Chapter XVI. The Secret of Auntie Sue's Life.

Brian Kent, strolling along the bank of the river in the moonlight, and preoccupied with thoughts that were, at the last, more dreams than thoughts, was not far from the house when a sound from behind some near-by bushes broke in upon his reveries. A moment, he listened. Then telling himself that it was some prowling animal, or perhaps, a bird that his presence had disturbed, he went on. But he had gone only a few feet farther when he was conscious of something stealthily following him. Stepping behind the trunk of a tree, he waited, watching. Then he saw a form moving toward him through the shadows of the bushes. Another moment, and the form left the concealing shadow, and, in the bright moonlight, he recognized Judy.

At first, the man's feeling was that of annoyance. He did not wish to be disturbed at such a time by the presence of the mountain girl. But his habitual gentleness toward poor Judy, together with a very natural curiosity as to why she was following him at that time of the night, when he had supposed her in bed and asleep, led him to greet her kindly as he came from behind the tree: "Well, Judy, are you, too, out enjoying the moonlight?"

The girl stopped suddenly and half-turned as if to run; but, at his words, stood still.

"What is it, Judy?" he asked, going to her. "What is the matter?"

"There's a heap the matter!" she answered, regarding him with that sly oblique look; while Brian noticed a feeling of intense excitement in her voice. "I don't know what you-all are a-goin' ter think of me, but I'm bound ter tell you just the same,--seems like I got ter,--even if you-all was ter lick me for hit like pap used ter."

"Why, Judy, dear," the puzzled man returned, soothingly, "you know I would never strike you, no matter what you did. Come, sit down here on this log, and tell me about whatever it is that troubles you; then you can go back to sleep again."

"I ain't a-wantin' ter set down. I ain't been asleep. Hit seems like I can't never sleep no more." She wrung her hands and turned her poor twisted body about nervously; then demanded with startling abruptness: "When do you-all 'low she'll git back?"

The wondering Brian did not at first catch her meaning, and she continued, with an impatient jerk of her head: "Hit's that there gal with the no-'count name, Betty Jo, I'm a-talkin' 'bout."

"Oh, you mean Miss Williams," Brian returned. "Why, I suppose she will be back in two or three weeks, or a month, perhaps; I don't know exactly, Judy. Why?"

"'Cause I'm a-tellin' you-all not ter let her come back here ever," came the startling answer, in a voice that was filled with menacing anger. Then, before Brian could find a word to reply, the mountain girl continued, with increasing excitement: "You-all dassn't let her come back here, nohow, 'cause, if you do, I'll hurt her, sure. You-all have been a-thinkin' as how I was plumb blind, I reckon; but I seen you,--every evenin', when she'd pretend ter just go for a walk an' then'd make straight for the clearin' where you was a-choppin', an' then you'd quit, an' set with her up there on the hill. Youuns never knowed I was a-watchin' from the bresh all the time, did you? Well, I was; an' when youuns'd walk down ter the house, so slow like an' close together, I'd sneak ahead, an' beat you home; but all the time I was a-seein' you, an' youuns never knowed, 'cause youuns just naturally couldn't see nor hear nothin' but each other. Don't you-all 'low as how I'd know by the way you looked at her, while youuns was a-fixin' that there book, every night, what you-all was a-thinkin' 'bout her? My God-A'mighty! hit was just as plain ter me as if you was a-sayin' hit right out loud all the time,--a heap plainer hit was than if you'd done writ' hit down in your book. I can't make out ter read print much, nohow, like youuns kin; but I sure kin see what I see. I--"

"Judy! Judy!" Brian broke the stream of the excited girl's talk. "What in the world are you saying? What do you mean, child?"

"You-all knows dad burned well what I'm a-meanin'!" she retorted, with increasing anger. "I'm a-meanin' that you-all are plumb lovin' that there Betty Jo gal,--that's what I'm a-meanin'!--an' you-all sure ain't got ary right for ter go an' do sich a thing, nohow!"

Brian tried to check her, but she silenced him with: "I won't neither hush! I can't! I tell you I'm a-goin' ter say my say if you-all kills me! I've just naturally got ter! Seems like I was all afire inside an' would burn plumb up if I didn't! I've got rights, I reckon, if I be all crooked an' twisted out er shape, an' ugly-faced an' no learnin', ner nothin'."

A dry sob choked the torrent of words for an instant; but, with a savage effort she went on: "I know I ain't nothin' alongside of her, but you-all ain't a-goin' ter have her just the same,--not if I have ter kill her first! You ain't got no right ter have her, nohow, 'cause hit's like's not you-all done got a woman already somewheres, wherever 'twas you-all come from; an' even if you ain't got no woman already, I sure ain't a-goin' ter let you have her! What'd she ever do for you? Hit was me what dragged you-all from the river when you was mighty nigh dead from licker an' too plumb sick ter save yourself! Hit's me that's kept from tellin' the Sheriff who you be an' a-takin' that there reward-money! Hit was me what jumped inter the river above Elbow Rock just ter git your dad burned old book, when you'd done throwed hit plumb away!

