Chapter XXIII. "The Shadow on the Heart"
 

Just off Main street, under the left wing of the court-house, lay the little county jail. It frowned down from behind its fierce mask of bars and spikes, and boldly tried to make the town forget the number of prisoners that had escaped its walls.

In a small front cell, beside a narrow grated window, Ricks Wilson had sat and successfully planned his way to freedom.

The prisoner who now occupied the cell spent no time on thoughts of escape. He paced restlessly up and down the narrow chamber, or lay on the cot, with his hands under his head, and stared at the grimy ceiling. The one question which he continually put to the jailer was concerning the latest news of Judge Hollis.

Sandy had been given an examining trial on the charge of resisting an officer and assisting a prisoner to escape. Refusing to tell what he knew, and no bail being offered, he was held to answer to the grand jury. For two weeks he had seen the light of day only through the deep, narrow opening of one small window.

At first he had had visitors--indignant, excited visitors who came in hotly to remonstrate, to threaten, to abuse. Dr. Fenton had charged in upon him with a whole battery of reproaches. In stentorian tones he rehearsed the judge's kindness in befriending him, he pointed out his generosity, and laid stress on Sandy's heinous ingratitude. Mr. Moseley had arrived with arguments and reasons and platitudes, all expressed in a polysyllabic monotone. Mr. Meech had come many times with prayers and petitions and gentle rebuke.

To them all Sandy gave patient, silent audience, wincing under the blame, but making no effort to defend himself. All he would say was that Ricks Wilson had not done the shooting, and that he could say no more.

A wave of indignation swept the town. Almost the only friend who was not turned foe was Aunt Melvy. Her large philosophy of life held that all human beings were "chillun," and "chillun was bound to act bad sometimes." She left others to struggle with Sandy's moral welfare and devoted herself to his physical comfort.

With a clear conscience she carried to her home flour, sugar, and lard from the Hollises' store-room, and sat up nights in her little cabin at "Who'd 'a' Thought It" to bake dumplings, rolls, and pies for her "po' white chile."

Sandy felt some misgivings about the delicacies which she brought, and one day asked her where she made them.

"I makes 'em out home," she declared stoutly. "I wouldn't cook nuffin' fer you on Miss Sue's stove while she's talkin' 'bout you lak she is. She 'lows she don't never want to set eyes on you ag'in as long as she lives."

"Has the judge asked for me?" said Sandy.

"Yas, sir; but de doctor he up and lied. He tol' him you'd went back to de umerversity. De doctor 'lowed ef he tole him de trufe it might throw him into a political stroke."

Sandy leaned his head on his hand. "You're the only one that's stood by me, Aunt Melvy; the rest of them think me a bad lot."

"Dat's right," assented Aunt Melvy, cheerfully. "You jes orter hear de way dey slanders you! I don't 'spec' you got a friend in town 'ceptin' me." Then, as if reminded of something, she produced a card covered with black dots. "Honey, I's gittin' up a little collection fer de church. You gib me a nickel and I punch a pin th'u' one ob dem dots to sorter certify it."

"Have you got religion yet?" he asked as he handed her some small change.

Her expression changed, and her eyes fell. "Not yit," she acknowledged reluctantly; "but I's countin' on comin' th'u' before long. I's done j'ined de Juba Choir and de White Doves."

"The White Doves?" repeated Sandy.

"Yas, sir; de White Doves ob Perfection. We wears purple calicoes and sets up wid de sick."

"Have you seen Miss Annette?"

"Lor', honey! ain't I tol' you 'bout dat? De very night de jedge was shot, dat chile wrote her paw de sassiest letter, sayin' she gwine run off and git married wif dat sick boy, Carter Nelson. De doctor headed 'em off some ways, and de very nex' day what you think he done? He put dat gal in a Cafolic nunnery convent! Dey say she cut up scan'lous at fust, den she sorter quiet down, an' 'gin to count her necklace, an' make signs on de waist ob her dress, an' say she lak it so much she gwine be a Cafolic nunnery sister herself. Now de doctor's jes tearin' his shirt to git her out, he's so skeered she'll do what she says."

Sandy laughed in spite of himself, and Aunt Melvy wagged her head knowingly.

"He needn't pester hisseif 'bout dat. Now Mr. Carter's 'bout to die, an' you's shut up in jail, she's done turnin' her 'tention on Mr. Sid Gray. Dey ain't no blinds in de world big enough to keep dat gal from shinin' her eyes at de boys!"

"Is Carter about to die?" Sandy had become suddenly grave.

"Yas, sir; so dey say. He's got somepin' that sounds lak tuberoses. Him and Mrs. Nelson and Miss Rufe never did git to Californy. Dey stopped off in Mobile or Injiany, I can't ricollec' which. He took de fever de day dey lef', an' he ain't knowed nothin' since."

