Chapter XXII. At Willowvale
 

There was an early tea at Willowvale that evening, and Ruth sat at the big round table alone. Mrs. Nelson always went to bed when the time came for packing, and Carter was late, as usual.

Ruth was glad to be alone. She had passed through too much to be able to banish all trace of the storm. But though her eyes were red from recent tears, they were bright with anticipation. Sandy was coming back. That fact seemed to make everything right.

She leaned her chin on her palm and tried to still the beating of her heart. She knew he would come. Irresponsible, hot-headed, impulsive as he was, he had never failed her. She glanced impatiently at the clock.

"Miss Rufe, was you ever in love?" It was black Rachel who broke in upon her thoughts. She was standing at the foot of the table, her round, good-humored face comically serious.

"No-yes. Why, Rachel?" stammered Ruth.

"I was just axin'," said Rachel, "'cause if you been in love, you'd know how to read a love-letter, wouldn't you, Miss Rufe?"

Ruth smiled and nodded.

"I got one from my beau," went on Rachel, in great embarrassment; "but dat nigger knows I can't read."

"Where does he live?" asked Ruth.

"Up in Injianapolis. He drives de hearse."

Ruth suppressed a smile. "I'll read the love-letter for you," she said.

Rachel sat down on the floor and began taking down her hair. It was divided into many tight braids, each of which was wrapped with a bit of shoe-string. From under the last one she took a small envelope and handed it to Ruth.

"Dat's it," she said. "I was so skeered I'd lose it I didn't trust it no place 'cept in my head."

Ruth unfolded the note and read:

"DEAR RACHEL: I mean biznis if you mean biznis send me fore dollars to git a devorce.

"George."

Rachel sat on the floor, with her hair standing out wildly and anxiety deepening on her face.

"I ain't got but three dollars," she said.

"I was gwine to buy my weddin' dress wif dat."

"But, Rachel," protested Ruth, in laughing remonstrance, "he has one wife."

"Yes,'m. Pete Lawson ain't got no wife; but he ain't got but one arm, neither. Whicht one would you take, Miss Rufe?"

"Pete," declared Ruth. "He's a good boy, what there is of him."

"Well, I guess I better notify him to-night," sighed Rachel; but she held the love-letter on her knee and regretfully smoothed its crumpled edges.

Ruth pushed back her chair from the table and crossed the wide hall to the library.

It was a large room, with heavy wainscoting, above which simpered or frowned a long row of her ancestors.

She stepped before the one nearest her and looked at it long and earnestly. The face carried no memory with it, though it was her father. It was the portrait of a handsome man in uniform, in the full bloom of a dissipated youth. Her mother had seldom spoken of him, and when she did her eyes filled with tears.

A few feet farther away hung a portrait of her grandfather, brave in a high stock and ruffled shirt, the whole light of a bibulous past radiating from the crimson tip of his incriminating nose.

Next him hung Aunt Elizabeth, supercilious, arrogant, haughty. Ruth recalled a tragic day of her past when she was sent to bed for climbing upon the piano and pasting a stamp on the red-painted lips.

She glanced down the long line: velvets, satins, jewels, and uniforms, and, above them all, the same narrow face, high-arched nose, brilliant dark eyes, and small, weak mouth.

On the table was a photograph of Carter. Ruth sighed as she passed it. It was a composite of all the grace, beauty, and weakness of the surrounding portraits.

She went to the fire and, sitting down on an ottoman, took two pictures from the folds of her dress. One was a miniature in a small old-fashioned locket. It was a grave, sweet, motherly face, singularly pure and childlike in its innocence. Ruth touched it with reverent fingers.

"They say I am like her," she whispered to herself.

Then she turned to the other picture in her lap. It was a cheap photograph with an ornate border. Posed stiffly in a photographer's chair, against a background which represented a frightful storm at sea, sat Sandy Kilday. His feet were sadly out of focus, and his head was held at an impossible angle by the iron rest which stood like a half-concealed skeleton behind him. He wore cheap store-clothes, and a turn-down collar which rested upon a ready-made tie of enormous proportions. It was a picture he had had taken in his first new clothes soon after coming to Clayton. Ruth had found it in an old book of Annette's.

How crude and ludicrous the awkward boy looked beside the elegant figures on the walls about her! She leaned nearer the fire to get the light on the face, then she smiled with a sudden rush of tenderness.

The photographer had done his worst for the figure, but even an unskilled hand and a poor camera had not wholly obliterated the fineness of the face. Spirit, honor, and strength were all there. The eyes that met hers were as fine and fearless as her own, and the honest smile that hovered on his lips seemed to be in frank amusement at his own sorry self.

