Chapter XXI. The Woman at the Window.
 

The members of the clubhouse party were amusing themselves that afternoon in the various ways peculiar to their kind.

At one end of the wide veranda overlooking the river a group sat at a card table. At the other end of the roomy lounging place, men and women, lying at careless ease in steamer-chairs and hammocks, were smoking and chatting about such things as are of interest only to that strange class who are educated to make idleness the chief aim and end of their existence. On the broad steps leading down to the tree-shaded lawn, which sloped gently to the boat landing at the river's edge, still other members of the company were scattered in characteristic attitudes. Across the river, in the shade of the cottonwoods that overhang the bank, a man and a woman in a boat were ostensibly fishing. In a hammock strung between two trees, a little way from the veranda, lay a woman, reading.

Now and then a burst of shrill laughter broke the quiet of the surrounding forest. A man on the steps called a loud suggestive jest to the pair in the boat, and the woman waved her handkerchief in answer. The card-players argued and laughed over a point in their game. Some one shouted into the house for Jim, and a negro man in white jacket appeared. When the people on the veranda had expressed their individual tastes, the one who had summoned the servant called to the woman in the hammock under the tree, "What is yours, Martha?"

Without looking up from her book, the woman waved her hand, and answered, "I am not drinking this time. Thanks."

A chorus of derisive shouts and laughter came from the veranda. But the woman went on reading. "Oh, let her alone!" protested some one, good-naturedly. "She was going a little strong, last night. She'll be all right by and by, when she gets started again."

The negro, Jim, had returned with his loaded tray, and was passing among the members of the company with his assortment of glasses, when some one called attention to Harry Green, who was just pulling his boat up to the landing after his visit to the little log house down the river.

A boisterous chorus greeted the boatman: "Hello, Harry! Did you find anything? You're just in time. What'll you have?"

With a wave of greeting, the man fastened his boat to the landing, and started up the slope.

"He'll have a Scotch, of course!" said some one. "Did anybody ever know him to take anything else? Go and get it, Jim. He'll be nearly dead for a drink after rowing all that distance."

The woman in the hammock lowered her book, and lay watching the man as he came up the path toward the steps.

Harry Green, who, apparently, was a person of importance among them, seated himself in an easy chair on the veranda, and accepted the glass proffered by Jim.

"Did you find any eggs, Harry?" demanded one. The man first refreshed himself with a long drink; then looked around with a grin of amused appreciation: "I didn't get any eggs," he said; "but I found the nest all right."

A shout of laughter greeted the reply.

"What sort of nest, Harry? Duck? Turkey? Hen? Dove? Or rooster?" came from different members of the chorus.

Raising his glass as though offering a toast, he answered: "Love! my children; love!"

A yell of delight came from the company, accompanied by a volley of: "A love-nest! Well, what do you know about that! Good boy, Harry! Takes Harry to find a love-nest! He's the boy to send for eggs! I should say, yes! Martha will like that! Oh, won't she!"

This last remark turned their attention toward the woman in the hammock, and they called to her: "Martha! Oh, Martha! Come here! You better look after Harry! Harry has found a love-nest! Told you something would happen if you let him go away alone!"

Putting aside her book, the woman came to join the company on the veranda.

She was rather a handsome woman, but with a suggestion of coarseness in form and features, though her face, in spite of its too-evident signs of dissipation, was not a bad face.

Seating herself on the top step, with her back against the post in an attitude of careless abandonment, she looked up at the negro who stood grinning in the doorway. "Bring me a highball, Jim: you know my kind." Then to the company: "Somebody give me a cigarette."

Harry tossed a silver case in her lap. Another man, who sat near, leaned over her with a lighted match.

Expelling a generous cloud of smoke from her shapely lips, she demanded: "What is this you are all shouting about Harry having another love-nest?"

During the answering chorus of boisterous laughter and jesting remarks, she drank the liquor which the negro brought.

Then Harry, pointing out Auntie Sue's house, which was easily visible from where they sat, related his experience. And among the many conjectures, and questions, and comments offered, no one suggested even that the man and the woman living in that little log house by the river might be entirely innocent of the implied charge. For those who are themselves guilty, to assume the guilt of others is very natural and altogether human.

In the moment's quiet which followed the arrival of a fresh supply of drinks, the woman called Martha said: "But what is the man like, Harry? You have enthused quite enough about the girl. Suppose you tell us about the man in the case."

Harry gave a very good description of Brian Kent.

"Oh, damn!" suddenly cried Martha, shaking her skirt vigorously. She had spilled some of the liquor from her glass.

A woman on the outer edge of the circle whispered to her nearest neighbor, and a hush fell over the group.

"Well," said Martha, drinking the liquor remaining in her glass, "why the devil don't we find out who they are, if we are so curious?"

"Find out! How? We'll find out a lot! What would you do,--ask them their names and where they are from?" came from the company.

"It is easy enough," retorted Martha. "There is that native girl that Molly picked up the day we landed here to help her in the kitchen. She must belong in this neighborhood somewhere. I'll bet she can tell us something. What is her name?"

"Judy,--Judy Taylor. Great idea! Good! Send her out here, Jim," responded the others.