"I knowed first time I heard Auntie Sue name her what she'd do ter you! Any fool would a-knowed what a woman with a half-gal, half-boy name like her'n would do, an' she's done hit,--she sure has! But she ain't a-goin' ter do no more! You-all belongs ter me a heap more'n you do ter her,--if hit comes ter that,--though, I ain't a-foolin' myself none a-thinkin' that sich as you could ever take up with sich as me,--me bein' what I am. No, sir; I ain't never fooled myself ary bit like that, Mr. Burns. But hit ain't a-makin' no difference how ugly an' crooked an' no 'count I be outside; the inside of me is a-lovin' you like she never could, ner nobody else, I reckon. An' I'll just go on a-lovin' you, no matter what happens; an' I ain't a-carin' whether you got a woman already er not, er whether you-all have robbed er killed, er what you done. An'--an'--so I'm a-tellin' you, you'd best not let her come back here no more, 'cause--'cause I just naturally can't stand hit ter see youuns tergether! 'Fore God, I'm a-tellin' you true,--I'll sure hurt her!"

The girl's voice raised to a pitch of frenzied excitement, and, whirling, she pointed to the river, as she cried: "Look out there! What do you-all reckon your fine Betty Jo lady would do if I was ter git her ketched in them there rapids? What do you-all reckon the Elbow Rock water would do ter her? I'll tell you what hit'd do: Hit would smash an' grind an' tear an' hammer that there fine, straight body of hers 'til hit was all broken an' twisted an' crooked a heap worse'n what I be,--that's what hit would do; an' hit would scratch an' cut an' beat up that pretty face an' mess up her pretty hair an' choke her an' smother her 'til she was all blue-black an' muddy, an' her eyes was red an' starin', an' she was nothin' but just an ugly lump of dirt; an' hit wouldn't even leave her her fine clothes neither,--the Elbow Rock water wouldn't,--hit'd just naturally tear 'em off her, an' leave her 'thout ary thing what's makin' you love her like you're a-doin'! An' where would all her fine schoolin' an' smart talk an' pretty ways be then? Eh? She wouldn't be no better, nor half as good as me, I'm a-tellin' you, onct Elbow Rock got done with her!"

The poor creature finished in wild triumph; then suddenly, as though spent with the very fury of her passion, she turned from the river, and said dully: "You'd sure best not let her come back, sir! 'Fore God, I ain't a-wantin' ter do hit, but hit seems like I can't help myself; I can't sleep for wantin' ter fix hit so,--so's you just couldn't want ter have her no more'n you're a-wantin' me. I--I--sure ain't a-foolin' myself none, not ary bit, a-thinkin' you-all could ever git ter likin' sich as me; but, I can't help sort of dreamin' 'bout hit an' a-pretendin', an'--an' all the while I'm a-knowin', inside er me like, that there ain't nobody,--not Auntie Sue, nor this here Betty Jo, nor that there other woman, nor anybody,--what kin care for you like I'm a-carin',--they just naturally couldn't care like me; 'cause--'cause, you see, sir, I ain't got nobody else,--ain't no man but you ever even been decent ter me. I sure ain't got nobody else--"

The distraught creature's sobs prevented further speech, and she dropped down on the ground, weak and exhausted; her poor twisted body shaking and writhing with the emotion she could not voice.

For a little while, Brian Kent himself was as helpless as Judy. He could only stand dumbly, staring at her as she crouched at his feet. Then, very gently, he lifted her from the ground, and tried as best he could to comfort her. But he felt his words to be very shallow and inadequate, even though his own voice was trembling with emotion.

"Come, Judy, dear," he said, at last, when she seemed to have in a measure regained her self-control. "Come. You must go back to the house, child."

Drawing away from his supporting arm, she answered, quietly: "I ain't no child, no more, Mr. Burns: I'm sure a woman, now. I'm just as much a woman as--as--she is, if I be like what I am. I'm plumb sorry I had ter do this; but I just naturally couldn't help hit. You ain't got no call ter be scared I'll do hit again."

When they were nearing the house, Judy stopped again, and, for a long minute, looked silently out over the moonlit river, while Brian stood watching her.

"Hit is pretty, ain't hit, Mr. Burns?" she said at last. "With the hills all so soft an'--an' dreamy-like, an' them clouds a-floatin' 'way up there over the top of Table Mountain; with the moon makin' 'em all silvery an' shiny 'round the edges, an' them trees on yon side the river lookin' like they was made er smoke er fog er somethin' like that; an' the old river hitself a-layin' there in The Bend like--like a long strip of shinin' gold,--hit sure is pretty! Funny, I couldn't never see hit that a-way before,--ain't hit?"

