The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter V. Auntie Sue Recognizes a Gentleman.
Before the sun was high enough to look over Schoolhouse Hill, the next morning, Judy went into the garden to dig some potatoes.
Tom Warden's boys would come, some day before long, and dig them all, and put them away in the cellar for the winter. But there was no need to hurry the gathering of the full crop, so the boys would come when it was most convenient; and, in the meantime, Judy would continue to dig from day to day all that were needed for the kitchen in the little log house by the river. In spite of her poor crooked body, the mountain girl was strong and well used to hard work, so the light task was, for her, no hardship at all.
As one will when first coming out of doors in the morning, Judy paused a moment to look about. The sky, so clear and bright the evening before, was now a luminous gray. The mountains were lost in a ghostly world of fog, through which the river moved in stealthy silence,--a dull thing of mystery, with only here and there a touch of silvery light upon its clouded surface. The cottonwoods and willows, on the opposite shore, were mere dreams of trees,--gray, formless, and weird. The air was filled with the dank earth-smell. The heavy thundering roar of the never-ending war of the waters at Elbow Rock came louder and more menacing, but strangely unreal, as if the mist itself were filled with threatening sound.
But to Judy, the morning was only the beginning of another day;--she looked, but did not see. To her, the many ever-changing moods of Nature were without meaning. With her basket in hand, she went down to the lower end of the garden, where she had dug potatoes the time before, and where she had left the fork sticking upright in the ground.
A few minutes served to fill the basket; but, before starting back to the house, the mountain girl paused again to look out over the river. Perhaps it was some vague memory of Auntie Sue's talk, the night before, that prompted her; perhaps it was some instinct, indefinite and obscure;--whatever it was that influenced her, Judy left her basket, and went to the brink of the high bank above the eddy for a closer view of the water.
The next instant, with the quick movement of an untamed creature of her native mountain forests, the girl sprang back, and crouched close to the ground to hide from something she had seen at the foot of the bank. Every movement of her twisted body expressed amazement and fear. Her eyes were wild and excited. She looked carefully about, as if for dangers that might be hidden in the fog. Once, she opened her mouth as if to call. Half-rising, she started as if to run to the house. But, presently, curiosity apparently overruled her fear, and, throwing herself flat on the ground she wormed her way back to the brink of the river-bank. Cautiously, without making a sound, she peered through the tall grass and weeds that fringed the rim above the eddy.
The boat, which some kindly impulse of the river had drawn so gently aside from the stronger current that would have carried it down the rapids to the certain destruction waiting at Elbow Rock, still rested with its bow grounded on the shore, against which the eddying water had pushed it. But the thing that had so startled Judy was a man who was lying, apparently unconscious, on the wet and muddy bottom-boards of the little craft.
Breathlessly, the girl, looking down from the top of the bank, watched for some movement; but the dirty huddled heap of wretched humanity was so still that she could not guess whether it was living or dead. Fearfully, she noted that there were no oars in the boat, nor gun, nor fishing-tackle of any sort. The man's hat was missing. His clothing was muddy and disarranged. His position was such that she could not see the face.
Drawing back, Judy looked cautiously about; then, picking up a heavy clod of dirt from the ploughed edge of the garden, and crouching again at the brink of the bank, ready for instant flight, she threw the clod into the water near the boat. The still form in the boat made no movement following the splash. Selecting a smaller clod, the girl threw the bit of dirt into the stern of the boat itself, where it broke in fragments. And, at this, the figure moved slightly.
"Hit's alive, all right," commented Judy to herself, with a grin of satisfaction, at the result of her investigation. "But hit's sure time he was a-gittin' up."
Carefully selecting a still smaller bit of dirt, she deliberately tossed it at the figure itself. Her aim was true, and the clod struck the man on the shoulder, with the result that he stirred uneasily, and, muttering something which Judy could not hear, half-turned on his back so that the girl saw the haggard, unshaven face. She saw, too, that, in one hand, the man clutched an empty whisky bottle.
At sight of the bottle, the mountain girl rose to her feet with an understanding laugh. "Hell!" she said aloud; "drunk,--that's all--dead drunk. I'll sure fetch him out of hit." And then, grinning with malicious delight, she proceeded to pelt the man in the boat with clods of dirt until he scrambled to a sitting posture, and looked up in bewildered confusion.
"If you please," he said, in a hoarse voice, to the sallow, old-young face that grinned down at him from the top of the bank, "which one of the Devil's imps are you?"
As she looked into that upturned face, Judy's grin vanished. "I sure 'lowed as how you-all was dead," she explained.
