Chapter XIII. Judy to the Rescue.
 

Brian was working in the garden. It was early in the afternoon, and the man, as he worked in the freshly ploughed ground, was rejoicing at the completion of his book.

Straightening up from his labor, he drew a deep breath of the fragrant air. About him on every side, and far away into the blue distance, the world was dressed in the gala dress of the season. The river, which at the breaking of the winter had been a yellow flood that washed the top of the bank in front of the house and covered the bottom-lands on the opposite side, was again its normal self, and its voice to him, now, was a singing voice of triumphal gladness.

For Brian, too, the world was new, and fresh, and beautiful. The world of his winter was gone. He had found himself in his work, and in the glorious consciousness of the fact he felt like shouting with sheer joy of living.

"And Auntie Sue, dear Auntie Sue," he thought, looking with love in his eyes toward the house, how wonderful she had been in her helpful understanding and never-failing faith in him. After all, it was Auntie Sue's triumph more than it was his.

His happy musing was interrupted by a neighbor who, on his way home from Thompsonville, stopped at the garden fence with the letter for Auntie Sue.

Brian took the letter with a jest which brought a roar of laughter from the mountaineer, and, when the latter had gone on his way up the hill, started toward the house to find Auntie Sue.

Glancing at the envelope in his hand, Brian noticed the postmark "Buenos Aires." He stopped suddenly, staring dumbly at the words in the circular mark and at the name written on the envelope. Over and over, he read "Buenos Aires,--Miss Susan Wakefield; Buenos Aires,--Miss Susan Wakefield." Something--His brain seemed to be numb. His hands trembled. He looked about at the familiar surroundings, and everything seemed suddenly strange and unreal to him. He looked again at the letter in his hand, turning it curiously. A strange feeling of oppression and ominous foreboding possessed him as though the bright spring sky were all at once overcast with heavy and menacing storm-clouds. What was it? "Buenos Aires,--Susan Wakefield?" Where had he seen that combination before? What was it that made the name of the Argentine city in connection with Auntie Sue's name seem so familiar? Slowly, he went on to the house, and, finding Auntie Sue, gave her the letter.

"Oh!" cried the old lady, as she saw the postmark on the envelope. "It must be from brother John. It is not John's writing, though," she added, as she opened the envelope.

And at her words the feeling of impending disaster so oppressed Brian Kent that only by an effort could he control himself. He was possessed of the strange sensation of having at some time in the past lived the identical experience through which he was at that moment passing. "Susan Wakefield;--a brother John in Buenos Aires, Argentine;--the letter!" It was all so familiar that the allusion was startling in its force. But that ominous cloud,--that sense of some great trouble near that filled him with such unaccountable dread--what could it mean?

An exclamation from Auntie Sue drew his attention. She looked at him with tear-filled eyes, and her sweet voice broke as she said: "Brian! Brian! John is dead! This--this letter is from the doctor who attended him."

Tenderly, as he would have helped his own mother, Brian assisted Auntie Sue to her room. For a little while he sat with her, trying to comfort her with such poor words as he could find.

Briefly, she told him of the brother who had lived in Argentine for many years. He had married a South-American woman whom Auntie Sue had never seen, and while not wealthy had been moderately prosperous. But he had never forgotten his sister who was so alone in the world. "Several times, when he could, he sent me money for my savings-bank account," she finished simply, her sweet old voice low and tender with the memories of the years that were gone. "John and I were always very fond of each other. He was a good man, Brian."

Brian Kent sat like a man stricken dumb. Auntie Sue's words, "he sent me money for my savings-bank account," had made the connection between the names "Buenos Aires, Argentine; John Wakefield; Susan Wakefield," and the thing for which his mind had been groping with such a sense of impending disaster.

In her grief over the death of her brother, and in her memories of their home years so long past, dear old Auntie Sue had forgotten the peculiar meaning her words might have for the former clerk of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank who sat beside her, and to whom she turned in her sorrow as a mother to a dearly beloved son.

"But it is all right, Brian, dear," she said with brave cheerfulness. "When one has watched the sunsets for seventy years, one ceases to fear the coming of the night, for always there is the morning. Just let me rest here alone for a little while, and I will be myself again."

She looked up at him with a smile, and Brian Kent, kneeling beside the bed, bowed his head and caught the dear old hands to his lips. Without trusting himself to speak again, the man left the room,--closing the door.

He moved about the apartment as one in a dream. With a vividness that was torture, he lived again that hour in the bank when, opening the afternoon mail, he had found the letter from Susan Wakefield with the Argentine notes, which her letter said she had received from her brother John in Buenos Aires, and which she was sending to the bank for deposit to her little account. It had been a very unbusinesslike letter and a very unbusinesslike way to transmit money. It was, indeed, this nature of the transaction that had tempted the hard-pressed clerk.

Mechanically, Brian stopped at his writing-table to finger the manuscript which he had finished the evening before. Was it only the evening before? Taking up the volume of closely written sheets which were bound together by a shoestring that Auntie Sue had laughingly found for him, when he had so joyously announced the completion of the last page of his book, he turned the leaves idly,--reading here and there a sentence with curious interest. The terrific mental strain of his situation completely divorced him, as it were, from the life which he had lived during those happy months just past, and which was so fully represented by his work.