"Yes, Judy; it is beautiful to-night," he said.

But Judy, apparently without hearing him, continued: "'Seems like I can sense a little ter-night what Auntie Sue an' youuns are allus a-talkin' 'bout the river,--'bout hit's bein' like life an' sich as that. An' hit 'pears like I kin kind of git a little er what you done wrote 'bout hit in your book,--'bout the currents an' the still places an' the rough water an' all. I reckon as how I'm a part of your river, too, ain't I, Mr. Burns?"

"Yes, Judy," he answered, wonderingly; "we are all parts of the river."

"I reckon you're right," she continued. "Hit sure 'pears ter be that a-way. But I kin tell you-all somethin' else 'bout the river what you didn't put down in your book, Mr. Burns: There's heaps an' heaps er snags an' quicksands an' sunk rocks an' shaller places where hit looks deep an' deep holes where hit looks shaller, an' currents what's hid 'way down under that'll ketch an' drag you in when you ain't a-thinkin', an' drown you sure. 'Tain't all of the river what Auntie Sue an' youuns kin see from the porch. You see, I knows 'bout hit,--'bout them other things I mean,--'cause I was borned and growed up a-knowin' 'bout 'em; an'--an'--the next time you-all writes er book, Mr. Burns, I 'low you-all ought ter put in 'bout them there snags an' things, 'cause folks sure got ter know 'bout 'em, if they ain't a-wantin' ter git drowned."

When Judy had gone into the house, Brian again sat alone on the porch.

An hour, perhaps, had passed when a voice behind him said: "Why, Brian, are you still up? I supposed you were in bed long ago."

He turned to see Auntie Sue, standing in the doorway.

"And what in the world are you prowling about for, this time of the night?" Brian retorted, bringing a chair for her.

"I am prowling because I couldn't sleep,--thinking about you, Brian," she answered.

"I fear that is the thing that is keeping me up, too," he returned grimly.

"I know," she said gently. "Sometimes, one's self does keep one awake. Is it--is it anything you care to tell me? Would it help for me to know?"

For some time, he did not answer; while the old teacher waited silently. At last, he spoke, slowly: "Auntie Sue, what is the greatest wrong that a woman can do?"

"The greatest wrong a woman can do, Brian, is the greatest wrong that a man can do."

"But, what is it, Auntie Sue?" he persisted.

"I think," she answered,--"indeed I am quite sure,--that the greatest wrong is for a woman to kill a man's faith in woman; and for a man to kill a woman's faith in man."

Brian Kent buried his face in his hands.

"Am I right, dear?" asked the old gentlewoman, after a little.

And Brian Kent answered: "Yes, Auntie Sue, you are right--that is the greatest wrong."

Again they were silent. It was as though few words were needed between the woman of seventy years and this man who, out of some great trouble, had been so strangely brought to her by the river.

Then the silvery-haired old teacher spoke again: "Brian, have you ever wondered that I am so alone in the world? Have you ever asked yourself why I never married?"

"Yes, Auntie Sue," he answered. "I have wondered."

"Many people have," she said, with simple frankness. Then--"I am going to tell you something, dear boy, that only two people in the world beside myself ever knew, and they are both dead, many years now. I am going to tell you, because I feel--because I think--that, perhaps, it may help you a little. I, too, Brian, had my dreams when I was a girl,--my dreams of happiness,--such as every true woman hopes for;--of a home with all that home means;--of a lover-husband;--of little ones who would call me 'mother';--and my dreams ended, Brian, on a battlefield of the Civil War. He went from me the very day we were promised. He never returned. I have always felt that we were as truly one as though the church had solemnized and the law had legalized our union. I promised that I would wait for him."

"And you--you have kept that promise? You have been true to that memory?" Brian Kent asked, wonderingly.

"I have been true to him, Brian;--all the years of my life I have been true to him."

Brian Kent bowed his head, reverently.

Rising, the old gentlewoman went close to him, and put her hands on his shoulders. "Brian, dear, I have told you my secret because I thought it might help you to know. Oh, my boy--my boy,--don't--don't let anything--don't let anyone--kill your faith in womanhood! No matter how bitter your experience, you can believe, now, that there are women who can be faithful and true. Surely, you can believe it now, Brian,--you must!"

And as he caught her hands in his, and raised his face to whisper, "I do believe, Auntie Sue," she stooped and kissed him.

Then, again, Brian Kent was alone in the night with his thoughts.

And the river swept steadily on its shining way through the moonlit world to the distant sea.