Ruth turned to see that the door was closed, then she put the picture to her cheek, which was crimson in the firelight, and with hesitating shyness gradually drew it to her lips and held it there.

A noise of wheels in the avenue brought her to her feet with a little start of joy. He had come, and she was possessed of a sudden desire to run away. But she waited, with glad little tremors thrilling her and her heart beating high. She was sure she heard wheels. She went to the window, and, shading her eyes, looked out. A buggy was standing at the gate, but no one got out.

A sudden apprehension seized her, and she hurried into the hail and opened the front door.

"Carter," she called softly out into the night--"Carter, is it you?"

There was no answer, and she came back into the hall and closed the door. On each side of the door was a panel of leaded glass, and she pressed her face to one of the little square panes, and peered anxiously out. The light from the newel-post behind her emphasized the darkness, so that she could distinguish only the dim outline of the buggy.

Twice she touched the knob before she turned it again; then she resolutely gathered her long white dress in her hand, and passed down the broad stone steps. The wind blew sharply against her, and the pavement was cold to her slippered feet.

"Carter," she called again and again--"Carter, is it you?"

At the gate her scant supply of courage failed. Some one was in the buggy, half lying, half sitting, with his face turned from her. She looked back to the light in the cabin, where the servants would hear if she called. Then the thought of any one else seeing Carter as she had seen him before drove the fear back, and she resolutely opened the gate and went forward.

At her first touch Carter started up wildly and pushed her from him. "You said you wouldn't give me up; you promised," he said.

"I know it, Carter. I'll help you, dear. Don't be so afraid! Nobody shall see you. Put your arm on my shoulder--there! Step down a little farther!"

With all her slight strength she supported and helped him, the keen wind blowing her long, thin dress about them both, and the lace falling back from her arms, leaving them bare to the elbow.

Half-way up the walk he broke away from her and cried out: "I'll have to go away. It's dangerous for me to stay here an hour."

"Yes, Carter dear, I know. The doctor says it's the climate. We are going early in the morning. Everything's packed. See how cold I am getting out here! You'll come in with me now, won't you?"

Coaxing and helping him, she at last succeeded in getting him to bed. The blood on his handkerchief told its own story.

She straightened the room, drew a screen between him and the fire, and then went to the bed, where he had already fallen into a deep sleep. Sinking on her knees beside him, she broke into heavy, silent sobs. The one grief of her girlhood had been the waywardness of her only brother. From childhood she had stood between him and blame, shielding him, helping him, loving him. She had fought valiantly against his weakness, but her meager strength had been pitted against the accumulated intemperance of generations.

She chafed his thin wrists, which her fingers could span; she tenderly smoothed his face as it lay gray against the pillows; then she caught up his hand and held it to her breast with a quick, motherly gesture.

"Take him soon, God!" she prayed. "He is too weak to try any more."

At midnight she slipped away to her own room and took off the dainty gown she had put on for Sandy's coming.

For long hours she lay in her great canopied bed with wide-open eyes. The night was a noisy one, for there was a continual passing on the road, and occasional shouts came faintly to her.

With heavy heart she lay listening for some sound from Carter's room. She was glad he was home. It was worse to sit up in bed and listen for the wheels to turn in at the gate, to start at every sound on the road, and to wait and wait through the long night. She could scarcely remember the time when she had not waited for Carter at night.

Once, long ago, she had confided her secret to one of her uncles, and he had laughed and told her that boys would be boys. After that she had kept things to herself.

There was but one other person in the world to whom she had spoken, and that was Sandy Kilday. As she looked back it seemed to her there was nothing she had withheld from Sandy Kilday. Nothing? Sandy's face, as she had last seen it, despairing, reckless, hopeless, rose before her. But she had asked him to come back, she was ready to surrender, she could make him understand if she could only see him.

Why had he not come? The question multiplied itself into numerous forms and hedged her in. Was he too angry to forgive her? Had her seeming indifference at last killed his love? Why had he not sent her a note or a message? He knew that she was to leave on the early train, that there would be no chance to speak with her alone in the morning.

A faint streak of misty light shone through the window. She watched it deepen to rose.

By and by Rachel came in to make the fire. She tiptoed to the bed and peeped through the curtains.

"You 'wake, Miss Rufe? Dey's been terrible goings on in town last night! Didn't you hear de posse goin' by?"

"What was it? What's the matter?" cried Ruth, sitting up in bed.

"Dat jail-bird Wilson done shot Jedge Hollis. 'Mos' ebery man in town went out to ketch him. Dey been gone all night."

"Sandy went with them," thought Ruth, in sudden relief; then she thought of the judge.

