Chapter XI. "The Light That Lies"
 

During the summer Sandy worked faithfully to make amends for his failure to win the scholarship. He had meekly accepted the torrent of abuse which Mrs. Hollis poured forth, and the open disapproval shown by the Meeches; he had winced under Martha's unspoken reproaches, and groaned over the judge's quiet disappointment.

"You see, my boy," the judge said one day when they were alone, "I had set my heart on taking you into the office after next year. I had counted on the scholarship to put you through your last year at the academy."

"It was the fool I was," cried Sandy, in deep contrition, "but if ye'll trust me the one time more, may I die in me traces if I ever stir out of them!"

So sincere was his desire to make amends that he asked to read law with the judge in the evenings after his work was done. Nothing could have pleased the judge more; he sat with his back to the lamp and his feet on the window-sill, expounding polemics to his heart's desire.

Sandy sat in the shadow and whittled. Sometimes he did not listen at all, but when he did, it was with an intensity of attention, an utter absorption in the subject, that carried him straight to the heart of the matter. Meanwhile he was unconsciously receiving a life-imprint of the old judge's native nobility.

From the first summer Sandy had held a good position at the post-office. His first earnings had gone to a round little surgeon on board the steamship America. But since then his funds had run rather low. What he did not lend he contributed, and the result was a chronic state of bankruptcy.

"You must be careful with your earnings," the judge warned. "It is not easy to live within an income."

"Easier within it than without it, sir," Sandy answered from deep experience.

After the Lexington episode Sandy had shunned Martha somewhat; when he did go to see her, he found she was sick in bed.

"She never was strong," said Mrs. Meech, sitting limp and disconsolate on the porch. "Mr. Meech and I never thought to keep her this long. The doctor says it's the beginning of the end. She's so patient it's enough to break your heart."

Sandy went without his dinner that day, and tramped to town and back, in the glare of the noon sun, to get her a basket of fruit. Then he wrote her a letter so full of affection and sympathy that it brought the tears to his own eyes as he wrote. He took the basket with the note and left them at her door, after which he promptly forgot all about her. For his whole purpose in life these days, aside from assisting the government in the distribution of mail and reading a musty old volume of Blackstone, was learning to dance.

In ten days was the opening of the county fair, and Sandy had received an invitation to be present at the fair hop, which was the social excitement of the season. It was to be his introduction into society, and he was determined to acquit himself with credit.

He assiduously practised the two-step in the back room of the post-office when the other clerk was out for lunch; he tried elaborate and ornate bows upon Aunt Melvy, who considered even the mildest "reel chune" a direct communication from the devil. The moment the post-office closed he hastened to Dr. Fenton's, where Annette was taking him through a course of private lessons.

Dr. Fenton's house was situated immediately upon the street. Opening the door, one passed into a small square hall where the Confederate flag hung above a life-size portrait of General Lee. On every side were old muskets and rusty swords, large pictures of decisive battles, and maps of the siege of Vicksburg and the battle of Bull Run. In the midst of this warlike atmosphere sat the unreconstructed little doctor, wearing his gray uniform and his gray felt hat, which he removed only when he ate and slept.

Here he ostensibly held office hours, but in reality he was doing sentry duty. His real business in life was keeping up with Annette, and his diversion was in the constant perusal of a slim sheet known as "The Confederate Veteran."

It was Sandy's privilege to pass the lines unchallenged. In fact, the doctor's strict surveillance diminished, and he was occasionally guilty of napping at the post when Sandy was with Annette.

"Come in, come in," he said one day. "Just looking over the 'Veteran.' Ever hear of Sam Davis? Greatest hero South ever knew! That's his picture. Wasn't afraid of any damned Yankee that ever pulled a trigger."

"Was he a rebel?" asked the unfortunate Sandy.

The doctor swelled with indignation. "He was a Confederate, sir! I never knew a rebel."

"It was the Confederates that wore the gray?" asked Sandy, trying to cover his blunder.

"They did," said the doctor. "I put it on at nineteen, and I'll be buried in it. Yes, sir; and my hat. Wouldn't wear blue for a farm. Hate the sight of it so, that I might shoot myself by mistake. Ever look over these maps? This was the battle of--"

A door opened and a light head was thrust out.

"Now, d-dad, you hush this minute! You've told him that over and over. Sandy's my company. Come in here, Sandy."

A few moments later there was a moving of chairs, and Annette's voice was counting, "One, two, three; one, two, three," while Sandy went through violent contortions in his efforts to waltz. He had his tongue firmly between his teeth and his eyes fixed on vacancy as he revolved in furniture--destroying circles about the small parlor.

"That isn't right," cried Annette. "You've lost the time. You d-dance with the chair, Sandy, and I'll p-play the p-piano."

"No, you don't!" he cried. "I'll dance with you and put the chair at the piano, but I'll dance with no chair."

