Chapter XVIII. The Victim
 

Some poet has described love as a little glow and a little shiver; to Sandy it was more like a ravaging fire in his heart, which lighted up a world of such unutterable bliss that he cheerfully added fresh fuel to the flames that were consuming him. The one absorbing necessity of his existence was to see Ruth daily, and the amount of strategy, forethought, and subtilty with which he accomplished it argued well for his future ability at the bar.

In the long hours of the night Wisdom urged prudence; she presented all the facts in the case, and convinced him of his folly. But with the dawn he threw discretion to the winds, and rushed valiantly forward, leading a forlorn hope under cover of a little Platonic flag of truce.

With all the fervor and intensity of his nature he tried to fit himself to Ruth's standards. Every unconscious suggestion that she let fall, through word, or gesture, or expression, he took to heart and profited by. With almost passionate earnestness he sought to be worthy of her. Fighting, climbing, struggling upward, he closed his eyes to the awful depth to which he would fall if his quest were vain.

Meanwhile his cheeks became hollow and he lost his appetite. The judge attributed it to Martha Meech's death; for Sandy's genuine grief and his continued kindness to the bereft neighbors confirmed an old suspicion. Mrs. Hollis thought it was malaria, and dosed him accordingly. It was Aunt Melvy who made note of his symptoms and diagnosed his case correctly.

"He's sparkin' some gal, Miss Sue; dat's what ails him," she said one evening as she knelt on the sitting-room hearth to kindle the first fire of the season. "Dey ain't but two t'ings onder heaben dat'll keep a man f'om eatin'. One's a woman, t' other is lack ob food."

Judge Hollis looked over his glasses and smiled.

"Who do you think the lady is, Melvy?"

Aunt Melvy wagged her head knowingly as she held a paper across the fireplace to start the blaze.

"I ain't gwine tell no tales on Mist' Sandy. But yer can't fool dis heah ole nigger. I mind de signs; I knows mo' 'bout de young folks in dis heah town den dey t'ink I do. Fust t'ing you know, I'm gwine tell on some ob 'em, too. I 'spect de doctor would put' near die ef he knowed dat Miss Annette was a-havin' incandescent meetin's wif Carter Nelson 'most ever' day."

"Is Sandy after Annette, too?"

"No, sonny, no!" said Aunt Melvy, to whom all men were "sonny" until they died of old age. "Mist' Sandy he's aimin' at high game. He's fix' his eyeball on de shore-'nough quality."

"Do you mean Ruth Nelson?" asked Mrs. Hollis, snapping her scissors sharply. "He surely wouldn't be fool enough to think she would look at him. Why, the Nelsons think they are the only aristocratic people that ever lived in Clayton. If they had paid less attention to their ancestors and more to their descendants, they might have had a better showing."

"I nebber said it was Miss Rufe," said Aunt Melvy from the doorway; "but den ag'in I don't say hit ain't."

"Well, I hope it's not," said the judge to his wife as he laid down his paper; "though I must say she is as pretty and friendly a girl as I ever saw. No matter how long she stays away, she is always glad to see everybody when she comes back. Some of old Evan's geniality must have come down to her."

"Geniality!" cried Mrs. Hollis. "It was mint-juleps and brandy and soda. He was just as snobbish as the rest of them when he was sober. If she has any good in her, it's from her mother's side of the house."

"I hope Sandy isn't interested there," went on the judge, thoughtfully. "It would not do him any good, and would spoil his taste for what he could get. How long has it been going on, Sue?"

"He's been acting foolish for a month, but it gets worse all the time. He moons around the house, with his head in the clouds, and sits up half the night hanging out of his window. He has raked out all those silly old poetry-books of yours, and I find them strewn all over the house. Here's one now; look at those pencil-marks all round the margin!"

"Some of the marks were there before," said the judge, as he read the title.

"Then there are more fools than one in the world. Here is where he has turned down a leaf. Now just read that bosh and nonsense!"

The judge took the book from her hand and read with a reminiscent smile:

    "When cold in the earth lies the friend thou hast loved,
      Be his faults and his follies forgot by thee then;
    Or if from their slumber the veil be removed,
      Weep o'er them in silence and close it again.
    And, oh! if 't is pain to remember how far
      From the pathway of light he was tempted to roam,
    Be it bliss to remember that thou wert the star
      That arose on his darkness and guided him home."

The judge paused, with his eyes on the fire; then he said: "I think I'll wait up for the boy to-night, Sue. I want to tell him the good news myself. You haven't spoken of it?"

"No, indeed. I haven't seen him since breakfast. Melvy says he spends his spare time on the river. That's what's giving him the malaria, too, you mark my words."

It was after eleven when Sandy's step sounded on the porch. At the judge's call he opened the sitting-room door and stood dazed by the sudden light. The judge noticed that he was pale and dejected, and he suppressed a smile over the imaginary troubles of youth.

"What's the matter? Are you sick?" he asked.

"No, sir."

"Come in to the fire; it's a bit chilly these nights."

Sandy dropped listlessly into a chair, with his back to the light.

"There are several things I want to talk over," continued the judge. "One is about Ricks Wilson. He has behaved very badly ever since that affair in August. Everybody who goes near the jail comes away with reports of his threats against me. He seems to think I am holding his trial over until January, when the fact is I have been trying to get him released on your account. It is of no use, though; he will have to wait his turn."

