The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XXV. The Fell Frost
After the rain came milder days. The still white mornings slowly brightened into hazy afternoons. The old moon like a sleep walker stood exposed in the morning sky. The roads to Stone Ridge were deep in fallen leaves. Soft-tired wheels rustled up the avenue and horses' feet fell light, as the last of the summer neighbors came to say good-by.
It was a party of four--Miss Sallie and a good-looking youth of the football cult on horseback, her mother and an elder sister, the delicate Miss Remsen, in a hired carriage. Their own traps had been sent to town.
Tea was served promptly, as the visitors had a long road home before their dinner-hour. In the reduced state of the establishment it was Katy who brought the tea while Cerissa looked after her little charge. Cerissa sat on the kitchen porch sewing and expanding under the deep attention of the cook; they could see Middy a little way off on the tennis-court wiping the mud gravely from a truant ball he had found among the nasturtiums. All was as peaceful as the time of day and the season of the year.
"Yes," said Cerissa solemnly. "Old Abraham Van Elten was too much cumbered up with this world to get quit of it as easy as some. If his spirit is burdened with a message to anybody it's to her. He died unreconciled to her, and she inherited all this place in spite of him, as you may say. I've come as near believin' in such things since the goings on up there in that room"--
"She wants Middy fetched in to see the comp'ny," cried Katy, bursting into the sentence. "Where is he, till I clean him? And she wants some more bread and butter as quick as ye can spread it."
"Well, Katy!" said Cerissa slowly, with severe emphasis. "When I was a girl, my mother used to tell me it wasn't manners to"--
"I haven't got time to hear about yer mother," said Katy rudely. "What have ye done with me boy?" The tennis-court lay vacant on the terrace in the sun; the steep lawn sloped away and dipped into the trees.
"Don't call," said the cook warily. "It'll only scare her. He was there only a minute ago. Run, Katy, and see if he's at the stables."
It was not noticed, except by Mrs. Bogardus, that no Katy, and no boy, and no bread and butter, had appeared. Possibly the last deficiency had attracted a little playful attention from the young horseback riders, who were accusing each other of eating more than their respective shares.
At length Miss Sallie perceived there was something on her hostess's mind. "Where is John Middleton?" she whispered. "Katy is dressing him all over, from head to foot, isn't she? I hope she isn't curling his hair. John Middleton has such wonderful hair! I refuse to go back to New York till I have introduced you to John Middleton Bogardus," she announced to the young man, who laughed at everything she said. Mrs. Bogardus smiled vacantly and glanced at the door.
"Let me go find Katy," cried Miss Sally. Katy entered as she spoke, and said a few words to the mistress. "Excuse me." Mrs. Bogardus rose hastily. She asked Miss Sallie to take her place at the tea-tray.
"What is it?"
"The boy--they cannot find him. Don't say anything." She had turned ashy white, and Katy's pretty flushed face had a wild expression.
In five minutes the search had begun. Mrs. Bogardus was at the telephone, calling up the quarry, for she was short of men. One order followed another quickly. Her voice was harsh and deep. She had frankly forgotten her guests. Embarrassed by their own uselessness, yet unable to take leave, they lingered and discussed the mystery of this sudden, acute alarm.
"It is the sore spot," said Miss Sally sentimentally. "You know her husband was missing for years before she gave him up; and then that dreadful time, three years ago, when they were so frightened about Paul."
Having spread the alarm, Mrs. Bogardus took the field in person. Her head was bare in the keen, sunset light. She moved with strong, fleet steps, but a look of sudden age stamped her face.
"Go back, all of you!" she said to the women, who crowded on her heels. "There are plenty of places to look." Her stern eyes resisted their frightened sympathy. She was not ready to yield to the consciousness of her own fears.
