Chapter VI. In the Log House by the River.
 

Those two women managed, somehow, to get the almost helpless stranger into the house, where Auntie Sue, after providing him with nightclothes, left by one of her guests, by tactful entreaty and judicial commands, persuaded him to go to bed.

Then followed several days and nights of weary watching. There were times when the man lay with closed eyes, so weak and exhausted that he seemed to be drifting out from these earthly shores on the deep waters of that wide and unknown sea into which all the streams of life finally flow. But, always, Auntie Sue miraculously held him back. There were other times when, by all the rules of the game, he should have worn a strait-jacket;--when his delirium filled the room with all manner of horrid creatures from the pit; when leering devils and loathsome serpents and gibbering apes tormented him until his unnatural strength was the strength of a fiend, and his tortured nerves shrieked in agony. But Auntie Sue perversely ignored the rules of the game. And never did the man, even in his most terrible moments, fail to recognize in the midst of the hellish crew of his diseased imagination the silvery-haired old teacher as the angel of his salvation. Her gentle voice had always power to soothe and calm him. He obeyed her implicitly, and, like a frightened child, holding fast to her hand would beg piteously for her to protect and save him.

But no word of the man's low-muttered, broken sentences, nor of his wildest ravings, ever gave Auntie Sue a clue to his identity. She searched his clothes, but there was not a thing to give her even his name.

And, yet, that first day, when Judy would have gone to neighbor Tom's for help, Auntie Sue said "No." She even positively forbade the girl to mention the stranger's presence in the house, should she chance to talk with passing neighbors. "The river brought him to us, Judy, dear," she said. "We must save him. No one shall know his shame, to humiliate and wound his pride and drag him down after he is himself again. Until he has recovered and is once more the man I believe him to be, no one must see him or know that he is here; and no one must ever know how he came to us."

And late, one evening, when Judy was fast asleep, and the man was lying very still after a period of feverish tossing and muttering, the dear old gentlewoman crept quietly out of the house into the night. She was gone some time, and when she returned again to the stranger's bedside she was breathless and trembling as from some unusual exertion. And the following afternoon, when Judy came to her with the announcement that the boat which had brought the man to them was no longer in the eddy below the garden, Auntie Sue said, simply, that she was glad it was gone, and cautioned the girl, again, that the stranger's presence in the house must not be made known to any one.

When the mountain girl protested, saying, "You-all ain't got no call ter be a-wearin' yourself ter the bone a-takin' care of such as him," Auntie Sue answered, "Hush, Judy! How do you know what the poor boy really is?"

To which Judy retorted: "He's just triflin' an' ornery an' no 'count, that's what he is, or he sure wouldn't been a-floatin' 'round in that there old John-boat 'thout ary gun, or fishin' lines, or hat even, ter say nothin' of that there whisky bottle bein' plumb empty."

Auntie Sue made no reply to the mountain girl's harsh summing-up of the damning evidence against the stranger, but left her and went softly to the bedside of their guest.

It was perhaps an hour later that Judy, quietly entering the room, happened upon a scene that caused her to stand as if rooted to the spot in open-mouthed amazement.

The man was sleeping, and the silvery-haired old maiden-lady, seated on the side of the bed, was bending over the unconscious stranger and gently stroking his tumbled, red-brown hair, even as a mother might lovingly caress her sleeping child. And then, as Judy watched, breathless with wonder, the proud old gentlewoman, bending closer over that still form on the bed, touched her lips--soft as a rose-petal--to the stranger's brow.

When she arose and saw Judy standing there, Auntie Sue's delicate old cheeks flushed with color, and her eyes were shining. With a gesture, she commanded the girl to silence, and the two tiptoed from the room. When they were outside, and Auntie Sue had cautiously closed the door, she faced the speechless Judy with a deliciously defiant air that could not wholly hide her lovely confusion.

"I--I--was thinking, Judy, how he--how he--might have been--my son."

"Your 'son'!" ejaculated the girl. "Why, ma'm, you-all ain't never even been married, as I've ever hearn tell, have you?"

Auntie Sue drew her thin shoulders proudly erect, and, lifting her fine old face, answered the challenging question with splendid spirit: "No, I have never been married; but I might have been; and if I had, I suppose I could have had a son, couldn't I?"