Annette sank, laughing and exhausted, upon the sofa and looked up at him hopelessly. Her hair had tumbled down, making her look more like a child than ever.

"You are so b-big," she said; "and you've got so m-many feet!"

"The more of me to love ye."

"I wonder if you d-do?" She put her chin on her palms, looking at him sidewise.

"Don't ye do that again!" he cried. "Haven't I passed ye the warning never to look at me when you fix your mouth like that?"

She tried to call him a goose, though she knew that g's were fatal.

A moment later she sat at one end of the sofa in pretended dudgeon, while Sandy tried to make his peace from the other.

"May the lightning strike me dead if I ever do it again without the asking! I'll be good now--honest to goodness, Nettie. I'll shut me eyes when you take the hurdles, and be blind to temptation. Won't ye be putting me on about the hop now, and what I must do?"

Annette counted her fraternity pins and tried to look severe. She used them in lieu of scalps, and they encircled her neck, fastened her belt, and on state occasions even adorned her shoe-buckles.

"Well," she at last said, "to b-begin with, you must be nice to everyb-body. You mustn't sit out more than one d-dance with one g-girl, and you must b-break in on every dance I'm not sitting out."

"Break in? Sit out?" repeated Sandy, realizing that the intricacies of society are manifold.

"Of course," said his mentor. "Whenever you see the g-girl you like dancing with any one else, you just p-put your hand on the man's shoulder, and then she d-dances with you."

"And will they all stop for me?" cried Sandy, not understanding at all why he should have the preference.

"Surely," said Annette. "And sitting out is when you like a girl so m-much that you would rather take her away to some quiet little corner and talk to her than to d-dance with her."

"That'll never be me," cried Sandy--"not while the band plays."

"Shall we try it again?" she asked; and with much scoffing and scolding on her part, and eloquent apologies and violent exertion on his, they struggled onward toward success.

In the midst of the lesson there was a low whistle at the side window. Annette dropped Sandy's hands and put her finger to her lips.

"It's Carter," she whispered. "D-dad doesn't allow him to come here."

"Little's the wonder," grumbled Sandy.

Annette's eyes were sparkling at the prospect of forbidden fruit. She tiptoed to the window and opened the shutter a few inches.

At the opening Carter's face appeared. It was a pale, delicate face, over-sensitive, over-refined, with the stamp of weakness on every feature. His restless, nervous eyes were slightly bloodshot, and there was a constant twitching about his lips. But as he pushed back the shutter and leaned carelessly against the sill, there was an easy grace in his figure and a devil-may-care light in his eyes that would have stirred the heart of a maiden less susceptible than the one who smiled upon him from between the muslin curtains.

He laughed lightly as he caught at a flying lock of her hair.

"You little coward! Why didn't you meet me?"

She frowned significantly and made warning gestures toward the interior of the room.

At the far window, standing with his back to them, was Mr. Sandy Kilday. He was engaged in a fierce encounter with an unnamed monster whose eyes were green. During his pauses for breath he composed a few comprehensive and scathing remarks which he intended to bestow upon Miss Fenton at his earliest convenience. Fickleness was a thing not to be tolerated. She had confessed her preference for him over all others; she must and should prove it. Just when his indignation had reached the exploding-point, he heard his name called.

"Sandy," cried Annette, "what do you think? Ruth is coming home! Carter is on his way to the d-depot to meet her now. She's been gone nearly a year. I never was so crazy to see anyb-body in all my life."

Sandy wheeled about. "Which depot?" he cried excitedly; and without apologies or farewell he dashed out of the house and down the street.

When the Pullman train came into the Clayton station, he was leaning against a truck in a pose of studied indifference. Out of the tail of his eye he watched the passengers alight.

There were the usual fat women and thin men, tired women with children, and old women with baskets, but no sign of a small girl with curls hanging down her back and dresses to her shoe-tops.

Suddenly he caught his breath. Standing in the car door, like a saint in a niche, was a radiant figure in a blue traveling-suit, with a bit of blue veil floating airily from her hat brim. She was not the little girl he was looking for, but he transferred his devotion at a bound; for long skirts and tucked-up curls rendered her tenfold more worshipful than before.

He watched her descend from her pedestal, bestow an affectionate kiss upon her brother, then look eagerly around for other familiar faces. In one heart-suspending instant her eyes met his, she hesitated in confusion, then blushed and bowed.

Sandy reeled home in utter intoxication of spirit. Even the town pump wore a halo of glorified rosy mist.

At the gate he met Mrs. Hollis returning from a funeral. With a sudden descent from his ethereal mood he pounced upon her and, in spite of violent protestations, danced her madly down the walk and deposited her breathless upon the milk-bench.

"He's getting worse all the time," she complained to Aunt Melvy, who had watched the performance with great glee.

"Yas,'m," said Aunt Melvy, with a fond look at his retreating figure. "He's jus' like a' Irish potato: when he ain't powerful cold, he's powerful hot."