After Aunt Melvy left, Sandy went to the window and leaned against the bars. Below him flowed the life of the little town, the men going home from work, the girls chattering and laughing through the dusk on their way from the post-office. Every figure that passed, black or white, was familiar to him. Jimmy Reed's little Skye terrier dashed down the street, and a whistle sprang to his lips.

How he loved every living creature in the place! For five years he had been one of them, sharing their interests, part and parcel of the life of the community. Now he was an outcast, an alien, as much a stranger to friendly faces as the lad who had knelt long ago at the window of a great tenement and had been afraid to be alone.

"I'll have to go away," he thought wistfully. "They'll not be wanting me here after this."

It grew darker and darker in the gloomy room. The mournful voice of a negro singing in the next cell came to him faintly:

    "We'll hunt no moah fo' de possum and de coon,
      On de medder, de hill, an' de shoah.
    We'll sing no moah by de glimmer ob de moon,
      On de bench by de old cabin doah.

    "De days go by like de shadow on do heart,
      Wid sorrer, wha' all wuz so bright;
    De time am come when do darkies hab to part--
      Den, my ole Kaintucky home, good night."

Sandy's arm was against the grating and his head was bowed upon it. Through all the hours of trial one image had sustained him. It was of Ruth, as he had seen her last, leaning toward him out of the half-light, her brown hair blowing from under her white cap and her great eyes full of wondering compassion.

But to-night the darkness obscured even that image. The judge's life still hung in the balance, and the man who had shot him lay in a distant city, unconscious, waiting for death. Sandy felt that by his sacrifice he had put the final barrier between himself and Ruth.

With a childish gesture of despair, he flung out his arms and burst into a passion of tears. The intense emotional impulse of his race swept him along like a feather in a gale. His grief, like his joy, was elemental.

When the lull came at last, he pressed his hot head against the cold iron grating, and his thoughts returned again and again to Ruth. He thought of her tender ministries in the sick room, of her intense love and loyalty for her brother. His whole soul rose up to bless her, and the thought of what she had been spared brought him peace.

Through days of struggle and nights of pain he fought back all thoughts of the future and of self.

These times were ever afterward a twilight-place in his soul, hallowed and sanctified by the great revelation they brought him, blending the blackness of despair with the white light of perfect love. Here his thoughts would often turn even in the stress and strain of the daily life, as a devotee stops on his busy round and steps within the dim cathedral to gain strength and inspiration on his way.

The next time Aunt Melvy came he asked for some of his law-books, and from that on there was no more idling or dreaming.

Among the volumes she brought was the old note-book in which the judge had made him jot down suggestions during those long evening readings in the past. It was full of homely advice, the result of forty years' experience, and Sandy found comfort in following it to the letter.

For the first time in his life he learned the power of concentration. Seven hours' study a day, without diversion or interruption, brought splendid results. He knew the outline of the course at the university, and he forged ahead with feverish energy.

Meanwhile the judge's condition was slowly improving.

One afternoon Sandy sat at his table, deep in his work. He heard the key turn in its lock and the door open, but he did not look up. Suddenly he was aware of the soft rustle of skirts, and, lifting his eyes, he saw Ruth. For a moment he did not move, thinking she must be but the substance of his dream. Then her black dress caught his attention, and he started to his feet.

"Carter?" he cried--"is he--"

Ruth nodded; her face was white and drawn, and purple shadows lay about her eyes.

"He's dead," she whispered, with a catch in her voice; then she went on in breathless explanation: "but he told me first. He said, 'Hurry back, Ruth, and make it right. They can come for me as soon as I can travel. Tell Kilday I wasn't worth it.' Oh, Sandy! I don't know whether it was right or wrong,--what you did,--but it was merciful: if you could have seen him that last week, crying all the time like a little child, afraid of the shadows on the wall, afraid to be alone, afraid to live, afraid to die--"

Her voice broke, and she covered her face with her hands.

Sandy started forward, then he paused and gripped the chair-back until his fingers were white.

"Ruth," he said impatiently, "you'd best be going quick. It'll break the heart of me to see you standing there suffering, unless I can take you in me arms and comfort you. I've sworn never to speak the word; but, by the saints--"

"You may!" sobbed Ruth, and with a quick, timid little gesture she laid her hands in his.

For a moment he held her away from him. "It's not pity," he cried, searching her face, "nor gratitude!"

She lifted her eyes, as honest and clear as her soul.

"It's been love, Sandy," she whispered, "ever since the first."

Two hours later, when the permit came, Sandy walked out of the jail into the court-house square. A crowd had collected, for Ruth had told her story and the news had spread; public favor was rapidly turning in his direction.

He looked about vaguely, as a man who has gazed too long at the sun and is blinded to everything else.

"I've got my buggy," cried Jimmy Reed, touching him on the arm. "Where do you want to go?"

Sandy hesitated, and a dozen invitations were shouted in one breath. He stood irresolute, with his foot on the step of the buggy; then he pulled himself up.

"To Judge Hollis," he said.