
more—the woman he loved was his brother's wife. Justus had probably
put the breadth of the State between them, Walter sneeringly
He made haste to quarrel with his wife's mother, in his perverse
relish of aught that might give Theodosia pain, and they quitted her
home and took up their residence in the house in which Theodosia had
once expected to live, the scene of the early struggles of "Fambly."
Theodosia's beauty could hardly be said to fade; it disappeared in the
overblowing. She grew very fat and unwieldy as the years wore on; her
face broadened, her florid complexion degenerated into a mottled red
and purple. She was no prettier than her mother had been when she
ridiculed her lover's eulogy of her mother's spiritual beauty. She had
a hard life with her drunken, idle, slothful husband, who habitually
imputed to her agency every evil that had ever befallen him, holding
it to excuse him from all exertion to better their very poor estate,
and whose affection had been easily kindled by her beauty and as
* * * * *
Justus, self-exiled from the mountains, tramped the valley roads,
hardly caring whither, and drifted finally to the outskirts of one of
the large manufacturing towns of Tennessee. He worked for some seasons
doggedly, drudgingly, on a farm near by, but found a sort of
entertainment in the sights and sounds within the city limits, as
having no association with the past which his memory dreaded. He
prospered in some sort, for although he was ignorant of all methods of
skilled labor, fidelity is an art with so few proficients that friends
and opportunities were not lacking. His progress was somewhat
hampered, however, despite his evident intelligence, by a doubt which
prevailed concerning his mental balance. He was often observed to
stand and gaze smilingly, fondly, after any group of ragged, dirty
children; he, although of the poorest, was profuse in gratuities to
any callow beggar who did not know enough of the world's ways to
expect nothing of such as he, as did the older ones. He could not
read, but he bought newspapers from the smallest of the guild of
newsboys, and meditatively turned the sheets in his hand, and then
softly and slowly tore them to bits. And these things created a doubt
of his sanity, for who could know how "Fambly" looked at him from the
pinched face of every poor, and cold, and hungry child?
At last, despite this unsuspected drawback, a congenial occupation
came to him. He was night watchman at a great factory, and as he
paced, all solitary, back and forth in the yard, he was wont to note
the stars as the infallible seasons brought them into place; and he
began to remember their names, and to trace the strange configuration
of the constellations, and to con again the stories woven into their
shining meshes which he heard at the time that the great comet blazed
And this is his never failing interest—dark summer nights, when the
Galaxy opens a broad avenue of constellated light across the heavens,
seeming a veritable road, as if it might be the way to God's throne,
beaten hard and bright by the feet of saints and martyrs; or when the
moon is full, and autumnal glamours reign, and only the faint sidereal
outlines prevail; or when winter winds are high, and the snow lies on
slanting roofs, and spires gleam with icicles, and Orion draws his
scintillating blade; or when, all bedight in scarlet, "Arcturus and
his sons" are guided into the vernal sky.