Chapter XXXVIII. "Yes, Vilet"
 

With the exception of Aun' Sheba's household, the final days of August were passing quietly and uneventfully to the other characters of our story. Little Vilet had received something like a sunstroke, and she never rallied. Day and night she lay on her cot, usually wakeful and always patient. It would seem that her vital forces were sapped, for she grew steadily weaker and thinner. Aun' Sheba did little else than wait on and watch her, except when Kern was home. When off duty at the fire department, he would permit no one else to do anything for his child but himself. The little girl preferred his attendance even to that of her mother, and the strong man would carry her up and down his little yard in the cool night air by the hour, or rock her to sleep on his breast when the sun was high. No touch was so gentle as his, or so soothing. He would hush his great, mellow voice into soft, melodious tones as he sung her favorite hymns, and often her feeble treble would blend with his rich baritone. He yearned over her with inexpressible tenderness, counting the minutes when on duty till the hour came which permitted his return.

In his agony of apprehension "his flesh jes drap off'n him," as Aun' Sheba and his wife said. He slept little and ate little, but was always punctual at the engine-house to the minute.

Mara and Ella visited the child daily, and tried to tempt her failing appetite with delicacies. Sissy, Vilet's mother, hovered about her child most of the time, when her housekeeping duties and the care of the other children permitted, but after all her chief solicitude centred in her husband. She and Aun' Sheba often said, "Kern, ef de Lawd wants her we mus jes gib her up. De Hebenly Fader hab de fust right."

"I hab my feelins all de same," Kern would reply. "Ef de Lawd put sech feelins in my heart I can't help it."

On the evening of the 31st of August, Vilet was very feeble. The closeness and heat oppressed her. All, except Uncle Sheba, made a poor pretence of supper. Nothing affected his appetite, and, having cleared the table, he went over to his own doorstep and lighted his pipe. Before it was finished he was dozing comfortably against the doorcase. Aun' Sheba, with a great sigh, lighted her pipe also, and sat down on the Watson steps with her daughter that they might breathe cooler air. Kern took up his little daughter, and began to walk in the yard and sing as usual.

"Well," ejaculated Aun' Sheba, "Missy Mara's call yis-tidy 'lieve my min' po'ful. I'se couldn't tromp de streets wid a basket now nohow. Missy Mara say she won' begin bakin' till I'm ready. She look too po'ly to tink ob it hersef. Lor! what a narrow graze she an de res ob dem hab! No won'er she all broken up. Dat awful 'scape keeps runnin ebin in my dreams. Bress de good Lawd dat brung Marse Houghton right dar in time!"

"Missy Ella an' Marse Houghton oughter hab dey own way now, shuah," Sissy remarked.

"I reckon dey will," Aun' Sheba answered. "Missy Ella look kin'er dat-a-way. Dey was all agin her 'fore de ax'dent, but now I reckon dey's all cabed in, from what she says, eben ef she ain't talkin' much. I 'specs ole man Houghton is de mos' sot;" and then their anxious thoughts reverted to the sick child.

"Daddy," said Vilet, when her father had finished a hymn, "I wants ter talk wid you."

"Well, chile, wot you wants ter say?"

"I wants you ter let me go to Hebin, daddy."

"I doesn't feel dat I kin spar' you, Vilet," and she felt his tears dropping on her cheeks.

"Yes, daddy, you kin, fer a little while. I'se gittin' so-o tired," and she sighed wearily, "an' you'se gittin' all worn out too."

"No, deah chile, I'd ruder tote you all de res' ob my bawn days. I couldn't stan' comin' home an' not fin' you lookin' fer me nohow."

Vilet thought a while in silence and then said, "Daddy, I'se keep a-lookin' fer you jes de same. I'se gwine ter ax de good Lawd ter gib me a little place on de wall near de pearly gate, an' dar I'se watch an' wait till you come, an' moder, an' granny all come. I kin watch bettah up dar, fer I won' be so bery, bery tired. Won' you let me go? 'Pears I couldn't go to Hebin widout you says, 'Yes, Vilet.'"

The man's powerful frame trembled like an aspen; convulsive sobs heaved his breast as he carried the child to the further corner of the yard. At last he buried his face in her neck and whispered, "Yes, Vilet."

"Dat's good an' kin' ob you, daddy. You fin' me waitin' and lookin' fer you, shuah."

Kern grew calm after his mighty struggle, and, in his simple faith, believed that angels were around him, ready to take his child when he should lay her down. He began to sing again, and, a little before nine o'clock, repaired to his post of duty.