"Well," returned the man in the boat, wearily, "I can assure you that it's not in the least my fault if I disappoint you. I feel as bad about it as you do. However, I don't think I am so much alive that it makes any material difference." He lifted the whisky bottle, and studied it thoughtfully.
"You-all come dad burned near not bein' ary bit alive," returned the girl.
"Yes?" said the man, inquiringly.
"Yep; you sure did come mighty nigh hit. If your old John-boat had a-carried you-all on down ter Elbow Rock, 'stead of bein' ketched in the eddy here, you-all would sure 'nough been a-talkin' to the Devil by now."
The man, looking out over the river into the fog, muttered to himself, "I can't even make a success of dying, it seems."
Again, he regarded the empty bottle in his hand with studied interest. Then, tossing the bottle into the river, he looked up, once more, to the girl on the bank above.
"Listen, sister!" he said, nervously. "Is there any place around here where I can buy a drink? I need something rather badly. Where am I, anyway?"
"You-all are at Auntie Sue's place," said Judy; "an' there sure ain't no chance for you-all ter git ary licker here. Where'd you-all come from, anyhow? How'd you-all git here 'thout no oars ner paddle ner nothin'? Where was you-all aimin' ter go?"
"Your questions, my good girl, are immaterial and irrelevant," returned the man in the boat. "The all-important matter before us for consideration is,--how can I get a drink? I MUST have a drink, I tell you!" He held up his hands, and they were shaking as if with palsy. "And I must have it damned quick!"
"You-all sure do talk some powerful big words," said Judy, with critical interest. "You-all sure must be some eddecated. Auntie Sue, now, she talks--"
The man interrupted her: "Who is 'Auntie Sue'?"
"I don't know," Judy returned; "she's just Auntie Sue--that's all I know. She sure is--"
Again the man interrupted: "I think it would be well for me to interview this worthy aunt of yours." And then, while he raised himself, unsteadily, to his feet, he continued, in a muttering undertone: "You don't seem to appreciate the situation. If I don't get some sort of liquor soon, things are bound to happen."
He attempted to step from the boat to the shore; but the instability of the light, flat-bottomed skiff, together with his own unsteady weakness, combined to land him half in the water and half on the muddy bank where he struggled helplessly, and, in his weakened condition, would have slipped wholly into the river had not Judy rushed down the rude steps to his assistance.
With a strength surprising in one of her apparent weakness, the mountain girl caught the stranger under his shoulders and literally dragged him from the water. When she had further helped him to his feet, Judy surveyed the wretched object of her beneficence with amused and curious interest.
The man, with his unkempt hair, unshaven, haggard face, bloodshot eyes, and slovenly dishevelled dress, had appeared repulsive enough while in the boat; but, now, as he stood dripping with water and covered with mud, there was a touch of the ridiculous in his appearance that brought a grin to the unlovely face of his rescuer, and caused her to exclaim with unnecessary frankness: "I'll be dad burned if you-all ain't a thing ter look at, mister!"
As the poor creature, who was shaking as if with the ague, regarded the twisted form, the wry neck, and the sallow, old-young face of the girl, who was laughing at him, a gleam of sardonic humor flashed in his bloodshot eyes. "Thanks," he said, huskily; "you are something of a vision yourself, aren't you?"
The laughter went from Judy's face as she caught the meaning of the cruel words. "I ain't never laid no claim ter bein' a beauty," she retorted in her shrill, drawling monotone. "But, I kin tell you-all one thing, mister: Hit was God-A'mighty Hisself an' my drunken pap what made me ter look like I do. While you,--damn you!--you-all just naturally made yourself what you be."
At the mountain girl's illiterate words, so pregnant with meaning, a remarkable change came over the face and manner of the man. His voice, even, for the moment, lost its huskiness, and vibrated with sincere feeling as he steadied himself; and, bowing with courteous deference, said: "I beg your pardon, miss. That was unkind. You really should have left me to the river."
"You-all would a-drownded, sure, if I had," she retorted, somewhat mollified by the effect of her observation.
"Which," he returned, "would have been so beautifully right and fitting that it evidently could not be." And with this cynical remark, his momentary bearing of self-respect was gone.
"Are you-all a-meanin' ter say that you-all was a-wantin' ter drown?"
"Something like that," he returned. And then, with a hint of ugliness in his voice and eyes, he rasped: "But, look here, girl! do you think I'm going to stand like this all day indulging in idle conversation with you? Where is this aunt of yours? Can't you see that I've got to have a drink?"