Again the river, swinging around a sudden turn in its course, had come upon a passage where its peaceful flow was broken by the wild turmoil of the troubled waters.

"And Auntie Sue,"--something within the man's self was saying,--"dear Auntie Sue, who had saved him, not only from death, but from the hell of the life that he had formerly lived, as well; and whose loving companionship and sympathetic understanding had so inspired and strengthened him in the work which had been the passionate desire of his heart;--the gentle old teacher whose life had been so completely given to others, and who, in the helplessness of her last years, was so alone,--Auntie Sue was depending upon that money which her brother had sent her as the only support of the closing days of her life. Auntie Sue believed that her money was safe in the bank. That belief was to her a daily comfort. Auntie Sue did not know that she was almost penniless;--that the man whom she had saved with such a wondrous salvation had robbed her, and left her so shamefully without means for the necessities of life. Auntie Sue did not know. But she would know,"--that inner voice went on. "The time would come when she would learn the truth. It was certain to come. It might come any day. Then--then--"

As one moving without conscious purpose, Brian Kent went from the house,--the manuscript in his hand.

Judy was sitting idly on the porch steps. At sight of the mountain girl the man knew all at once that there was one thing he must do. He must make sure that there was no mistake. He was already sure, of course; but still, as a condemned man at the scaffold hopes against hope for a stay of sentence, so he caught at the shadowy suggestion of a possibility.

"Come with me, Judy," he said, forcing himself to speak coolly; "I want to talk with you."

Judy arose, and, looking at him in her stealthy, oblique way, said, in her drawling monotone: "What's happened ter Auntie Sue? Was there somethin' in that there letter Bud Jackson give you-all for her what's upset her?"

"Auntie Sue's brother is dead, Judy," Brian answered. "She wishes to be alone, and we must not disturb her. She will be all right in a little while. Come, let us walk down toward the bluff."

When they had reached a spot on the river-bank a short distance above the Elbow Rock cliff, Brian said to his companion: "Judy, I want you to tell me something. Did Auntie Sue ever send money in a letter to the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, in Chicago?"

"The black, beady eyes shifted evasively, and the mountain girl turned her sallow, old-young face away from Brian's direct gaze.

"Look at me, Judy."

She sent a stealthy, oblique glance in his direction.

"You must tell me."

"I done started ter tell you-all onct,--that time pap ketched me,--an' you-all 'lowed as how I oughten ter tell nothin' 'bout Auntie Sue to nobody."

"But it is different now, Judy," returned Brian. "Something has happened that makes it necessary for me to know."

"Meanin' that there letter 'bout her brother bein' dead?" asked Judy, shrewdly.

"Yes."

"What you-all got ter know for?"

"Because--" Brian could not finish.

Judy's beady eyes were watching him intently, now. "Hit looks like you-all ain't a-needin' me ter tell you-all anythin'," she observed dryly.

"Then Auntie Sue did send money?"

"She sure did. I seed her fix hit in the letter, myself," came the answer.

"What kind of money?"

"I dunno,--some funny kind hit was,--what her brother done sent her from some funny place, I dunno just where."

"When did she send it?"

"'Bout a month 'fore you come."

"And--and did any letter ever come from the bank to tell her that the money was received by them all right?"

The mountain girl did not answer, but again turned her face away.

"Tell me," Brian insisted. "I--I--must know, Judy," and his voice was harsh and broken with emotion.

The answer came reluctantly: "I reckon you-all knows where that there money went ter."

The girl's answer sent a new thought like a hot iron into Brian Kent's tortured brain. He caught Judy's arm in quick and fearful excitement. "Judy!" he gasped, imploringly, "Judy, do you--? does Auntie Sue know--? does she know that I--?"

"How could she help knowin'? She ain't no fool. An' I done heard that there Sheriff an' the deteckertive man tellin' her 'bout you an' the bank. An' the Sheriff, he done give her a paper what he said told all 'bout what you-all done, an' she must er burned the paper, or done somethin' with hit, 'cause I couldn't never find hit after that night. An' what would she do that for? And what for did she make me promise not ter ever say nothin' ter you-all 'bout that there money letter? An' why ain't she said nothin' to you 'bout the letter from the bank not comin', if she didn't know hit was you 'stead of them what done got the money?"

The girl paused for a moment, and then went on in a tone of reverent wonder: "An' to think that all the time she could a-turned you-all over to that there Sheriff an' got the money-reward to pay her back what you-all done tuck."

Brian Kent was as one who had received a mortal hurt. His features were distorted with suffering. With eyes that could not see, he looked down at the manuscript to which he still unconsciously clung; and, again, he fingered the pages of his work as though some blind instinct were sending his tormented soul to seek relief in the message which, during the happy months just past, he had written for others.

And the deformed mountain girl, who stood before him with twisted body and old-young face, grew fearful as she watched the suffering of this man whom she had come to look upon as a superior being from some world which she, in her ignorance, could never know.