As the days passed without any further communication from Houghton whatever, Ella's first glow of hope began to pale. She tried to banish all other thoughts except that Mr. Houghton was very ill or as obdurate as ever. On the last day of August, however, she heard a rumor that the invalid was better, and that his son was soon to take him North. Then her faith began to falter. If George should go away without seeing her, without a word or a line, what must she think? The tears would come at this possibility. She had noted that her father and cousin had ceased to speak of him, and that their bearing toward her was very gentle, giving her the impression of that deep yet delicate sympathy which is felt for one destined to pass through a very painful ordeal.

On the evening of this miserable day she yielded, for the first time, to great dejection, and was about to retire to her room early when Mrs. Bodine said kindly, "Don't go away, Ella. I feel strangely oppressed, as if I could scarcely breathe."

"I feel oppressed too, Cousin Sophy."

"Yes, dear child, I know you are grieving. I wish I could help you."

"Oh, Cousin Sophy, it would be so much harder to bear now! He looked so grand as he loomed up in the gloom of that terrible night! His eyes seemed like living coals; his action was swift and decided, showing that his mind was as clear as his courage was high. He seemed to take in everything at a glance, and in breaking my hold of papa's hand he almost the same as saved my life twice. And then his leap into the sinking boat, and the almost giant strength with which he flung papa into his own!--oh, I see it all so often, and my heart always seems to go down with him when, in fancy, I see him sink. It was all so heroic, so in accord with my ideal of a man! Why, Cousin Sophy, he was so sensible about it all! He did just the right thing and the only thing that could be done, except that horrid sinking. I can't help feeling that if he had got into the boat with us all would have come about right. Oh, that stupid, cowardly negro boatman! Well, well, somehow I fear to-night that I've only been saved to suffer a heartache all my life."

"I hope not, Ella dear. I cannot think so. God rarely permits to any life either unalloyed suffering or happiness."

"There, Cousin Sophy, I'm forgetting that you are suffering now. I'll put on my wrapper, and then fan you till you get asleep."

The captain meantime was solacing himself with thoughts of Mara--thoughts not wholly devoid of anxiety, for she appeared to be growing thin and losing strength in spite of her assurances to the contrary.

Mr. Houghton had not been so well in the afternoon and evening, and George did not leave him. As the evening advanced the sultriness increased. Since his father seemed quiet, and lay with his eyes closed, he installed Jube in his place with the fan, and went out into the open air. He found, with surprise, that he obtained scarcely any relief from the extreme closeness which had oppressed him indoors. He threw off even the light coat he wore, and walked up and down the gravel roadway in his shirtsleeves with the restlessness which great heat imparts to the full-blooded and strong. Sam sat near the barn-door, smoking his pipe. At last he said, "Marse George, 'spose I took out de hosses an let dem stan in de open."

"What's the matter with them?"

"Dunno, 'less it's de po'ful heat. Dey's bery oneasy."

"All right. Tie them outside here."

At this moment the watch-dog gave a long, piteous howl, and crept into his kennel.

"That's queer," George remarked. "What's the matter with the dog?"

"Pears as eberyting's gettin quar dis ebnin," Sam replied, knocking the ashes from his pipe and rising. "You'se pinter dar's been kin ob scrugin up agin me, an he neber do dat befo'. Now he's right twixt you'se legs es if he was feerd on someting."

George caressed the dog, and said: "What's up, old fellow?" and then was perplexed that, instead of answering him with wonted playfulness, the poor brute should begin to whine and yelp. The horses came out as if escaping from their stalls, but on reaching the door sniffed the air, stopped, and seemed reluctant to go further.

"Dey's eider gone crazy, or sump'n gwine ter happen," Sam affirmed, looking up and around uneasily.

At this moment the pointer broke away from George's caressing hand, and with a howl such as he had never been heard to utter, slunk away and disappeared.

"I declare, Sam, I don't know what to make of it all. The air is getting so hot and close that I can scarcely breathe."

The horses now came out hastily, and began to snort and whinny. Then they put their heads over Sam's shoulder, with that instinct to seek human protection often noted in domestic animals.

"Marse George, dey is sump'n gwine ter happen. See dese bosses yere; see ole Brune dar. He darsn't stay in de ken'l an' he darsn't stay out. Heah how oder dogs is howlin. Dey is sump'n gwine ter--O good Lawd! what's dat?"

George's nerves were healthy and strong, but his hair rose on his head and his knees smote for a second as he heard what seemed a low, ominous roar. Having a confused impression that the sound came from the street he rushed toward it, but by the time he reached the front of the house the awful sound had grown into a thunder peal which was in the earth beneath and the air above. Obeying the impulse to reach his father, he sprung up the steps and dashed through the open door. As he did so the solid mansion rocked like a skiff at sea; the heavy portico under which he had just passed fell with a terrific crash; all lights went out; while he, stunned and bleeding from the falling plaster, clung desperately to the banisters, still seeking to reach his father.