"Oh, Rachel, is he dangerously hurt? Will he die?"

"De las' accounts was mighty bad. Dey say de big doctors is a-comin' up from de city to prode fer de bullet."

"What made him shoot him? How could he be so cruel, when the dear old judge is so good and kind to everybody?"

"Jes pore white trash, dat Wilson," said Rachel, contemptuously, as she coaxed the kindling into a blaze.

Ruth got up and dressed. Beneath the deep concern which she felt was the flutter of returning hope. Sandy's first duty was to his benefactor. She knew how he loved the old judge and with what prompt action he would avenge his wrong. She could trust him to follow honor every time.

"Some ob 'em 's comin' back now!" cried Rachel from the window. "I's gwine down to de road an' ax 'em if dey ketched him."

"Rachel, wait! I'm coming, too. Give me my traveling-coat--there on the trunk. What can I put on my head? My hat is in auntie's room."

Rachel, rummaging in the closet, brought forth an old white tam-o'-shanter. "That will do!" cried Ruth. "Now, don't make any noise, but come."

They tiptoed through the house and out into the early morning. It was still half dark, and the big-eyed poplars watched them suspiciously as they hurried down to the road. Every branch and twig was covered with ice, and the snow crackled under their feet.

"I 'spec' it's gwine be summer-time where you gwine at, Miss Rufe," said Rachel.

"I don't care," cried Ruth. "I don't want to be anywhere in the world except right here."

"Dey're comin'," announced Rachel. "I hear de hosses."

Ruth leaned across the top bar of the gate, her figure enveloped in her long coat, and her white tam a bright spot in the half-light.

On came the riders, three abreast.

"Dat's him in de middle," whispered Rachel, excitedly; "next to de sheriff. I's s'prised dey didn't swing him up--I shorely is. He's hangin' down his head lak he's mighty 'shamed."

Ruth bent forward to get a glimpse of the prisoner's face, and as she did so he lifted his head.

It was Sandy Kilday, his clothes disheveled, his brows lowered, and his lips compressed info a straight, determined line.

Ruth's startled gaze swept over the riders, then came back to him. She did not know what was the matter; she only knew that he was in trouble, and that she was siding with him against the rest. In the one moment their eyes met she sent him her full assurance of compassion and sympathy. It was the same message a little girl had sent years ago over a ship's railing to a wretched stowaway on the deck below.

The men rode on, and she stood holding to the gate and looking after them.

"Here comes Mr. Sid Gray," said Rachel. The approaching rider drew rein when he saw Ruth and dismounted.

"Tell me what's happened!" she cried.

He hitched his horse and opened the gate. He, too, showed signs of a hard night.

"May I come in a moment to the fire?" he asked.

She led the way to the dining-room and ordered coffee.

"Now tell me," she demanded breathlessly.

"It's a mixed-up business," said Gray, holding his numb hands to the blaze. "We left here early in the night and worked on a wrong trail till midnight. Then a train-man out at the Junction gave us a clue, and we got a couple of bloodhounds and traced Wilson as far as Ellersberg."

"Go on!" said Ruth, shuddering.

"You see, a rumor got out that the judge had died. We didn't say anything before the sheriff, but it was understood that Ricks wouldn't be brought back to town alive. We located him in an old barn. We surrounded it, and were just about to fire it when Kilday came tearing up on horseback."

"Yes?" cried Ruth.

"Well," he went on, "he hadn't started with us, and he had been riding like mad all night to overtake the crowd. His horse dropped under him before he could dismount. Kilday jumped out in the crowd and began to talk like a crazy man. He said we mustn't harm Ricks Wilson; that Ricks hadn't shot the judge, for he was sure he had seen him out the Junction road about half-past five. We all saw it was a put-up job; he was Ricks Wilson's old pal, you know."

"But Sandy Kilday wouldn't lie!" cried Ruth.

"Well, that's what he did, and worse. When we tried to close in on Wilson, Kilday fought like a tiger. You never saw anything like the mix-up, and in the general skirmish Wilson escaped."

"And--and Sandy?" Ruth was leaning forward, with her hands clasped and her lips apart.

"Well, he showed what he was, all right. He took sides with that good-for-nothing scoundrel who had shot a man that was almost his father. Why, I never saw such a case of ingratitude in my life!"

"Where are they taking him?" she almost whispered.

"To jail for resisting an officer."

"Miss Rufe, de man's come fer de trunks. Is dey ready?" asked Rachel from the hall.

Ruth rose and put her hand on the back of the chair to steady herself.

"Yes; yes, they are ready," she said with an effort. "And, Rachel, tell the man to go as quietly as possible. Mr. Carter must not be disturbed until it is time to start."