When the deformed mountain girl appeared before them, she looked from face to face with such a frightened and excited expression on her sallow, old-young features, and such a wild light in her black beady eyes, that they regarded her with silent interest.

Judy spoke first, and her shrill monotone emphasized her excited state of mind: "That there nigger said as how Missus Kent was a-wantin' ter see me. Be ary one of youuns sure 'nough Missus Kent?"

The group drew apart a little, and every face was turned from Judy to the woman sitting on the top step of the veranda with her back against the post.

Judy went slowly toward the woman, her beady eyes fixed and staring as though at some ghostly vision. The woman rose to her feet as Judy paused before her.

"Be you-all Brian Kent's woman?" demanded Judy.

The excited exclamation from the company and the manner of the woman suddenly aroused the mountain girl to a realization of what she had done in speaking Brian Kent's name. With an expression of frightened dismay, she turned to escape; but the group of intensely interested spectators drew closer. Every one waited for Martha to speak.

"Yes," she said, slowly, watching the mountain girl; "I am Mrs. Brian Kent. Do you know my husband?"

Judy's black beady eyes shifted slyly from one face to another, and her twisted body moved uneasily.

"No, ma'm; I ain't a-sayin' I knows him exactly. I done heard tell 'bout him nigh 'bout a year ago, when there was some men from the city come through here a-huntin' him. Everybody 'lows as how he was drowned at Elbow Rock."

"The body was never found, though," murmured one of the men in the group.

"Who lives in that little log house over there, Judy?" Harry Green asked suddenly, pointing.

"There? Oh, that there's Auntie Sue's place. I 'lowed everybody knowed that," returned the girl.

"Who is Auntie Sue?" came the next question.

One of the women answered, before Judy could speak: "Auntie Sue is that old-maid school-teacher they told us about. Don't you remember, Harry?"

"Is Auntie Sue at home now, girl?" asked Mrs. Kent.

Judy's gaze was fixed on the ground as she replied: "I don't know, ma'm. I ain't got no truck with anybody on yon side the river."

"Is there any one living with Auntie Sue?" asked some one; and in the same breath from another came the question, "Who is Mr. Burns?"

Judy jerked her twisted shoulders and threw up her head with an impatient defiance, as she returned shrilly: "I'm a-tellin' youuns I don't know nothin' 'bout nobody. Hit ain't no sort er use for youuns ter pester me. I don't know nothin' 'bout hit, an' I wouldn't tell youuns nothin' if I did."

And with this, the mountain girl escaped into the house.

While her friends on the veranda were looking at each other in questioning silence, Mrs. Kent, without a word, turned and walked away into the woods.

As she disappeared among the trees, one of the men said, in a low tone: "You better go after her, Harry. She is on, all right, that it's Brian Kent. She never did believe that story about his death, you know. There is no knowing what she'll do when she gets to thinking it all over."

"It is a darned shame," exclaimed one of the women, "to have our party spoiled like this!"

"Spoiled nothing," answered another. "Martha is too good a sport to spoil anything. Go on, Harry. Cheer her up. Bring her back here. We'll all help get her good and drunk to-night, and she'll be all right."

There was a laugh at this, and some one said: "A little something wouldn't hurt any of us just now, I'm thinking. Here, Jim!"

Harry Green found Mrs. Kent sitting on the riverbank some distance above the boat landing.

She looked up at the sound of his approach, but did not speak. Dropping down beside her, the man said: "I'm damned sorry about this, Martha. I never dreamed I was starting anything, or I would have kept my mouth shut."

"It is Brian, all right, Harry," she answered, slowly. "It is funny, but he has been on my mind all day. I never dreamed that it was this part of the country where he was supposed to have been drowned, or I wouldn't have come here."

"Well, what does it matter, anyway?" returned the man. "I don't see that it can make any difference. We don't need to go down there where he is, and it is damned certain that they won't call on us."

Looking out over the river, the woman spoke as if thinking aloud: "This is just the sort of place he would love, Harry--the river and hills and woods. He never cared for the city--always wanted to get away into the country somewhere. Tell me, what is she really like? Does she look like--like--well,--like any of our crowd?"

One by one, the man picked a number of pebbles from among the dead leaves and the short grass within reach of his hand, as he answered: "Oh, I was just kidding when I raved about her to the bunch." One by one, he flipped the bits of stone into the water. "She really doesn't amount to much. Honestly, I hardly noticed her."

The woman continued speaking as though thinking her thoughts aloud: "Brian was a good man, Harry. That bank affair was really my fault. He never would have done such a thing if I hadn't devilled him all the time for more money, and made such a fuss about his wasting so much time in his everlasting writing. I'd hate to have him caught and sent to the 'pen' now."

"You're a good sport, Martha," he returned heartily. "I know just how you feel about it. And I can promise you that there is not one of our crowd that will ever whisper a thing. They are not that kind, and you know how they all like you. Come, dear. Don't bother your head about it any more. I don't like to see you like this. Let us go up to the house, and show them how game you are,--shall we?"

He put his arm about her, but the woman gently pushed him away. "Don't do that, now, Harry. Let me think."