To the old house she went, by some sure instinct that told her the road to trouble. But her trouble stood off from her, and spared her for one moment of exquisite relief; as if the child of Paul and Moya had no part in what was waiting for her. The door at the foot of the stairs stood open. She heard a soft, repeated thud. Panting, she climbed the stairs; and as she rounded the shoulder of the chimney, there, on the top step above her, stood the fair-haired child, making the only light in the place. He was knocking, with his foolish ball, on the door of the chamber of fear. Three generations of the living and the dead were brought together in this coil of fate, and the child, in his happy innocence, had joined the knot.
The woman crouching on the stairs could barely whisper, "Middy!" lest if she startled him he might turn and fall. He looked down at her, unsurprised, and paused in his knocking. "Man--in there--won't 'peak to Middy!" he said.
She crept towards him and sat below him, coaxing him into her lap. The strange motions of her breast, as she pressed his head against her, kept the boy quiet, and in that silence she heard an inner sound--the awful pulse of the old clock beating steadily, calling her, demanding the evidence of her senses,--she who feared no ghosts,--beating out the hours of an agony she was there to witness. And she was yet in time. The hapless creature entrapped within that room dragged its weight slowly across the floor. The clock, sole witness and companion of its sufferings, ticked on impartially. Neither is this any new thing, it seemed to say. A life was starved in here before--not for lack of food, but love,--love,--love!
She carried the child out into the air, and he ran before her like a breeze. The women who met them stared at her sick and desperate face. She made herself quickly understood, and as each listener drained her meaning the horror spread. There was but one man left on the place, within call, he with the boyish face and clean brown hands, who had ridden across the fields for an afternoon's idle pleasure. He stepped to her side and took the key out of her hand. "You ought not to do this," he said gently, as their eyes met.
"Wednesday, Thursday, Friday," she counted mechanically. "He has been in there six days and seven nights by my orders." She looked straight before her, seeing no one, as she gave her commands to the women: fire and hot water and stimulants, in the kitchen of the old house at once, and another man, if one could be found to follow her.
The two figures moving across the grass might have stepped out of an illustration in the pages of some current magazine. In their thoughts they had already unlocked the door of that living death and were face to face with the insupportable facts of nature.
The morbid, sickening, prison odor met them at the door--humanity's helpless protest against bolts and bars. Again the young man begged his companion not to enter. She took one deep breath of the pure outside air and stepped before him. They searched the emptiness of the barely furnished room. The clock ticked on to itself. Mrs. Bogardus's companion stood irresolute, not knowing the place. The fetid air confused his senses. But she went past him through the inner door, guided by remembrance of the sounds she had heard.
She had seen it. She approached it cautiously, stooping for a better view, and closing in upon it warily, as one cuts off the retreat of a creature in the last agonies of flight. Her companion heard her say: "Show me your face!--Uncover his face," she repeated, not moving her eyes as he stepped behind her. "He will not let me near him. Uncover it."
The thing in the corner had some time been a man. There was still enough manhood left to feel her eyes and to shrink as an earthworm from the spade. He had crawled close to the baseboard of the room. An old man's ashen beard straggled through the brown claws wrapped about the face. As the dust of the threshing floor to the summer grain, so was his likeness to one she remembered.
"I must see that man's face!" she panted. "He will die if I touch him. Take away his hands." It was done, with set teeth, and the face of the football hero was bathed in sweat. He breathed through tense nostrils, and a sickly whiteness spread backward from his lips. Suddenly he loosed his burden. It fell, doubling in a ghastly heap, and he rushed for the open air.
Mrs. Bogardus groaned. She raised herself up slowly, stretching back her head. Her face was like the terrible tortured mask of the Medusa. She had but a moment in which to recover herself. Deliberately she spoke when her companion returned and stood beside her.
"That was my husband. If he lives I am still his wife. You are not to forget this. It is no secret. Are you able to help me now? Get a blanket from the women. I hear some one coming."
She waited, with head erect and eyes closed and rigid tortured lips apart, till the feet were heard at the door.