He started uncertainly toward the steps that led to the top of the bank, and Judy, holding him by his arm, helped him to climb the steep way. A part of the ascent he made on hands and knees. Several times he would have fallen except for the girl's support. But, at last, they gained the top, and stood in the garden.
"That there is the house," said Judy, pointing. "But I don't reckon as how you-all kin git ary licker there."
The wretched man made no reply; but, with Judy still supporting him, stumbled forward across the rows of vegetables.
The two had nearly reached the steps at the end of the porch when Auntie Sue came from the house to see why Judy did not return with the potatoes. The dear old lady paused a moment, startled at the presence of the unprepossessing stranger in her garden. Then, with an exclamation of pity, she hurried to meet them.
The man, whose gaze as he shambled along was fixed on the ground, did not notice Auntie Sue until, feeling Judy stop, he also paused, and raising his head looked full at the beautiful old lady.
"Why, Judy!" cried Auntie Sue, her low, sweet voice filled with gentle concern. "What in the world has happened?"
With an expression of questioning bewilderment and rebuke on his haggard face, the man also turned to the mountain girl beside him.
"I found him in er John-boat what done come ashore last night, down there in the eddy," Judy explained to Auntie Sue. To the man, she said: "This here is Auntie Sue, mister; but, I don't reckon as how she's got ary licker for you."
"'Liquor'?" questioned Auntie Sue. "What in the world do you mean, child?" Then quickly to the stranger;--"My dear man, you are wringing wet. You must have been in the river. Come, come right in, and let us do something for you." As she spoke, she went toward him with outstretched hands.
But the wretched creature shrank back from her, as if in fear;--his whole body shaking with emotion; his fluttering hands raised in a gesture of imploring protest;--while the eyes that looked up at the saintly countenance of the old gentlewoman were the eyes of a soul sunken in the deepest hell of shame and humiliation.
Shocked with pitying horror, Auntie Sue paused.
The man's haggard, unshaven face twitched and worked with the pain of his suffering. He bit his lips and fingered his quivering chin in a vain effort at self-control; and then, as he looked up at her, the sunken, bloodshot eyes filled with tears that the tormented spirit had no power to check.
And Auntie Sue turned her face away.
For a little, they stood so. Then, as Auntie Sue faced him again, the stranger, with a supreme effort of his will, gained a momentary control of his shattered nerves. Drawing himself erect and standing steady and tall before her, he raised a hand to his uncovered head as if to remove his hat. When his hand found no hat to remove, he smiled as if at some jest at his own expense.
"I am so sorry, madam," he said,--and his voice was musically clear and cultured. "Please pardon me for disturbing you? I did not know. This young woman should have explained. You see, when she spoke of 'Auntie Sue,' I assumed, of course,--I mean,--I expected to find a native woman who would--" He paused, smiling again, as if to assure her that he fully appreciated the humor of his ridiculous predicament.
"But, my dear sir," cried Auntie Sue, eagerly, "there is nothing to pardon. Please do come into the house and let us help you."
But the stranger drew back, shaking his head sadly. "You do not understand, madam. It is not that my clothes are unpresentable,--it is I, myself, who am unfit to stand in your presence, much less to enter your house. I thank you, but I must go."
He was turning away, when Auntie Sue reached his side and placed her gentle old hand lightly on his arm.
"Please, won't you come in, sir? I shall never forgive myself if I let you go like this."
The man's voice was hoarse and shaking, now, as he answered: "For God's sake, madam, don't touch me! Let me go! You must! I--I--am not myself! You might not be safe with me! Ask her--she knows!" He turned to Judy.
"He's done said hit, ma'm," said Judy, in answer to Auntie Sue's questioning look. "My pap, he was that way when he done smashed me up agin the wall, when I was nothin' but a baby, an' hit made me grow up all crooked an' ugly like what I be now."
With one shamed glance at Auntie Sue, the wretched fellow looked down at the ground. His head drooped forward. His shoulders sagged. His whole body seemed to shrink. Turning sadly away, he again started back toward the river.
"Stop!" Auntie Sue's voice rang out imperiously.
The man halted.
"Look at me," she commanded.
Slowly, he raised his eyes. The gentle old teacher spoke with fine spirit, now, but kindly still: "This is sheer nonsense, my boy. You wouldn't hurt me. Why, you couldn't! Of course, you are not yourself; but, do you think that I do not know a gentleman when I meet one? Come--" She held out her hand.
A moment he stood, gazing at her in wondering awe. Then his far-overtaxed strength failed;--his abused nerves refused to bear more,--and he sank,--a pitiful, cowering heap at her feet. Hiding his face in his shaking hands, he sobbed like a child.