"I'm sorry, sir," said Sandy, without looking up.

"Then there's Carter Nelson encouraging him in his feeling against me. It seems that Nelson wants the fellow to drive for him at the fall trots, and he has given me no end of trouble about getting him off. What an insolent fellow Nelson is! He talked very ugly in my office yesterday, and made various threats about making me regret any interference. I wouldn't have stood it from any one else; but Carter is hardly responsible. I have watched him from the time he was born. He came into the world with a mortal illness, and I doubt if he ever had a well day in his life. He's a degenerate, Sandy; he's bearing the sins of a long line of dissolute ancestors. We have to be patient with men like that; we have to look on them as we do on the insane."

He waited for some response, but, getting none, pulled his chair in confidential proximity and laid his hand on Sandy's knee. "However, that's neither here nor there," he said. "I have a surprise for you. I couldn't let you go to bed without telling you about it. It's about your future, Sandy. I've been talking it over with Mr. Moseley, and he is confident--"

Suddenly Sandy rose and stood by the table.

"Don't be making any more plans for me," he said desperately; "I've made up me mind to enlist."

"Enlist! In the army?"

"Yes; I've got to get away. I must go so far that I can't come back; and, judge--I want to go to-morrow!"

"Is it money matters?"

A long silence followed--of the kind that ripens confidence. Presently Sandy lifted his haggard eyes: "It's nothing I'm ashamed of, judge; ye must take me word for that. It's like taking the heart out of me body to go, but I've made up me mind. Nothing on earth can change me purpose; I enlist on the morrow."

The judge looked at him long and earnestly over his glasses, then he asked in calm, judicial tones: "Is her answer final?"

Sandy started from his chair. How finite intelligence could have discovered the innermost secret of his soul seemed little short of miraculous. But the relief of being able to pour out his feelings mastered all other considerations.

"Oh, sir, there was never a question. Like the angel she is, she let me be near her so long as I held my peace; but, fool that I am, I break me promise again and again. I can't keep silent when I see her. The truth would burst from me lips if I was dumb."

"And you think you would be better if you were out of her sight?"

"Is a starving man better when he is away from food?" asked Sandy, fiercely. "Heaven knows it's not of meself I'm thinking. It's breaking her tender heart to see me misery staring her in the face, and I'll put it out of her sight."

"Is it Ruth?" asked the judge.

Sandy assented with bowed head.

The judge got up and stood before the fire.

"Didn't you know," he began as kindly as he could put it, "that you were not in her--that is, that she was not of your--"

Sandy lifted blazing eyes, hot with the passion of youth.

"If she'd been in heaven and I'd been in hell, I'd have stretched out my arms to her still!"

Something in his eyes, in his voice, in his intensity, brought the judge to his side.

"How long has this thing been going on?" he asked seriously.

"Four years!"

"Before you came here?"

"Yes."

"You followed her here?"

"Yes."

Whereupon the judge gave vent to the one profane word in his vocabulary.

Then Sandy, having confided so far, made a clean breast of it, breaking down at the end when he tried to describe Ruth's goodness and the sorrow his misery had caused her.

When it was over the judge had hold of his hand and was bestowing large, indiscriminate pats upon his head and shoulders.

"It's hard luck, Sandy; hard luck. But you must brace up, boy. Everybody wants something in the world he can't get. We all go under, sooner or later, with some wish ungratified. Now I've always wanted--" he pressed his fingers on his lips for a moment, then went on--"the one thing I've wanted was a son. It seemed to me there was nothing else in the world would make up to me for that lack. I had money more than enough, and health and friends; but I wanted a boy. When you came I said to Sue: 'Let's keep him a while just to see how it would feel.' It's been worth while, Sandy; you have done me credit. It almost seemed as if the Lord didn't mean me to be disappointed, after all. And to-day, when Mr. Moseley said you ought to have a year or two at the big university, I said: 'Why not? He's just like my own. I'll send him this year and next, and then he can come home and be a comfort to me all the rest of my days.' That's what I was sitting up to tell you, Sandy; but now--"

"And ye sha'n't be disappointed!" cried Sandy. "I'll go anywhere you say, do anything you wish. Only you wouldn't be asking me to stay here?"

"Not now, Sandy; not for a while."

"Never!--so long as she's here. I'll never bring me sorrow between her and the sun again-so help me, Heaven! And if the Lord gives me strength, I'll never see her face again, so long as I live!"

"Go to bed, boy; go to bed. You are tired out. We will ship you off to the university next week."

"Can't I be going to-morrow? Friday, then? I'd never dare trust meself over the week."

"Friday, then. But mind, no more prancing to-night; we must both go to bed."

Neither of them did so, however. Sandy went to his room and sat in his window, watching a tiny light that flickered, far across the valley, in the last bend of the river before it left the town. His muscles were tense, his nerves a-tingle, as he strained his eyes in the darkness to keep watch of the beacon. It was the last glimpse of home to a sailor who expected never to return.

Down in the sitting-room the judge was lost in the pages of a worn old copy of Tom Moore. He fingered the pages with a tenderness of other days, and lingered over the forgotten lines with a half-quizzical, half-sad smile on his lips. For he had been a lover once, and Sandy's romance stirred dead leaves in his heart that sent up a faint perfume of memory.

"Yes," he mused half aloud; "I marked that one too:

    "Be it bliss to remember that thou wert the star
       That arose on his darkness and guided him home."