The vanquished Judy retreated to the kitchen, where, in safety, she sank into a chair, convulsed with laughter, which she instinctively muffled in her apron.

Then came the day when the man, weak and worn with his struggle, looked up at his gentle old nurse with the light of sanity in his deep blue eyes. Very tired eyes they were, and filled with painful memories,--filled, too, with worshipping gratitude and wonder.

She smiled down at him with delighted triumph, and drawing a chair close beside the bed, seated herself and placed her soft hand on his where it lay on the coverlid.

"You are much better, this morning," she said cheerily. "You will soon be all right, now." And as she looked into the eyes that regarded hers so questioningly, there was in her face and manner no hint of doubt, or pretense, or reproach;--only confidence and love.

He spoke slowly, as if feeling for words: "I have been in Hell; and you--you have brought me out. Why did you do it?"

"Because you are mine," she answered, with her low chuckling laugh. It was so good to have him able to talk to her rationally after those long hours of fighting.

"Because I am yours?" he repeated, puzzling over her words.

"Yes," she returned, with a hint of determined proprietorship in her voice; "because you belong to me. You see, that eddy where your boat landed is my property, and so anything that drifts down the river and lodges there belongs to me. Whatever the river brings to me, is mine. The river brought you, and so--" She finished with another laugh,--a laugh that was filled with tender mother-yearning.

The blue eyes smiled back at her for a moment; then she saw them darken with painful memories.

"Oh, yes; the river," he said. "I wanted the river to do something for me, and--and it did something quite different from what I wanted."

"Of course," she returned, eagerly, "the river is always like that. It always does the thing you don't expect it to do. Just like life itself. Don't you see? It begins somewhere away off at some little spring, and just keeps going and going and going; and thousands and thousands of other springs, scattered all over the country, start streams and creeks and branches that run into it, and make it bigger and bigger, as it winds and curves and twists along, until it finally reaches the great sea, where its waters are united with all the waters from all the rivers in all the world. And in all of its many, many miles, from that first tiny spring to the sea, there are not two feet of it exactly alike. In all the centuries of its being, there are never two hours alike. An infinite variety of days and nights--an infinite variety of skies and light and clouds and daybreaks and sunsets--an infinite number and variety of currents and shoals and deep places and quiet spots and dangerous rapids and eddies--and, along its banks, an endless change of hills and mountains and flats and forests and meadows and farms and cities--and--" She paused, breathless. And then, when he did not speak, but only watched her, she continued: "Don't you see? Of course, the river never could be what you expect, any more than life could be exactly what you want and dream it will be."

"Who in the world are you?" he asked, wonderingly. "And what in the world are you doing here in the backwoods?"

Smiling at his puzzled expression, she answered: "I am Auntie Sue. I am LIVING here in the backwoods."

"But, your real name? Won't you tell me your name? I must know how to address you."

"Oh, my name is Susan E. Wakefield--MISS Wakefield, if you please. I shall be seventy-one years old the eighteenth day of next November. And you must call me 'Auntie Sue,'--just as every one else does."

"Wakefield--Wakefield--where have I seen that name?" He wrinkled his brow in an effort to remember. "Wakefield--I feel sure that I have heard it, somewhere."

"It is not unlikely," she returned, lightly. "It is not at all an uncommon name. And now that I am properly introduced, don't you think--?"

He hesitated a moment, then said, deliberately, "My name is Brian Kent."

"That is an Irish name," she said quickly; "and that is why your hair is so nearly red and your eyes so blue."

"Yes," he returned, "from my mother. And please don't ask me more now, for I can't lie to you, and I won't tell you the truth." And she saw, again, the dark shadows of painful memories come into the blue eyes.

Bending over the bed, she laid her soft hand on his brow, and pushed back his heavy hair; and her sweet old voice was very low and gentle as she said: "My dear boy, I shall never ask you more. The river brought you to me, and you are mine. You must not even think of anything else, just now. When you are stronger, and are ready, we will talk of your future; but of your past, you--"

A loud knock sounded at the door of the living room.

"There is someone at the door," she said hastily. "I must go. Lie still, and go to sleep like a good boy; won't you?"

Swiftly, she leaned over, and, before he realized, he felt her lips touch his forehead. Then she was gone, and Brian Kent's Irish eyes were filled with tears. Turning to the wall, he hid his face in the pillow.