"That is just what you must not do," he retorted, with a laugh. "Thinking can't help matters. Come, let us go get a drink. That is what you need."

She looked at him some time before she answered; then, with a quick movement, she sprang to her feet:

"All right! You're on!" she cried, with a reckless laugh. "But you'll go some if you keep up with me to-night."

And so, that evening, while Brian Kent and Betty Jo from the porch of the little log house by the river watched the twinkling lights of the clubhouse windows, the party with mad merriment tried to help a woman to forget.

But save for the unnatural brightness of her eyes and the heightened color in her face, drink seemed to have little effect on Martha Kent that night. When at a late hour the other members of the wild company, in various flushed and dishevelled stages of intoxication, finally retired to their rooms, Martha, in her apartment, seated herself at the window to look away over the calm waters of The Bend to a single light that showed against the dark mountainside. The woman did not know that the light she saw was in Brian Kent's room.

Long after Betty Jo had said good-night, Brian walked the floor in uneasy wakefulness. The meeting with the man Green and his too-evident thoughts as to the relations of the man and woman who were living together in the log house by the river filled Brian with alarm; while the very presence of the man from the city awoke old apprehensions that in his months of undisturbed quiet in Auntie Sue's backwoods home had almost ceased to be. Through Auntie Sue's teaching and influence; his work on his book; the growing companionship of Betty Jo and their love, Brian had almost ceased to think of that absconding bank clerk who had so recklessly launched himself on a voyage to the unknown in the darkness of that dreadful night. But, now, it all came back to him with menacing strength.

The man, Green, would talk to his companions of his visit to the log house that afternoon. He would tell what he had discovered. Curiosity would lead others of the clubhouse party to call. Some one might remember the story of the bank clerk, who was supposed to have lost his life in that neighborhood, but whose body was never found. There might even be one in the party who knew the former clerk. Through them the story would go back to the outside world. There would be investigations by those whose business it was never to forget a criminal who had escaped the law.

Brian felt his Re-Creation to be fully established; but what if his identity should be discovered before the restitution he would make should be also accomplished? And always, as he paced to and fro in his little room in the log house, there was, like a deep undercurrent in the flow of his troubled thought, his love for Betty Jo.

It is little wonder that, to Brian Kent, that night, the voices of the river were filled with fearful doubt and sullen, dreadful threatenings.

And what of the woman who watched the tiny spot of light that marked the window of the room where the re-created Brian Kent kept his lonely vigil? Did she, too, hear the voices of the river? Did she feel the presence of that stream which poured its dark flood so mysteriously through the night between herself and the man yonder?

Away back, somewhere in the past, the currents of their lives in the onward flow of the river had drawn together. For a period of time, their life-currents had mingled, and, with the stream, had swept onward as one. Other influences--swirls and eddies and counter-currents of other lives--had touched and intermingled until the current that was the man and the current that was the woman had drawn apart. For months, they had not touched; and, now, they were drawing nearer to each other again. Would they touch? Would they again mingle and become one? What was this mysterious, unseen, unknown, but always-felt, power of the river that sets the ways of its countless currents as it sweeps ever onward in its unceasing flow?

The door of her room opened. Harry Green entered as one assured of a welcome. The woman at the window turned her head, but did not move. Going to her, the man, with an endearing word, offered a caress; but she put him aside. "Please, Harry,--please let me be alone to-night?"

"Why, Martha, dear! What is wrong?" he protested, again attempting to draw her to him.

Resisting more vigorously, she answered: "Everything is wrong! You are wrong! I am wrong! All life is wrong! Can't you understand? Please leave me."

The man drew back, and spoke roughly in a tone of disgust: "Hell! I believe you love that bank clerk as much as you ever did!"

"Well, and suppose that were true, Harry?" she answered, wearily. "Suppose it were true,--that I did still love my husband? Could that make any difference now? Can anything ever make any difference now? You will tire of me before long, just as you have grown tired of the others who were before me. Don't you suppose I know? You and our friends have taught me many things, Harry. I know, now, that Brian's dreams were right. That his dreams could never be realized, does not make them foolish nor wrong. His dreams that seemed so foolish--such impossible ideals--were more real, after all, than this life that we think so real. WE are the dreamers,--we and our kind,--and our awakening is as sure to come as that river out there is sure of reaching the sea."

The man laughed harshly: "You are quite poetical, to-night. I believe I like you better, though, when you talk sense."

"I am sorry, Harry," she returned. "Please don't be cross with me! Go now,--please go!"

And something forced the man to silence. Slowly, he left the room. The woman locked the door. Returning to the window, she fell on her knees, and stretched her hands imploringly toward the tiny spot of light that still shone against the dark shadow of the mountain-side.

Between the mighty walls of tree-clad hills that lifted their solemn crests into the midnight sky, the dark river poured the sombre strength of its innumerable currents,--terrible in its awful power; dreadful, in its mysterious and unseen forces; irresistible in its ceaseless, onward rush to the sea of its final and infinite purpose!

And here and there on the restless, ever-moving surface of the shadowy, never-ending flood twinkled the reflection of a star.