"Mr. Burns," she said at last, putting out her hand and plucking at his sleeve, "Mr. Burns, you-all ain't got no call ter be like this. You-all ain't plumb bad. I knows you ain't, 'count of the way you-all have been ter me an' 'cause you kept pap from hurtin' me, an' 'cause you are takin' care of Auntie Sue like you're doin'. Hit ain't no matter 'bout the money, now, 'cause you-all kin take care of her allus."

Brian looked up from the manuscript in his hand, and stared dumbly at the girl, as if he failed to hear her clearly.

"An' just think 'bout your book," Judy continued pleadingly. "Think 'bout all them fine things you-all have done wrote down for everybody ter read,--'bout the river allus a-goin' on just the same, no matter what happens, an' 'bout Auntie Sue an'--"

She stopped, and drew away from him, frightened at the look that came into the man's face.

"Don't, Mr. Burns! Don't!" she half-screamed. "'Fore God, you-all oughten ter look like that!"

The man threw up his head, and laughed,--laughed as the wild, reckless and lost Brian Kent had laughed that black night when, in the drifting boat, he had cursed the life he was leaving and had drunk his profane toast to the darkness into which he was being carried.

Raising the manuscript, which represented all that the past months of his re-created life had meant to him, and grasping it in both hands, he shook it contemptuously, as he said, with indescribable bitterness and the reckless surrendering of every hope: "'All them fine things that I have wrote down for everybody ter read.'" He mimicked her voice with a sneer, and laughed again. Then: "It's all a lie, Judy, dear;--a damned lie. Auntie Sue is a saint, and believes it. She made me believe it for a little while,--her beautiful, impossible dream-philosophy of the river. The river,--hell!--the river is as treacherous and cruel and false and tricky and crooked as life itself! And I am as warped and twisted in mind and soul as you are in body, Judy, dear. Neither of us can help it. We were made that way by the river. To hell with the whole impossible mess of things!" With a gesture of violent rage, he turned toward the river, and, taking a step forward, lifted the manuscript high above his head.

Judy screamed, "Mr. Burns, don't!"

He paused an instant, and, turning his head, looked at her with another laugh.

"'Fore God, you dassn't do that!" she implored.

And then, as the man turned his face from her, and his arms went back above his head for the swing that would send the manuscript far out into the tumbling waters of the rapids, she leaped toward him, and, catching his arm, hampered his movement so that the book fell a few feet from the shore, where the water, checked a little in its onward rush to the cliff by the irregular bank, boiled and eddied among the rocky ledges and huge boulders that retarded its force. Another leap carried the mountain girl to the edge of the bank, where she crouched like a runner ready for the report of the starter's pistol, her black, beady eyes searching the stream for the volume of manuscript, which had disappeared from sight, drawn down by the troubled swirling currents.

The man, watching her, laughed in derision; but, while his mocking laughter was still on his lips, the boiling currents brought the book, again, to the surface, and Brian saw the girl leave the bank as if thrown by a powerful spring. Straight and true she dived for the book, and even as she disappeared beneath the surface her hands clutched the manuscript.

For a second, Brian Kent held his place as if paralyzed with horror. Then, as Judy's head appeared farther down the stream, he ran with all his strength along the bank to gain a point a little ahead of the swimming girl before he should leap to her rescue.

But Judy, trained from her birth on that mountain river, knew better than Brian what to do. A short distance below the point where she had plunged into the stream, a huge boulder, some two or three feet from the shore, caused a split in the current, one fork of which set in toward the bank. Swimming desperately, the girl gained the advantage of this current, and, just as Brian reached the spot, she was swept against the bank, where, with her free hand, she caught and held fast to a projecting root. Had she been carried past that point, nothing could have saved her from being swept on into the wild turmoil of the waters at Elbow Rock.

It was the work of a moment for Brian to throw himself flat on the ground at the edge of the bank and, reaching down, to grasp the girl's wrist. Another moment, and she was safe beside him, his manuscript still tightly held under one arm.

Not realizing, in his excitement, what he was doing, Brian shook the girl, saying angrily: "What in the world do you mean, taking such a crazy-fool chance as that!"

She broke away from him with: "Well, what'd you-all go an' do such a dad burned fool thing for? Hit's you-all what's crazy yourself--plumb crazy!"

Brian held out his hand: "Give me that manuscript!"

Judy clutched the book tighter, and drew back defiantly. "I won't. You-all done throwed hit away onct. 'Tain't your'n no more, nohow."

"Well, what do you purpose to do with it?" said the puzzled man, in a gentler tone.

"I aims ter give hit ter Auntie Sue," came the startling reply. "I reckon she'll know what ter do. Hit allus was more her'n than your'n, anyhow. You done said so yourself. I heard you only last night when you-all was so dad burned tickled at gittin' hit done. You-all ain't got no right ter sling hit inter the river, an', anyway, I ain't a-goin' ter let you."

"Which sounds very sensible to me," came a clear voice from a few feet distant.

Judy and Brian turned quickly, to face a young woman who stood regarding them thoughtfully, with a suggestion of a smile on her very attractive face.